There is a calm, clean feeling to the church of All Saints in Burton Dassett. It isn’t just the limewashed walls or the plain glass in the windows… not the stone flagged floor or the mefdieval tiles. It is something about the place itself. The proportions are beautiful…right in an indefinable way. Yet this is quite a big church for such a small place. Not for nothing is it known locally as the Cathedral of the Hills.
Although the original church dates back to around a century after the Norman conquest of 1066AD, the aisles are a little later, and much of the visible fabric of the building is typical of the 13th and 14th centuries. Strange creatires lurk in the roofspace where carved corbels bear the weight of ancient wood.
The pillars of the south aisle may be plain, but those of the northern aisle … the direction associated in medieval times with the devil and his cohorts, are covered with intricate carvings. Beasts, both mythical and natural, chase each other around the columns, eating fruits with bared teeth and posing riddles to the 21st century visitor who no longer has access to the same language of symbols so readily understood by our forefathers.
It is tempting with many of the carvings to see a sense of humour at play. There are, in other churches, very obvious examples, where humour and perhaps subversive political commentary, have been crafted into the fabric of these sacred places. It is a mistake, I think, to forget that the workmen were as human as we, with the very same concerns, hopes, fears and laughter. We may moan about taxation and government… no doubt they did so too. We too worry about our children, complain about our aches and pains and ask awkward questions of our souls.
The story of our own human history, as much ecclestiastical history or that of a nation, is encapsulated within walls such as these. The land and its people cannot be separated and what affects one is written upon the other. Within this litle church we can get a glimpse, almost as clearly as if it was a time machine, of the impact of the Norman invaders, altering the face of the country with their style and power. We can see, too,the glimpses of an older time to which the local folk were, perhaps, closer. In the 17th C, the overlay of Puritanism under Cromwell whitewashed the older paintings of the Catholic faith that had survived the Reformation under Henry VIII in the previous century. Only verses from the Bible were allowed to be displayed upon the walls and the rood screens were lost… most taken down and destroyed.
The small folk of hill and dale had little choice but to obey, whether they agreed or not. Familiarity and a love of place would have held no sway. The Crown and the Church were all powerful… until Parliament briefly deposed the monarchy, changing one absolute rule for another. I can imagine, in places such as this, a real heartache at having to paint over the sacred stories, depicted on the walls of their church and that were the only access that the unlettered peasantry would have had to the Bible. I can imagine, too, that those with eyes for beauty would have found that a hard task.
The wall paintings here span centuries . Many are too badly damaged to decipher… but amongst the rest are some of the most beautiful and poignant that I have yet seen. But… they’ll have to wait. They deserve space to themselves.