Back to the car for the final stretch of the drive to Yorkshire. We were not meeting till five, so I had plenty of time left to explore. It is amazing how elastic time can be. When the days are full of must-do timescales they rush by; we dance to the manic cadence of a necessity that devours our lifespans unnoticed, bracketed between the trilling of the alarm clock and lights out. When we step back and breathe, when we open our eyes and look around in full awareness, the hours seem to open and possibility pours in, expanding time itself.
I, however, was driving through a timeless landscape, passing the ancient stone circle of Arbor Low that has marked a sacred space for my people for over four and a half thousand years. My people… I feel that, somehow. There is a kinship that passes beyond time and which recognises no border. The people who walk this land are my people, no matter where… or when.
On impulse, I turned towards Youlgreave, a village close to Bakewell in the Derbyshire Dales. It had a church yet to be explored. Even from the outside, it seemed of opulent proportions for such a small place. Evidently Youlgreave had been a settlement of some standing in its heyday. It had been listed in the Domesday Book of 1086AD as belonging to Henry de Ferrers, a Norman soldier who had fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Now it is one of those sturdy, comfortable places built of old stone and resilience.
Outside the church, worn stones showed the placement of an ancient cross. I wondered what had happened to this one… their fates have been varied and fragments come to light in strange places. Now the plinth held only an obscure chunk of architecture. Inside the building, however, I was to find treasures carved in alabaster and unlooked-for jewels in glass as I read a history carved in stone. This is one of the reasons I love these old churches… they tell the story of a community and of the lives of its people, great and small.
The church itself dates back to around 1150 AD, though it is thought there was an earlier, Saxon church on the site. The present building was restored with the usual Victorian zeal, but the Norman pillars, Tudor windows and the carved ceiling were preserved. Some of the bosses, hidden deep in the shadows of the ancient wood of trees felled five hundred years ago and more, represent strange beasts and ruff-wearing devils with cloven hooves. Set into the walls are carvings eight hundred years old… and one that looks several centuries older may even have watched the worshippers in that older, Saxon building.
I seldom start at the altar end of a church, so I found the Norman font straight away… a lovely old thing, simply carved from a single block of pink sandstone. It is unusual as it has a stoup for holy water carved from the same block of stone. But it wasn’t until I looked closer that I saw the salamander, a symbol of rebirth and baptism, curling around the base of the font and holding the stoup in its jaws. Eight hundred years ago it had stood in Elton church, now it rests in Youlgreave and still children are baptised with water from the salamander’s teeth.
A twelfth century pilgrim watches from the wall of the nave. A thirteenth century knight holds a heart to his breast, his feet crossed in what was once believed to be a symbol of the crusader or Knight Templar. There are many Templar connections in the area, so here at least it is possible. Opposite the main door, at the end of the north aisle, is a dedication to Charles I ‘King and Martyr’. I wonder how this survived as Charles was beheaded in 1649 with the weight of politics behind the execution. He had been born in Dunfermline Palace… we were going to be heading that way with a little luck and good weather.
Tudor tombs elaborately decorated, grace the walls, but perhaps the two most striking are the alabaster memorials; one in the centre of the chancel and one that forms the reredos of the Lady Chapel.
The first thing that strikes you about the tomb of Thomas Cokayne is the size… a lifelike effigy that is far too small for life-size. Apparently, the gentleman died in 1488, in a fight with Thomas Burdett over a marriage settlement. The small stature of the effigy is because although he was a man with children of his own, he had died before his father. It seems strange to look at such a lifelike face and know his story after so many years. Around his neck is a collar with the symbols of the Sun and the Rose which mark his Yorkist sympathies. On his crest a cockerel, a pun on his family name.
In the Lady Chapel the reredos is a memorial to Robert Gylbert and his wife, Joan. Robert died in 1492, the year Columbus landed in the New World. Robert had evidently led a productive life; the Virgin and Child stand at the centre of the stone, Robert stands on one side with seven sons, Joan on the other with ten daughters.
The windows glowed with the afternoon sun striking through them. Mosaic panels made from fragments of medieval glass, salvaged perhaps from the destruction of Cromwell’s parliamentarian troops, rest between simple geometries that speak of love and glorious Pre-Raphaelite designs from Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris’ workshop.
A village mine disaster is remembered; many were killed by carbon monoxide after an explosion in the Mawstone lead mine in 1932. The roll of honour lists the men and women of the village who lost their lives in the Great Wars. Many of the families represented in the church still live in the area today; some names are known to history through their discoveries and inventions, others are the quiet folk who work the land and serve their community.
There are many great cathedrals in Britain… some of which we were to visit over the next few days. Within them are wondrous works of art and craft and the tombs of those whose names are remembered in the annals of history. But for me, it is here, in the parish churches, where the thread of life can be traced back, far back, to lives not so very different from our own, that I find what speaks to me of my kin. My people.