In a country churchyard

Mrs P’s father has set himself the challenge of photographing every Anglican church in our home county of Derbyshire. It’s a big ask – there are several hundred places of worship that meet his criteria – so we’re helping out when we can by snapping churches we come across during our travels.

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Old Brampton

Derbyshire churches come in all shapes and sizes, the good, the bad and the ugly. But the exterior view of any church is always improved by an interesting churchyard. When we drove up to the church of St Peter and St Paul, Old Brampton in the north of the county a few weeks ago the daffodils were in full bloom. The earliest parts of the church date from the 12th century, although the current vista owes much to a major restoration carried out in 1868. With the churchyard paths lined with daffs, it looked full of character.

Some of Derbyshire’s churches might be described as being located “in the middle of nowhere”. All Saints church, Ballidon, for example, sits in a field several hundred metres from the tiny village whose name it bears, a village way too small to support a church of its size. Once the rural population here must have been much larger. Records of the church date back to the year 1205, when it was described as a chapel-of-ease (in other words, an outlier) of a church at Bradbourne, some four kilometres (2.5 miles) distant from Ballidon. The church is much altered from its 13th century form, having been restored in 1822 and again in 1882.

Ballidon church, “in the middle of nowhere”

Today, although still consecrated, Ballidon church is no longer used on a regular basis. It is owned and managed by the charitable organisation Friends of Friendless Churches. The churchyard is a little overgrown, but the church itself appears in good condition, and is a dignified presence within the wider agricultural landscape.

Another place of worship to have been substantially remodelled in the latter half of the 19th century is Holy Trinity church, Ashford in the Water, which has its origins back in the 12th century. Ashford is a famously pretty, “chocolate box village” in the heart of an area of Derbyshire known as the White Peak, and is visited by many thousands of tourists every year. Although the Grade II Listed church is not the major attraction, the building and its ample churchyard definitely add to the village’s visual appeal.

Holy Trinity church, Ashford in the Water

Derbyshire’s most famous village, however, is Eyam, which is known the world over for the sacrifices its residents made to protect surrounding areas from the Great Plague of 1665/66. I summarised the main events of that tumultuous period in this post, written when our very own Covid pandemic was in its infancy.

When plague erupted within the village the local clergyman, William Mompesson, was instrumental in convincing his flock that they should isolate themselves from the outside world and confine the disease within its boundaries. To further suppress the spread of the infection Mompesson also abandoned religious services within the church, holding them instead in the open air.

Church of St Lawrence, Eyam. Services were held in the churchyard – and not in the church – during the Great Plague of 1665-66

Today the church of St Lawrence, Eyam is a bit of an architectural jumble, boasting a Saxon font, Norman pillars, a nave built around 1350, a 17th century tower and sundry additions and changes made during the 19th century. But it’s not unattractive – quite pretty, in fact – and the churchyard setting oozes tranquillity. It’s therefore difficult to imagine the fear and despair that must have gripped the congregation when the plague was at its height.

However, look closely in the churchyard and the clues are all around, in a series of “plague graves” dating from the terrible 17th century epidemic, when death stalked an otherwise green and pleasant land. Amongst the graves dating from this era is that of Catherine Mompesson. Neither her husband’s devotion to God nor his instinctive understanding of epidemiology were enough to save her, and she sadly succumbed to the plague in August 1666.

One of Eyam’s “plague graves”, a sombre reminder of the terrible 17th century epidemic

Another churchyard boasting a monument that tourists flock to see can be found in the north of Derbyshire. The church of St Michael and All Angels, Hathersage dates principally from the 14th and 15th centuries, and like so many Derbyshire churches was substantially restored in the mid-19th century.

St Michael and All Angels is not without architectural merit, which is reflected in its Grade I listing. However its main claim to fame is to be found in the churchyard, in the form of the alleged grave of Robin Hood’s ironically named sidekick Little John.

Church of St Michael and All Angels, Hathersage

The evidence is somewhat scanty: in 1780 one James Shuttleworth claimed to have unearthed in the graveyard a thigh bone measuring 72.39 centimetres (28.50 inches). This would have made its former owner nearly 2.5 metres (8 feet) tall, and as Hathersage lies fairly close to Sherwood Forest – the fabled hangout of Hood and his merry men – Shuttleworth concluded the giant outlaw’s mortal remains were buried here.

As theories go it sounds to me like utter rubbish – or, as the brilliant writer Douglas Adams would have put it, a load of dingo’s kidneys – but why let the truth get in the way of a good story? And anyway, the grave is planted with lots of colourful flowers and does a good job of brightening up the churchyard, so maybe just this once we can all forgive a little bit of fake news!

Allegedly the grave of Little John (who may not even have really existed!) in Hathersage churchyard

Although views of the churches I’ve so far featured in this post are generally enhanced by the churchyards in which they sit, the buildings themselves have significant merit in their own right. The same cannot be said of St James the Apostle, Temple Normanton. However glorious its setting (and let’s be blunt, that’s nothing special either) the church building at Temple Normanton will always be an architectural eyesore.

It wasn’t always so. The current building is the fourth church on this site. The first originated in the 12th century, but was rebuilt in 1623. However this replacement was undermined by subsidence due to coal mining and was in turn replaced by a wooden church in 1922. Sadly, this incarnation was wrecked by severe winds in the 1980s, and this time – out of desperation, or maybe penury – Anglican decision makers opted in 1986 to erect a cheap and cheerless utilitarian fibre-glass monstrosity.

St James the Apostle, Temple Normanton – a cheap and cheerless utilitarian fibre-glass monstrosity, much admired by Mrs P

I can safely say I’ve never see another church like the one at Temple Normanton, and I rather hope I never do so again. Having said that, Mrs P likes it and spluttered indignantly when she proof-read the draft of this post, demonstrating once again that beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder!

* * * * *

And finally, while we’re on the subject of country churchyards, I invite you to listen to Chris de Burgh singing about that very subject. Chris de Burgh (b 1948) is a British-Irish singer-songwriter who found fame internationally with his 1986 #1 chart hit Lady in Red. However Mrs P and I have seen him perform live several times and know him to be a good deal more talented than might be suggested by that one song, which was much beloved by the late Princess Diana and the Duchess of York and much-derided by popular music critics of the day. In a Country Churchyard is a gentle, thoughtful love song that shows de Burgh’s talents as a lyricist at their best. Listen and enjoy!

Let your love shine on,
For we are the stars in the sky,
Let your love shine strong,
Until the day you fly...fly away ...

28 comments

  1. thelongview · April 13

    Love all the old piles, and have to agree with you about the monstrosity. Maybe, like Howard Roark, they were trying to glorify humankind? Not very successfully, even then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 13

      That may be a somewhat generous interpretation! I suspect financial desperation is closer to the truth. I have no problem – in principle – with challenging tradition and experimenting with new forms and materials, particularly when money is tight, but there are limits. Although I’m not personally a religious man I feel instinctively that churches should celebrate the glory of God rather than the utility of fibre-glass!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ann Mackay · April 16

        I have to agree with you on how ugly that fibre-glass church is, especially after seeing the other very good-looking ones. (Hope it turns out to be temporary!) There must be a few of my ancestors buried in Derbyshire graveyards – I traced my Dad’s family back to the Belper area. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · April 17

        What a coincidence, guess where Platypus Towers is located! I would suggest we might be related, except my family all come from London. On the other hand, don’t they say we’re all descended from William the Conqueror, so maybe we are, sort of…? πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · April 17

        I bet there’s all sorts of connections going between people who would never expect it. (But if you come across anyone called Gaunt, there’s a good chance that I’m distantly related because there aren’t many.) It was a real surprise on my mother’s side to find that I have ancestors going a long way back in Suffolk. Mum never said a thing about it until we arrived here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · April 18

        I haven’t knowingly met anyone here called Gaunt, but the major road running through the town’s biggest residential development is John O’Gaunts Way, named for John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-99) who was the third son of Edward III and father of Henry IV. Not sure exactly what his connection was with Derbyshire, but given that one of his titles was Earl of Derby he probably owned large chunks of it! So, if there is any ancestral connection between you and him I’m most honoured to have made your acquaintance, m’lady πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · April 20

        Sadly, I don’t think there was any connection – my lot were much too impoverished for that! I think the name could come from Ghent – Gaunt was an alternative UK spelling in the past and there were ‘de Gaunts’ & de Ghents arriving in the UK in the middle ages. (But that’s all just a ‘maybe’.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · April 18

        Further to my earlier comment, I’ve just remembered that over a century ago there was a local character and rat-catcher whose name was John Wheeldon, but styled himself John Gaunt. It seems unlikely that there’s a connection with your family, but I thought you might be interested anyway – see the remarkable, atmospheric photo by following this link: https://b-m.facebook.com/belperandproud/photos/a.1410467485841886/2879639148924705/?type=3&source=48

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · April 20

        Maybe Gaunt was his mother’s name – could be some distant connection! πŸ™‚ (Dad’s part of the family – his great-grandfather?? – moved to Yorkshire but there were still family members in Derbyshire.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, Another Blogger · April 13

    I wonder how many people attend the fibre-glass church. It’s as un-churchlike as anything I’ve ever seen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 13

      Very few, I should imagine. The population of the village in which it sits is around 500, but I’m guessing the proportion visiting the church is tiny…it’s the way it is here, church attendances have been in freefall in recent decades. Some might say that Christianity is in crisis, and while that is perhaps a slight exaggeration formal religion is of marginal interest / relevance to most Brits today.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Laurie Graves · April 13

    Those stone churches are lovely, and that fibre-glass church is quite the contrast. Needs must? And perhaps a reminder that beauty is less important than spirit. That plague grave is a timely reminder of pandemics past.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 13

      Yes, I think “needs must” can explain it. Given that attendance at church services has declined so rapidly in recent decades it might be argued that a new image is needed, although whether fibre glass delivers an appropriate alternative “brand” is questionable. Having said that, yesterday Mrs P described the church in question as “funky”, so what do I know? πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Paddy Tobin · April 13

    There must surely be a book in “The Churches of Derbyshire” – but that glass fibre monstrosity would lower the tone drastically

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 13

      Agreed on both counts. Some of the other, very modern brick-built churches in major urban settlements are also gloriously unattractive, but the prize for overwhelming hideousness definitely goes to the fibre glass monstrosity!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. tanjabrittonwriter · April 13

    Chris de Burgh’s song is lovely, thank you for sharing it. Whenever I’m in Europe, I love visiting churches and churchyards, but I have the impression that there are many more individuals who visit these sites for historic or architectural rather than for religious reasons (myself included). Though many people would disagree, I think overall many societies, especially in Europe, are becoming more secular.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 14

      Glad to know you enjoyed listening to Chris. He has a relatively big following in Germany, and several other continental European countries. Our neighbours seem to “get” him more than most Brits do!

      I agree totally about the rise of secularism. Although the UK has a strong Christian heritage, conventional Christian worship is in retreat here…maybe even terminal decline. But, as you imply, having an agnostic or atheistic outlook doesn’t prevent one appreciating some of the wonderful buildings erected in God’s name…Mrs P and I visit a lot of churches every year for that very reason. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ThoughtsBecomeWords · April 14

    I love the ancientness of UK churches. A passage from my Sunday school classes springs to mind “β€œFor where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20 and the thought behind that is the place where you gather is relatively unimportant. You can worship under a tree but fibreglass keeps off the rain!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 14

      Absolutely, if God is omnipresent He is – by definition – with you wherever you choose to worship. In that sense the buildings are irrelevant. But I do feel that the erection of a public building – whether it be a church, or a town hall, or even a library – is an opportunity to create a piece of architecture that will engender self-esteem and raise spirits within the local community. But the expense…!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. pjb317 · April 15

    I love seeing these beautiful old churches. (The fiberglass one . . . it’s a curiosity. Let’s leave it there.) I adore the idea of the Friends of Friendless Churches–such a wonderful name! Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 16

      “A curiosity” – I like that! The world would be a much duller place without curiosities to pique the interest, and on that basis a glass-fibre church is maybe not as objectionable as I may have suggested in my post πŸ™‚.

      Liked by 1 person

      • pjb317 · April 16

        To be clear: I’m not saying I’d want to live next door to it so that I’d see it every time I looked out my window. Some curiosities work best in small doses. This, in my opinion, is one of them. πŸ˜‰

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · April 16

        Totally agree!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Carol Ann Siciliano · April 15

    Thank you for bringing us along on your kindly “task” to support Mrs. P’s father! I very much enjoyed the photos, history and commentary for each church you feature. There’s something so centering in their massive stonework. And I love the bright flowers of “Little John’s” grave!

    I particularly appreciate seeing the Church of Saint Lawrence, Eyam. I learned this heroic story when (years ago) I read a novel called “A Parcel of Patterns,” by Jill Paton Walsh. And novelist Geraldine Brooks tells the tale as well. Once again, I’m enriched by your story and the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 16

      I also enjoyed A Parcel of Patterns, which does a good job of reminding readers of the immense human cost of the decisions made in Eyam that year. It seems unimaginable, and yet we are just emerging from a time when – due to Covid – elderly people in residential care homes were unable to receive visits from their loved ones for month after month in an attempt to keep the virus at bay. Not an exact parallel with Eyam, but close enough to send a shiver through my spine. My own mother spent her last couple of years in a care home, and I’m so glad that she’d passed on before Covid struck – the (entirely understandable) restrictions would have been heart-breaking for her, and for me too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Carol Ann Siciliano · April 20

        I very much appreciate your parallel to today’s residential care home. My mom, too, spent her last few years in such a home and I too was grateful that she had passed away while I could visit her, stroke her back, and just give comfort. My heart broke for my friends — and all people affected — who couldn’t give (or receive) such comfort.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Adele Brand · April 15

    Photographing every Anglican church in Derbyshire is quite an ambitious project. But a very rewarding one, no doubt. I’ve visited many ancient churches on my various travels around England, including 6th century St Martins in Canterbury. You can still see the recycled Roman bricks in the walls.

    I would like to go to Eyam. It must be very moving to look at those graves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 16

      Eyam is definitely worth a visit. There are lots of visitors – inevitably, given how well known the story is – but there’s plenty of atmosphere. I hope you get there one day.

      Liked by 1 person

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