Updated: Jul 4, 2022
July is here and I’m still wearing a fleece jacket. It feels like the Winter That Will Never End. But intermittent episodes of warmth are thrown in occasionally, just to mess with me. Nevertheless, and despite its erratic behavior, it has done my heart good to see blue skies and fluffy clouds occasionally, which we greatly enjoy during our romps around the British countryside.
We are having great fun with the doggies, and I am the revered bountiful Carrot Queen once more! See how they worship me.
We got in gear for church crawling and made a few excursions.
One stop was to the old Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. This is a Saxon church in the care of Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a national charity preserving at-risk historic churches. They have saved over 350 buildings which attract almost 2 million visitors a year. I stumbled across CCT during lockdown when I found their free weekly lectures and became mesmerized. I now deeply appreciate the service they provide in preserving England’s religious history.
This fascinating church in Albury dates from just before the Norman conquest (ca. 1100), and much of the building fabric from this period can still be seen, such as its ironstone and sandstone rubble façade, although the building also contains medieval and 19th century features, including a timber-framed porch and a unique shingled cupola dome over the tower that was installed in the 18th century. Close to an ancient Pilgrim's Way, the church was already well established by the time of the Domesday Book.
Immediately upon entering the building, one is confronted by an image that traditionally greeted pilgrims (and whom I have taken as a tutelary patron), which is a faded wall mural from the 14th century portraying St. Christopher sporting a curly red beard and carrying the Christ child on his left shoulder.
A medieval belief claimed that if you saw an image of this saint in the morning then you would have a safe day. But we saw him in the afternoon, so I guess we were out of luck!
As with many CCT churches, the interior of Albury church was sparsely furnished, as demonstrated by the modest chancel surrounding the altar, but it is fascinating to visit nonetheless.
The draw card and highlight of the church is no doubt the South Chapel, an area remodelled by renowned Victorian architect A.W. Pugin, who was once responsible for the Palace of Westminster’s interior. He put his rich and colorful style to use in Albury by creating a dazzling mortuary chapel for the local Drummond family. It is lavishly decorated with stained glass, painted walls and ceiling, and a magnificent tiled floor.
Unfortunately, we were locked out! (I was sorely tempted to break in.)
I ended up standing atop a pew in order to peer inside and get pictures of the interior. It is striking to behold. Robin shot a 3-minute video of the interior if you’d like the grand tour (recommended): https://youtu.be/WGyUZhSj3n0
Outside, we enjoyed a lovely ancient yew tree as sheep sauntered through the graveyard, and we even startled a deer lurking behind some tombstones! I tried to get a decent picture of her, but you know how deer are—completely uncooperative!
Here’s a fun bit of trivia: A mathematician named William Oughtred was rector of Albury for fifty years and is buried inside the church. He was a tutor to famed architect Christopher Wren, and is credited with inventing the slide rule in about 1622. He also introduced the "×" symbol for multiplication, and the abbreviations "sin" and "cos" for the sine and cosine functions. He wrote Clavis Mathematicae, The Key to Mathematics, a textbook on elementary algebra published in 1631. It became a classic, was reprinted in several editions, and was later consulted by Isaac Newton and other science luminaries. The book is concise and argues for a less verbose style of mathematics with greater dependence on symbols.
Oughtred also maintained an interest in astrology and alchemy, and it was reported that he received sudden intuitions or solutions to problems whilst standing in particular places or leaning against a particular oak or ash tree, "as if infused by a divine genius"—after having previously pondered those problems unsuccessfully for months or even years. (Does that sound like intuition to anyone else?)
Oh the things one trips over when sightseeing!
Such as this rainbow-colored crosswalk in a small English village. I realize June was Pride Month, but I still think this is worth celebrating despite its being a few days late.
Hey, if small villages in the UK can show support for LGBTQ, why can’t everyone?
The next church I’ll share with you has an interesting American affiliation. This is St. Martin’s Church Blackheath.
Dedicated in 1893, it is a fairly recent church compared with the churches I typically visit. It was designed by art nouveau architect Charles Harrison Townsend, and is considered a prime example of the Arts & Crafts movement. Its exterior brought to mind the ethos of Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect I chased down whenever it was possible to do so during our extensive travels.
The church interior is simply an oblong hall that honors the Arts & Crafts values of sincerity and simplicity (avoiding lofty and grand design), and its builders utilized local materials to the greatest extent possible.
The draw card for this church is the striking wall murals lining both sides that were painted in 1893–95 by the American-born artist Anna Lea Merritt. These are the only surviving example of her mural work from the end of the 19th century and represent an outstanding achievement for a woman artist of that time. After all, who would award a woman artist with a commission like this?!
Merritt’s work has been the focus of renewed interest and attention, and she has become the subject of recent exhibitions and publications. For example, she was the first woman artist to have a work acquired by the Tate collection: Love Locked Out.
These murals are unique because they were painted using a process invented by a scientist named Adolf Keim who was trying to develop a paint that looked like lime fresco but could survive the northern European climate that was notorious for destroying frescoes within a short time. And Merritt’s murals have indeed survived England’s damp for nearly 120 years, even remaining surprisingly true to their original colors. In person they looked like magically feminine Pre-Raphaelite artworks rendered in pastel chalk.
On our way home from Blackheath, I spotted a blue cow! Not a real cow, silly—a fiberglass cow-parade kind of cow sporting a straw hat.
It brought back fabulous memories of the cross-country trip Robin and I took back in 1999 to transport his car from Boston to Los Angeles. We arrived late to Chicago one night, and the next morning we happened to step outside for a few minutes to enjoy the view and stumbled over the Cow Parade, an array of fiberglass cows on a grassy green meridian. I skipped from one to the next, charmed and delighted by their whimsical appearance.
Subsequently, we have seen variations of the Cow Parade all over—Wyoming had buffaloes; Minneapolis had Snoopys; Charleston had over-sized rocking chairs; we’ve seen pigs, dolphins, bears, elephants, dragons, roosters, penguins, eggs, Pegasuses—you name it; they’ve probably held a Cow Parade for it. These “parades” were all the rage for a while, and it warmed my heart to see a fiberglass cow again.
Our final church this week was 15 minutes away as the dogs walk. This sanctuary is dedicated to St. Bartholomew, who was the patron saint of tanners, and it is situated on Tanners Lane, the site of tanneries in centuries past.
It is supposed to have been founded as a chapel during the 12th century, although the remainder of the building dates from a reconstruction undertaken in 1871.
Its interior is that of a simple rural church with wooden beamed ceilings and rows of pews with more than 250 individually needlepointed kneelers. Everything is contained in one large room; there are no separate chapels.
But some surprises were to be had!
A thrilling discovery was when we stumbled upon a stained glass window that is based on the famous Edward Burne-Jones Grail tapestries, considered by experts to be the most significant tapestry series woven in the 19th century. Why do I know this? Because we own a huge copy of one of these tapestries—the Arming and Departure of the Knights. We purchased it two decades ago to commemorate our fabulous wedding in Britain. So I know a little something about this particular Burne-Jones series.
Imagine the look on my face when I recognized this imagery! The window was designed by John Henry Dearle, a stained-glass designer trained by William Morris, and he had it manufactured and installed in 1899.
This particular panel falls last in the six-part Burne-Jones tapestry series and is known as The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval; alternatively known as The Achievement of the Grail or The Achievement of Sir Galahad, accompanied by Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval.
The original tapestry is quite broad and features Sir Bors and Sir Perceval witnessing this moment on horseback, and they were obviously cut out for this rendition. This section of the design highlights Sir Galahad gazing rapturously at the golden cup. According to Arthurian legend, Galahad was the purest and noblest knight in King Arthur's court and the only one ever permitted to behold the Holy Grail.
This is one of the rare church windows that shows the Holy Grail, and it is placed there in honor of a rather special person: Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, who owned a home nearby. A favorite of Queen Victoria, Tennyson's poetry is known the world over—think of the phrase: “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,” taken from his 1850 poem written in honor of a deceased friend. A plaque beneath the window proclaims this dedication of the window to Tennyson.
While we were admiring this novelty, a little old lady bustled inside through the church door, and we had to stop Ivy from jumping up on her. Luckily she wasn’t annoyed, and we conversed pleasantly with her for a bit. Suddenly she asked whether we had seen the medieval windows. We looked confused, and then she marched over to a large wooden cabinet and flipped a switch.
It suddenly blazed alight with the illumination of a number of delicate stained glass window panels dating from the 17th century.
They are described as “Flemish glass,” leading one to suppose they may have come from northern Belgium or thereabouts. I was taken with the image of Adam & Eve in the center of a “perspective frame,” and the unusual image of Saul on the Road to Damascus (an enduring image of introverted intuition for me). Robin was tickled by the illustration of Noah’s Ark with all of the animals climbing onboard, and he observed how there was one (only one!) unicorn marching up the gangplank.
Before we knew it, the little old lady simply vanished and left us to ourselves. I’m convinced she was an angel, because we never would have given this dark corner of the church a second glance without her generous guidance.
The best part of driving around rural UK in this lovely weather are the small villages connected by meandering roads that often feature leafy green “tunnels” that immediately act on us like a downward energy “vortex,” drawing us into a restful liminal space that seems otherworldly. It may be Robin’s favorite thing when he’s driving. Come take a short ride with us: https://youtu.be/OCRfzIfbbrU
Monday will be the American Fourth of July. Robin will make all possible effort to serve hot dogs, potato salad, corn on the cob, lemonade, and ice cream I’m sure. Even though my favorite hat is back in Los Angeles, I have pulled something suitable together to celebrate the occasion adequately. (If you know me well, you know I have a passion for tiny hats, and I’m unhappy this one is black when it should be RED.) I intend to remedy this travesty for future holidays.
But I confess: I’m not really in the mood to celebrate Independence Day now that the Supreme Court has stolen the independence of women living in the USA. I know I’m not the only one inclined to hang the American flag upside-down and wear black mourning clothes to match my hat color as a symbol for how I feel about their devastating decision and this unprecedented setback to women’s rights.
Maybe this year I’ll just pretend I’m a Brit and not think about the Fourth of July at all.
conflicted, -Dr. Vicky Jo