5 DECEMBER 1952, Page 11

The Village Church


IREMEMBER a wet day in a Scottish village. I was young and newly come from the south. I was a keen sightseer, but through the window no sight was to be seen but the lower slopes of Meal! Dearg rising into the mist. "Let's take a look at the church," I said. My host seemed a little puzzled. "The church ? " he said. "There's no service there on a Wednesday morning."

Nevertheless we went. There it was. A serious, decent, very ordinary little building with " 1856" over the door. I under- stood that very few visitors would search it out except on Sundays. "The old kirk ? Oh, that's down by the burn." So we waded into dripping beds of nettles and found. it. Two ivy-clad gable-ends built of massive stones were all that remained. A vast sycamore tree brooded over canted head- stones, and a cracked box-tomb squatted in a palisade of rusty railings. "It's a dowie spot," said my host.

Scottish history is troubled and tragic enough. Warfare, fanaticism, indifference and poverty have destroyed nearly all the old country churches; but in England, with very few excep- tions, they have stood. •There have of course been tremendous casualties in the great ecclesiastical buildings of the south; one wanders abashed round the sites of abbeys, and tries to imagine a high echoing interior from the ground-plan marked on the greensward by the Ministry of Works, or one notices in the name-plate of a slum street the solitary memorial of some vanished monastic establishment; but the village churches are still there..

They have suffered of course. Pillage and neglect are bad, but Victorian restoration was perhaps even worse—" the chimerical resurrection of the spirit of mediaeval architecture," as Mr. Fred Crossley has called it. " Restoration " was, quite literally, what was intended. Gilbert Scott and the others were set on restoring something they thought had been lost; they were going to give back to each church its original, mediaeval appearance, and, if they didn't know what that was, at least they knew 'what it ought to have been. They would restore to each church an appearance of unity, even if it meant remov- ing fine workmanship of another period; they would restore appropriate decoration, even if it had to be supplied by mass- producing machines and by the tin stencil-plate; they would bring back to the church its look of pristine newness, even if it meant re-tooling the old stones. .

Gilbert Scott and the others were a national misfortune; but, like Cromwell's destructive soldiery, he is long dead and What's lost is lost. The problem now is to preserve what we have. Since Scott died there have been seventy years of gales and rain; in seventy Mays the shabby, brown death-watch beetles have emerged to make their uncanny ticking, to mate and to lay the eggs from which the ravening grubs will hatch. Foundations have sunk; slates are missing; ancient lead in the windows has decayed; even Gilbert Scott's restorations need repair.

But, as we've recently been told, there's no money. The Archbishop of Canterbury has this week been receiving the first contributions towards the £4,000,000 (or about £260 a church) needed over and above local funds. Some of the parish churches will, of course, get off comparatively lightly, a few pounds for paint and putty and some new quarries in the windows, but others demand propping, buttressing, grouting, underpinning, re-pointing and a hundred other costly operations. The Church has no money; the churchgoers alone cannot raise it; the money will have to come largely from those who only visit churches on, say, Wednesday mornings.

What will happen if the money is not forthcoming ? I sup- pose we'll lose the churches. Not suddenly and dramatically. Things do not happen like,that. What one will read in one's daily paper will be nothing more than a back-page paragraph announcing that one or two remote country churches have been closed. Gradually they will become "dangerous structures ": the roofs will be removed lest falling timbers brain inquisitive ecclesiologists; and, not very rapidly, but quite inexorably, nettles will spread in naves and chancels. C. of E. or not, one finds it difficult to contemplate this possibility steadily. It's partly a matter of what those speakers who do not disdain the clich6 are fond of calling "our irreplaceable cultural heritage," but it's also a matter of personal affections. A remembered English landscape is almost certain to have some- where in it, centrally or peripherally, the tower of a village church; a village with the church-tower gone is like a noseless face.

The village churches exist in astonishing numbers and variety; there is nothing corresponding to them in other countries. I remember as a schoolboy walking for miles along Hampshire lanes to Priors Dean in a remote dry valley in the chalk. The church seemed smaller than the huge black yew beside it, but, when the key had been fetched from the farm- house and the door had grated on its un-oiled hinges, it turned out quite big enough to house a remarkable collection of carved gentlefolk in doublets and farthingales.

Then there was Salle in Norfolk, so startlingly huge and empty and impressive that its isolation in green fields seemed to imply not merely loneliness but desertion. And I remember a day's leave in war-time when we bicycled across autumnal Warwickshire to the hill above Burton Dassett, where there is an iron fire-basket said to have been set up as an Armada beacon, and then descended to the long church that so queerly climbs the hill step on step from the west door to the high altar. „ There is reason to hope that those who advise the churches in such matters hkve learnt to avoid "restoration," The very word should be avoided. Build new if you must; repair if you can; but only in the most unusual circumstances should one (or can one) restore what's gone for good. No one knows if £4,000,000 can be had for this purpose, but, somehow or other, Priors Dean and Salle and Burton Dassett and the rest must never become just dowie spots among the nettles.