Albion, ancient sites, Art, Books, Don and Wen, Photography, spirituality, Stuart France and Sue Vincent

A Thousand Miles of History XXV: Going In…

The church of St Sennen did not disappoint. It has a cosy feel; a still, silent haven from the elements and the constant motion of the sea. I wondered how many women had taken refuge here in prayer over the centuries, waiting for their menfolk to come home from stormy seas and how many had given thanks for a safe return.

The simple bowl of the font is at least eight hundred years old, and, as always, when they have so many centuries of history behind them, it seems to be a symbol of the community of the church… the people and their stories. In a village setting, this feeling is even stronger; for hundreds of years, almost every villager would have been touched by the water it has held. The font cover is of more recent date. It was carved by a local farmer named Saundry from the timbers of the Khyber wrecked in 1905.

On the wall behind the font is an unusual wooden board, containing the text of a letter from a king. The Carolus Rex is a letter of thanks to the people of Cornwall who had given their support to King Charles I. The local website, which is well worth a read for both the detailed history and the sense of humour of its writer, says of the affair:

“For some reason, probably just a very sensible dislike of Roundheads, the Cornish tended to be loyal to the King during the Civil Wars, at least the richer ones did, and because of their willingness to hide the King’s son and heir in lofts, bedrooms and stables as he escaped from the Parliamentary troops*, Charles I wrote them a letter of thanks, copies of which his son Charles II commanded to be placed in every Cornish parish church at his restoration in 1660, where they have been largely ignored ever since.

* The Cornish almost certainly didn’t hide him in any such way really, not even in an oak tree.“

Frankly, as I have chuckled all the way through reading that website, I almost feel I am wasting my time writing about the church… I certainly can’t better the website! But… I have to try, even if it is only to record my own impressions of the place.

The quiet peace is appealing, yet it has a very practical and down to earth feel to it too, as if the life beyond its walls has seeped in with the mist. The lovely but unwieldy lid of the font has a nifty hatch arrangement that allows the font to be used without lifting the heavy wood.

The base of the tower is used as a vestry and is enclosed by a modern cedarwood screen which, according to the same website, now stops “the whistling draughts which shoot down the tower, and used to shoot straight up the congregation.” And the missing head of a statue of the Virgin, for whose decapitation the writer blames the Roundheads, was given a replacement by a local lady. I find her work serene and tender.

Georgian brass candelabra are the only ornate touch to the roof which is simple and functional. Although, “the Georgian years were not a good time for church attendance, even by the clergy,” says the website, detailing examples of less than regular attendance by at least one incumbent for whom the weather was as a determining factor.

There is some really lovely stained glass, particularly the memorial window to John Giffard Everett, thirteen times elected Mayor of the City of Wells in Somerset. Both the style and the subjects are unusual, showing St John, Jacob and Enoch. The latter raised a private smile after our encounter with Dr Dee at the Elizabethan workshop in April.

There are other memorials on the walls, some of them simply engravings below the carved and gilded panels showing scenes of local life that line the wall behind the main altar. Others are grander affairs in marble, crafted for posterity but often touched with an echo of a family’s love.

Once more, we were surrounded by angels too… carved on the bench ends in the chancel, guarding the altar with golden wings and looking down on the church from its jewelled windows.

And, as a finishing touch, a fragment of a medieval wall painting peeks through the whitewash of the Lady Chapel.

St Sennen’s is an odd mix of faith and pragmatism, beauty, extravagance and simplicity, passion and solid reliability…. much, I think, like its people. Visiting these old churches is not only a privilege… for in how many other places can you get ‘up close and personal’ with artefacts hundreds of years old and still in use? It is also a way into the heart of any community.

Christianity, of whatever flavour, was the official religion of these isles for many centuries and, for most of that time, was as much an obligation as a choice of the heart. However a church was founded, its life evolves around its people and it shows.

Perhaps the most touching and telling detail for me was the pulpit. Not for the carvings of saints, bishops and the Baptist, but for the fish that ‘swim’ through the foliate frames to every panel and all around the edges. You might miss them at first glance, but once seen, the central role played by the sea in the life of this congregation cannot be missed.

Of the thousands who visit Land’s End and Sennen Cove every year, many of whom stop at the First and Last Inn, whose car-park adjoins the churchyard, I wonder how many take the time to visit this quite and peaceful little church, the first and last in this corner of Britain?

I would like to express my thanks to the writer of the St Sennen’s church website for the comprehensive history and the laughter.