We were right about the church; St Mary’s, Sledmere, was well worth a look, though not for our usual reasons. We normally visit the older places of worship by choice, seeking within their hallowed walls the stories and symbolism that helps us to understand an area, its people and history and, if we are lucky, the mysteries of the spiritual journey shared by every living soul. It matters little whether or not we share the beliefs and faith of the people who worship there… we share the journey, even if our paths differ.
The path to the church is bordered by yews through which the squirrels run. The trees look ancient, but are unlisted as such and are therefore unlikely to be more than a few hundred years old at the most. They hide the church from view until you are almost upon it and then the impression is rather strange.
At first glance the building seems relatively simple, although the height of the tower makes an immediate impression as you emerge from the shadows beneath the trees. The clean, sharp lines of the stones proclaim it to be a ‘new’ church… and yet, in the best tradition of Gothic church-building, it is covered in grotesques, gargoyles and carvings, giving the lie to any notion of simplicity.
Not only are there any number of people and vaguely recognisable animals, there are flowers, foliate beings, heraldic and symbolic designs scattered amongst creatures that can only be the product of a fevered imagination. I spent a fair while photographing many of them, but it would have taken hours to get them all!
If we had, by some chance, failed to notice these carvings, the porch would have given a clue as to what we might find inside. Ornately carved niches above the door hold statues, with the face of the central depiction of the Virgin looking rather strange and almost childlike in its execution. The small blocks of carving above the statues were far more interesting, each one containing a Christian symbol replete with meaning, though it took me a while to realise that the boar’s head on the right was actually a dove…
The ornately carved door stood open beneath a richly carved ceiling and we entered a building that stands as a testament to the Victorian passion for Gothic architecture.
The original church here was built eight hundred years ago, though only fragments of the tower now remain. In the eighteenth century, the old church was replaced by a new one, built by Richard Sykes, but this was, in its turn, demolished and replaced by the current building in the late nineteenth century.
Sir Tatton Sykes was an inveterate church builder and there are many examples of his passion in this part of Yorkshire. Sledmere, though, is the largest of the churches he built and one of the last. It stands in the grounds of his home at Sledmere House, which perhaps explains its magnificence. After seeing the ‘Eleanor Cross’ in the village, it was no surprise to learn that the church too had been designed by the architect Temple Moore, who had learned his trade with Sir George Gilbert Scott, the man responsible for giving a Gothic Revival facelift to so many English churches.
Like the exterior, the interior is deceptively ornate, beautifully proportioned and wholly elegant. It is not the type of parish church we are used to visiting and, I have to say, that on a personal level, and in spite of its undoubted splendour, fabulous windows and fittings, it felt more like a mausoleum than a place where faith brings joy.
There was none of the higgledy-piggledy evolution we see in churches that have adapted and grown into their communities. The only preservation of the past is a handful of memorials to the Sykes family. If I had to try to describe the ‘feel’ of the place, I would think back to childhood and say it is the difference between wearing the clothes in which you are comfortable and in which you are free to play, and being forced to wear your starched Sunday best with the implicit command not to get them creased or dirty.
In a word, I would apply an epithet that has gained its own meaning on our travels. I would call it ‘corporate’. And whenever I think that about a church, I know that I am being completely unfair. The building is just a building. It is not in the stones of any sacred site, ancient or modern, that its true beauty may be found.
The people who worship here may be part of a tight-knit community. The clerics who work here may be tireless in their support of their congregation. The faith of all, when they come together in this place, may be a thing of strength and beauty. But, to an outsider, it seems built for show, not community.
The chancel is kept locked too… and that never sits well with me, though thankfully, we see it very seldom and outside of the cities, the majority of rural churches still stand open to all comers. There is, appallingly, a case for locking the churches, in whole or in part. We often find the family chapels gated, and there is an undoubted need for protecting monuments and art from grubby or acquisitive fingers and the depredations of disrespect. But to bar the altar, keeping the hoi polloi at bay by using iron bars to say, ‘this far and no farther’, smacks of a spiritual elitism and runs contrary to the teachings of the Man who consorted with the lowliest in society and who is reported as saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”
In spiritual terms, and regardless of what faith, if any, that we follow, we are all ‘little children’, with much to learn of life and the essence of humanity. As a species, we are relatively young… little more than spoiled and fractious teenagers. Given time, we may grow enough to realise that what we choose to call divinity can be felt anywhere, without name, rite or permission, and that we can see It reflecting back at us from every leaf and star, and in every eye we meet. But for many, that first touch is felt in a place hallowed by time and the prayers of those who have gone before. An altar should be open to all who are drawn to approach.
St Mary’s was to be our last stop on this trip. The long road home still lay ahead, the sites we would have liked to visit on the way would have to wait for another opportunity. We had shared a great weekend with friends, the weather had, for the most part, been very kind and we had touched the heartbeat of some amazing places. And, if I came back another year older than when I left, what better way could there be to start the next phase of the adventure?