Two glasses of red wine appeared out of nowhere and were placed on the table by the inglenook. “You’ve nursed those long enough, ladies,” said the landlord, removing the long-empty coffee cups. We looked at the wine in some confusion, but a glance at the clock told us he was probably right. We had been sitting there for several hours talking and mid afternoon had become evening long ago. We thought we should probably eat there too… The Swan at Stewkley did us proud that day and I can particularly recommend the baked goats cheese…
We had really needed that coffee by the time we finally got there too, as the first pub we had tried was closed. We had headed off in search of refreshments further down the village High Street…one of the longest in the country at a mile and three quarters long.. and stopped at the local church. With this one, you sort of have to stop.
Take away the porch and little vestry tucked away behind the trees and you have a beautiful Norman church… probably the best surviving example of a Norman parish church in the country. There are six thousand Norman churches still standing in Britain… even so, St Michael & All Angels is pretty special and almost unchanged since its consecration.
It sits within a slightly mounded enclosing wall and the first thing you see is the West Front, with the distinctive blind arcading flanking the door. Move up closer and the detail begins to emerge… the typical zigzag carving of the arches, the intricate detail and strange beasts of the capitals and a pair of winged dragons flanking the keystone… a bit of imagery that made me smile after the recent workshop. ‘Here be dragons’ seems to have become something of a watchword…
But there are scrolling beasts and carved columns. Creatures stare down from the arcade on the tower and fragments of what look like Roman bricks add colour to the mellow gold of the walls.
Geoffrey de Clinton, a member of the court of King Henry I, ordered the building of the church around 1150AD. There is no record of a church in the village before that date, but the stone buildings often replaced earlier wooden Saxon chapels and the village was the site of an Anglo-Saxon settlement. The simple three-cell structure remains virtually unchanged apart from the porch and vestry, both added in sympathetic style.
Within the shadows of the porch is the original doorway, flanked by columns with carved capitals ans strange beasts. Beside the door, crudely cut into the wall, are a number of scratch-dials… miniature sundials designed not to tell the time, but to indicate canonical hours when particular religious observances had to be performed.
The central hole would hold a wooden stylus and its shadow would tell the celebrant when the hour had come for Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline… though Lauds and Compline fell in the night hours. In the early centuries of the Church in Britain, each congregation would have its own specific rites, but after the 8thC, most churches followed the Rule of St Benedict. When clocks came into the larger churches in the 14thC, the scratch-dials became redundant, though they remained in use in rural churches until the 16thC. These little bits of ecclesiastical graffiti add a very human touch to history.
There is always a sense of wonder in these old churches. People knew them long ago, sought solace or performed the observances of duty here. Children were bored here through the long, Latin liturgies and carved little games onto walls and pillars, couples were married and families laid loved ones to rest. In this little church, over 850 years old, that is a lot of very human history.
There is wonder too at the symbols and carvings, many harking back to an even older time and culture.. and some far in advance of the fashions that would sweep through architecture. That too seems very human…and no different from the way we create and build today… only we call it nostalgia or modernism and think it something new. We are closer to our ancestors than we think. Yet, for all its age and history, the building seems to smile and remind us of the little time we have walked this earth. Fossils in the stone look back to a time when man had yet to come into being… and that too is an ongoing story as, walking our many paths, Man seeks to learn how to Be.