We didn’t have to go back the long way, but we did. My companion, knowing full well that the moors of North Yorkshire would be calling, and responding to squeaks from the driver’s seat as the hills came into view, plotted a course that would take us through the tiniest lanes, through woodlands and high over the tops of the moors. Granted, it took us a while… even though I only stopped once, to begin with at least. But the added hours of driving were worth every moment just to be up there. Even so, there came a point when stiffened limbs needed stretching. We were not going straight home anyway… there was an ancient site we wanted to see and, as always, we were bound to get sidetracked by something. So, combining the need to move with a glimpse of a building topped with wyverns and a Saxon tower, we stopped the car at Hovingham, in Ryedale, and headed for the church of All Saints.
It is fair to say that had we gone to Hovingham on purpose, we would have done the church greater justice, but it was simply a place to take a break before going on to our chosen destination. So, we did not look all around the outside as we would usually do and missed some of the more interesting details.
The church is an old one, dating from about twenty-five years before the Norman Conquest of 1066, and the tower was built at this time, making it Saxon. This church, however, is the ‘new’ church, being built upon the site of a much older one… and that, in turn, re-used stonework from an older one still.
We missed the eighth-century cross inset into the wall and the Saxon west door at the base of the tower. We missed, too, the tenth-century wheel cross set above the door. But there was plenty still that we did manage to see.
At first glance, the interior could be said to be a little disappointing. It is one of those really tidy churches, where later generations have renovated, streamlined and ‘beautified’ the older building in accordance with the tastes of the day and the contents of the local gentry’s pockets.
Consequently, a casual glance through the door might take in the ornate marble font, classy memorials and the plethora of gorgeous stained glass windows and decry the church, scathingly, as “corporate.” A closer look, though, reveals that such a casual assessment would be completely wrong. Mea culpa.
Raise your eyes, look beyond the reordered Gothic nave, and you can see the ancient stonework that has stood almost a thousand years. The later overlay may take the attention, but the old structure holds true.
The church’s facelift was due to its proximity to Hovingham Hall, the home of the Worsley family whose memorials fill the church. It was their stone wyverns that had caught my eye and the family’s relationship with the church is unmissable.
Many of the windows, the grand tombs in the churchyard and most of the memorials belong to members of the Worsley family and it is probably they who we have to thank for preserving this ancient church in such a wonderful state… and perhaps too for saving two of the treasures it holds.
In the chancel, a Viking Cross is suspended on a stark, modern frame. I love that this cross, decorated with entwined serpents, has become once more the sacred focus of the church. It dates from the tenth century, making it older than the church by a century, and it had been built into the wall, where it stayed until 1925 when it was removed for preservation.
Beyond it is another stone that was rescued from the weather. The reredos behind the altar is a carved relief showing the Annunciation, with angels and several other figures too worn to identify.
The figures are carved under arches and each arch bears a dove. Beneath the figures is an intricate frieze that appears to show beasts and flowers. The carving resembles some of those at Breedon, in Leicestershire, and is thought to be around thirteen hundred years old. It may have belonged to the oldest stone church on the site.
The stained glass is superb, with the majority being Victorian interspersed with more modern examples. All in all, it was a perfect place to stop for a while… but in spite of what we had found here, our minds were on an older site by far…