Albion, ancient sites, Archaeology, Art, Photography, sacred sites, spirituality, symbolism, TOLL, travel

North-easterly: In Face of History

We could hardly spend so much time in the churchyard at Rudston without visiting the church. While the Monolith alone was worth the long detour from our route home, we were quite interested to see what kind of place had been built a mere twelve feet from the tallest standing stone in the United Kingdom.

All Saints’, Rudston, looked like a good church. It has an air of being older than it appears and, given that it was built on an ancient sacred site, we would have expected it to be so; few opportunities were lost when it came to appropriating the ancient places of reverence and claiming them for the Christian faith.

Unless some obscure reference to such a building remains, or the archaeologists turn up something remarkable, there is no way of knowing if there was an earlier chapel on the site, but the present church was built around 1100 by William Peverel, who held the manorial lands. Peverel’s father, also called William, had built the castle at Castleton in Derbyshire, a place we know well, and was reputed to be an illegitimate son of William the Conqueror. Little of the original church now remains, apart from the base of the tower and the font.

Both inside and out there are details worthy of note, including a plethora of heads… some relatively modern, others showing their medieval origins. There are also patched repairs made with red tiles and a  datum mark carved discretely on a wall near the porch.

The font is the first thing that you see when you open the door. Nine hundred years old and with its carving still fresh and sharp, it has seen the baptism of all who have embraced the Church and its faith for centuries and miles around. It is carved with a lattice of saltire crosses and circles, for redemption and eternity, and around the rim is a decoration of narrow arches. While the cover is modern, you can still see the medieval fittings for an earlier cover, when the font would be kept locked to prevent witches stealing the holy water for use in their spells.

Behind the font is a memorial plaque commemorating the life of author Winifred Holtby, best know for her novel, South Riding, and for her friendship with Vera Brittain, who wrote Testament of Youth, and whose Testament of Friendship tells much of the two women’s lives during and after the First World War. Holtby was born just yards from the church and is now buried in the churchyard at Rudston.

Tucked away behind the font is a thirteenth century grave slab with a stepped key design that bears the evidence of having been used as a whet stone by the villagers. Beside the font, and beneath a lace-topped table whose demure skirts I was obliged to raise, is a twelfth century holy water stoup.

The church itself is bright and airy, in spite of a number of stained glass windows, mostly modern and designed by Hardman, as the old glass was destroyed by a land mine during WWII. The windows are large and the pale stone and whitewash reflects every scrap of a light warmed by the presence of old polished wood.

Under normal circumstances, I can imagine it being a peaceful place, quietly serene, but we had arrived on day when the organ was being repaired, and blasts of wholly ungodly noise were interspersed with short passages of music. The organ was made by Wordsworth of Leeds and given to the church by Sir Alexander Macdonald of the Isles.

Sir Alexander was organist and choirmaster at Rudston for nearly 50 years, and above the organ console is a memorial window, made in 1915 by Arthur Ward. The lower part of the design shows the choirmaster at work.

The chancel arch is around eight hundred years old and dates from the enlargement of the church, when the north and south aisles were added. Above the chancel, the ceiling, supported by carved watchers, is painted with stars that arch above the altar.

The sanctuary holds a treasure or two. The fourteenth century sedilia provides three narrow stone seats for the officiants, sheltered by ornate arches. Beside it is a piscina, carved in the likeness of a head crowned with foliage. Some say that this Green Man too is fourteenth century, others claim that it is Roman and depicts the head of Medusa. I suppose it is perfectly possible for a church to mistake the serpent-haired Gorgon for a symbol of resurrection, but there may be another explanation… though, if so, it raises more questions than it answers…

As I did not have a decent photo of this piscina, I went hunting and found one online. I came across a suitable picture on the website of artist, Dav White, whose paintings include work inspired by the ancient and sacred places of the land and are well worth a look. He had presented the foliate head beside a map of Rudston, and the similarities are a bit too striking to be coincidental…

©Dav White Art

Behind the altar are Minton tiles set into arched panels. Encaustic decorations were found beneath the whitewash in 1970 during restoration work, and fragments of earlier stencils are now hidden by the organ. Above the altar, the east window holds a collection of saints, including Cuthbert, Chad, Ethelburga and the Venerable Bede, all of whom have wandered through our work for the past few years. It also includes a portrait of William Wilberforce, MP for Hull and later Yorkshire, whose work helped bring about the abolition of slavery.

The north aisle would once have held a chapel. There are an abandoned piscina and the remains of a squint, a small tunnel through the walls, set at an oblique angle, through which the raising of the Host at the main altar could be seen.

Today the chapel is a history corner, with informative boards sharing information about the church,the village and its history. It shows some of the finds from the Roman Villa with its fabulous astrological mosaic, with Venus at its centre, wearing little more than a crescent moon on her brow. It also has a 3D display, showing how the archaeological landscape converges on what is now the site of the church.

In spite of the organ repairs, this was a beauty of a church, and with a very open feel. If a ‘new’ religion were going to move into an area, the sacred centre of the landscape would be the place to build and here, their presence firmly established on an ancient site that has seen many faiths come and go, there seems to be no conflict and all are quietly acknowledged.

It is as if the dynamic presence of the standing stone and the Roman goddess of love are unobtrusively echoed in the symbolism of the church… the essence of Creation portrayed by a different iconography, but recognising a single Source. I can go with that…

12 thoughts on “North-easterly: In Face of History”

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