The Anglican Church of St Mary the Virgin in Stanton Drew dates back to the 13thC, so we felt it would be well worth a visit… especially as it stands between the stones of The Cove and the great stone circles to which we were heading. From outside, it certainly looked promising, though we knew little about the place. Traces of earlier arches and other tell-tale signs of the evolution of the building greeted us as we walked through the gate, especially as the church seemed to have been built on a mound.
Given the nature of the surrounding sites, a mound was definitely intriguing… though it could just be the natural shape of the land. The odd thing was, that although I had visited Stanton Drew several times, I had never really found anything much about the church online. Even Wikipedia had little to say, the Listed Buildings site only mentions architecture and archaeology (and in the driest terms) and even my favourite research site on British history fails to mention it. Which all seems very odd.
We could see that there were some pretty old gargoyles on the string course beneath the parapets of what was obviously the oldest part of the church. As we walked around the church we recognised the red of Roman tiles here and there, and a few early features.
Much of the rest looked as if it was relatively late… and it proved to be the standard 19thC restoration, with the ancient face of the church supplanted by the modern around 1847. Somehow, that doesn’t quite work. It is fine to replace a wall or a window, but when it comes to the strange and fantastic creatures who disgorged rainwater or the symbols whose meaning we have forgotten, there is something lacking in the newer additions. Those who carved the older faces knew what and why they carved… the ‘modern’ ones seem simply grotesque… and I think there was far more to the gargoyles than we realise.
We found another mystery on the east wall of the building, triangular marks cut into the stone. Perhaps they were simply reused blocks that bore the scars of their previous placement… whatever they were, they were definitely intriguing and in most places we visit, we would find at least some information about such details.
Yet the interior of the church had done little to help us with our quest for answers. Plain, simple, almost spartan in its decor and with swathes of flaking paint in the 15thC nave, it seemed an almost mournful place.
Yet, you could see it has been loved… like a faded old lady cherishing her memories. The 17thC grave slabs were worn by the passage of many feet over the centuries, there were wildflowers on the altar and what could be reached was well cared for.
There was little in the way of stained glass, though what is there is beautiful…if a little odd. What I took on first glance to be an Annunciation window was, on closer inspection, the angel at the broken tomb of Jesus telling Mary Magdalene, Salome and Mary, the mother of James, that Jesus was risen. The Magdalene is easily recognised by her unbound and flowing hair, though curiously here, it is shown as blonde. Her richly ornamented robes are of red over white, with the under-robe decorated with golden flowers that look almost solar.
Oddly, the risen Christ in the Ascension window over the altar is also shown as blond. His robe is red under white, with the inner robe showing pink… a mixture of both colours… and decorated with very solar flowers. Dan Brown would, I feel, have had a field day with this one, but we wondered if there were not a deeper, more spiritual meaning behind the artist’s depiction. Traditionally, red has symbolised the blood and the body, while white symbolises the purity of the spirit. In the Christian Mysteries, Jesus is both man and Christ, blending the dual aspects in perfection and crowned with the gold of divinity. There is often far more to the colours and symbols of religious iconography than we can ar first see.
There was more to the little church than at first net the eye too. The font, discretely placed against the wall was an unsung treasure. The bowl is Norman, though we were to see a very similar form a few days later that was much, much older and gave a clue as to why the form may have been chosen.
Behind a grubby sheet of glass on the same wall, we found the old stairway up to the missing rood loft. The pile of rubble is a collection of architectural fragments from an earlier time and medieval floor tiles still showing their colour and design.
We left the church under a darkling sky. In a place sacred to those who believe in the Christian Mysteries, we had found more questions than answers to its mysteries. Yet one thing remained clear; this is a place of faith for those who believe, the physical body of the Church, a sacred place whose walls are hallowed by centuries of prayer and worship. It matters little what the faith of the visitor might be, the atmosphere is unmistakeable… from its simple serenity, its inner light still shines. The Bible had stood open on the lectern and, as usual, in an echo of the Bibliomancy of old I had read the text that was marked there. Somehow, it could not have seemed more appropriate.