Sunday, 11 January 2009

A Tale of Two Graveyards


The top photograph is of the semi-ruined church of St.Mary in Arden in Market Harborough. Built originally in the 12th century as a chapel of the neighbouring Great Bowden, this building is what remains of a late 17th century rebuild. Until 1878 this was the market town's burial ground, a forest of 1,400 gravestones that were all swept away in 1970 to make the mowing easier. One suspects. They say some of the 'finest' were retained, as evidenced by a double row at the west end. What criteria did they apply I wonder? Probably the survivors are those for which it appeared at a cursory glance would still have surviving relatives to kick up a fuss. And who would've thought in 1970 that there would be a host of new appreciators, those that Iain Sinclair calls 'drive-by genealogists'? So at a single Blairite stroke a record of a town's history is wiped out. Thank God, literally, for the church of St. Peter & St. Paul in Great Bowden itself. Here, my second picture, the churchyard is still what it should be. Rows of Swithland slate gravestones appear to be jostling for position, to establish a good view of Judgement Day perhaps, pushing each other out of the way and leaning companionably on each other. But for how much longer? I hear disturbing rumours that a Member of The Cloth wants to chuck out all the Victorian pews and doubtless replace them with stacking plastic. Let's hope they have both more thought for their churchyard and, essentially, a good quality strimmer.

13 comments:

Jon Dudley said...

What's wrong with these buggers? We're extremely fortunate in Rottingdean where there is a corner of the parish churchyard where my wife can trace her direct ancestors back to the 18th century and a little further with dextrous use of the swap hook. The sole reason for this good fortune is that the gravestones have been left alone. it could so easily have been a different story when in the 1930's the village became a haven for resting movie stars and negotiations were put in place to dismantle the church and have it re-assembled in Hollywood. Common sense prevailed and a perfect replica is now the church of the Forest Lawns cemetary, Hollywood where incidentally the headstone are laid flat to better allow the work of grass cutters.

Doubtless the removed pews will find sanctuary in some awful Weatherstones or other faux olde worlde public house...may their customers be smote, yea even unto the upsetting of stomachs with their vile brews.

Peter Ashley said...

Thankyou for that Jon. I was forced to experience a Weatherstones or similar in Terminal Four last Tuesday, not something I want to repeat in a hurry.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Wonderful photographs. And that letter-cutting. Fantastic. How could anyone take such things away?

Thud said...

As neglected national treasues I have no idea why anybody would wish to do more than set the odd goat or sheep loose.

Jon Dudley said...

Philip's observation re. letter-cutting is of course the sort of intelligent remark I wish I'd made rather than become bound up in my own verbosity. Letter cutters? plenty hailed from around here, John Skelton and the dog-worrying Eric Gill to name but two. But it's the rural craftsmens work I like...so difficult to do and so beautiful when done.

Peter Ashley said...

I also learnt very recently that apprentice lettercutters used the bottom half of gravestones for practise, the idea being that no one would ever see their work as it'd be underneath the soil. Until a friend of mine had to lift some up in a local chapel yard.

Ron Combo said...

Matey. Do you remember the gravestone we saw at a church (Cambridgeshire?) which had a Scania lorry ENGRAVED on it, right at the top? Must have been a good twelve years ago. I'm sure there's a book there, "The Decline and Fall of the Gravestone". But I'm sure you'd come up with a much snappier title.

Philip Wilkinson said...

We have had some good rural-craftsman-type cutters here in the Cotswolds too. But their usual medium was local limestone, which isn't as durable as slate. Even so, the lettering is beautiful when it survives. And sometimes the sun comes out and catches a stone just at the right angle and then you can see letters that were impossible to make out in 'normal' light. Superb. 'Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards,' as Samuel Beckett made one of his characters say.

Peter Ashley said...

I do remember the Scania gravestone Ron. My guess it was Aldeburgh, and we were looking for the superbly lettered Britten / Pears headstones. Well, we would wouldn't we.

Jon Dudley said...

This is becoming quite esoteric. Scanias on gravestones...what about Foden Steam Wagons? What will Eddie Stobart have on his tombstone? Answers by telegram please.

Stephen Barker said...

St Mary in Arden has strong memories for me. As a child I used to live across the road from the graveyard which in its unkempt state was a perfect place to play hide and seek. Our cat also thought it was a good place to give birth to kittens. The staff at the railway station obviously did not think a churchyard was a suitable playground and would ring the police.
On the north side of the church are the tombstones to Samual Turner and his two wives. Samual Turner was a local artist and headstone cutter and did all three stones ( apart from the final date on his own) His own headstone has a sundial at the top and his life story told in little vignettes around the edge of the stone. He was responsible for drawing up the first map of Market Harborough.

As for Great Bowden all is not what it seems. The headstones are all grouped by family surnames as there was an attempt to rearrange the churchyard with the stones moved to edge. However someone objected after the stones had been taken up so they had to go back. At which point no one could remember there original location, so they were sorted by family names.
The reason they are all tilting over is because over maintaince of the churchyard. By removing the grass and other vegetation around the stones the soil becomes looser and the stones move.
Incidentially I have read that in the eigthteenth century it cost of cutting a headstone was about 2d a letter.

Peter Ashley said...

Thankyou so much for that Stephen. It's always good to get my sparse knowledge backed up by somebody with unique insights.

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