But now I only hear,
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges of the drear,
And naked shingles of the world.
It was the annual 'Heritage Open Days' over the weekend and, coincidentally, a visit from A on Saturday. We headed out in the great level vastness of the fens, and the church of Ss Peter and Paul, Algarkirk.
Ss Peter & Paul is one of those buildings that has been lurking on my list to visit for years, and it took some finding. However we were greatly rewarded by our visit; the church is a real gem. One of the great churches of Lincolnshire. Stephen Dykes Bower, the twentieth century Gothic Revival architect, whom I was privileged to know, thought that on the whole the churches of Lincolnshire were rather disappointing for although their architecture can be pretty spectacular (esp on the silt fen like Algarkirk) the interiors were dull. I can see his point. Very few of them are furnished as well as they deserve. Algarkirk is, however, an exception as it was the recipient of a major Victorian restoration by R C Carpenter in 1850-54. He filled the church with stained glass and decorated the chancel with a Puginesque sumptuousness. But I'm leaping ahead here. Architecture first.
Ss Peter & Paul is a large, rich and complex structure, cruciform, with just about every style of Medieval architecture on display - most memorably Decorated and Perpendicular Gothic. The chancel and transept windows are virtuosi works where the stone appears to have become malleable under the hand of the mason. The Perp contribution is the clearstory, paid for Nicholas Robertson (d.1492) whose monumental brass (between his two wives) lies in the nave. The interior is multi vista, even quirky because the chancel is wider than the crossing tower and there are west aisles to both transepts, which seems a fenland characteristic eg. St Nicholas Spalding. The church is also rather cave like with all the stained glass and bare-naked stone. I think most of not all the roofs are Victorian, as are all the pews, and the rather spare Purbeck marble font. Down the centre of the nave are a series of black ledger stones to the Beridge family who for nearly three hundred years were the squarsons of this village, that is both Lords of the Manor and the parish priest. Possibly a unique occurrence. The chancel is the glory of the church - the organ, choir stalls, the reredos, the scissor-braced roof all designed by Carpenter. When finished in the 1850s Carpenter's decoration must have glowed like the golden mosaics of Byzantium, but now the painted on the glass has faded away and the painted decoration is flaking from the wall. We were shown around by two members of the congregation who told us how the parish was undertaking the slow restoration of this unique and special building
In the vestry is a window containing the last fragments of Medieval glass in the church. The sight of it put me in mind of the conversation we had earlier that day about the removal and destruction of public statuary in the United States. It is a complex issue but I instinctively recoil from the destruction of art. It is something barbaric. I do realize, however, that there are times when, perhaps, the removal of art may be justified. I am thinking of the fall of totalitarian governments (of left and right) in Germany and Eastern Europe in the last century. (Plenty of fascist imagery and buildings left in Italy though, and corresponding communist imagery and architecture in Russia.) However I am reminded of something that has been attributed to the American philosopher George Santayana about how a civilized nation does not tear out the history it doesn't like but merely turn the page. There is a lot to be said for that. However groups such as Antifa, - that new 'Rule of the Saints' - for me, at least, represent a new un-civilization. In the same way as the Taliban destroying art in Afghanistan or the Puritans or other radical reformers smashing up churches in North-Western Europe in that great holocaust of imagery that was the Reformation, or monks coming out of their desert monasteries to descend on Alexandria to burn the great library there. History is full of these incidents. I expect that sooner or later Antifa and their like will be burning books in their drive for secular purity, rather like Savonarola in Renaissance Florence, or the Nazis. As I may have said before in this blog the English philosopher T E Hulme called Romanticism 'spilt religion'. It could happily be used to describe Antifa and other groups of the 'Regressive Left' with that desire for purity and where terms like 'white privilege' take the place of the religious concept of 'sin'. Here in the UK one of the major daily papers has published two articles calling for the destruction of major landmarks in London, but that is a call made before by politicians of the left in Britain before by the likes of Ken Livingstone, who, I suspect, want to create a 'tabula rasa' as a precursor to major social and economic change in British society. It is not solely a phenomena of the left; there are plenty in business who destroy everything in the way of increased profits and politicians of both left and right led the post-war attack on the British industrial city, the consequences which are still with us today and seem impossible now to repair. I sometimes see the work of the Gothic Revival architects , such as Carpenter, as some sort of act of recompense for what was destroyed. It's not hard to find videos online of radical students in the United States shouting at other whites that they have no civilization. One only has to look at this building, worn and tempered by the years, to see that they are wrong.
In the church the conversation turned to the lack of religious literacy of the British public - not knowing the Lord's Prayer or using their mobile phones during marriage services. I don't know how long churches like Algarkirk can survive with so small a congregation (12 - 15 a week) especially when there is so much to restore. I left feeling deeply unsettled. Sometimes it feels as though we are at the end of things.
And we are here as on a darkling plain,
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.