‘Thurifer’ ranges from East to West
A day’s excursion to Norfolk began with lunch at The Ostrich, Castle Acre: cauliflower and bacon soup followed by red mullet with spiced ratatouille. The parish church afforded remnants of a painted rood screen (c.1440) and a beautifully-restored hexagonal pulpit on a wine-glass stem, with panels of the four Latin Doctors of the Church. Fragments of medieval glass survived Protestant vandalism, and are sympathetically set in the south-east window. Three carved stone dogs, faithful, alert, and sentinel on the roof of the sacristy are an arresting external feature. Ruins of the Priory nearby were mournfully atmospheric. However, the real treat was ahead.
Roofless, remote, smothered in clinging ivy, damaged by a WW1 Zeppelin, vandalised by GIs in WW2, decaying, and redundant, the church of St Mary, Houghton-on-the-Hill, was almost forgotten. During the 1990s it was even used for pagan practices. Rediscovered by the redoubtable Bob Davey MBE, newly arrived from the foreign terrain of West Sussex, he rescued the still-consecrated church. He saw off the desecrators, thwarted diocesan, parish, and council demolition attempts, and began a process of rescue and restoration. Almost single-handedly he cut back the ivy jungle, improved drainage, roofed the nave, and stabilised the building. While he was working on the East wall, a piece of Victorian plaster fell away revealing the head of an angel. Gradually, with expert assistance, 11***
Should you visit – and you should – it is open every afternoon throughout the year, from 2 to 4 p.m. Bob Davey is often there, and will enthusiastically share his immense knowledge with sparkling wit that belies his years. There was local opposition to his “personal whim”. If it is a whim, it is a magnificent one. We neglect history and our Christian past at our peril. Our ancestors in their age and with their skills sought to worship God in the beauty of holiness; and in this distant field is evidence of their exemplary piety. In Bob Davey’s work and those devoted volunteers who support him we see that God is glorified. www.houghtonstmarys.co.uk
To Somerset for a different treat. In Bristol Dockyards, rejuvenated with luxury apartments, restaurants, and galleries, there lie two contrasting ships. One is a replica of the “Matthew”, in which John Cabot, Genoese mariner and explorer, sailed from Bristol in 1497 to America on a voyage now commonly thought to have been the first European exploration of the North American mainland since the Vikings went there in the 11th century. The ship seems like a large toy, and it requires imagination to see her, and her intrepid crew, bobbing in the vast reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. The contrast with the ship further along the quayside could not be greater. Here lies the resurrected glory of the SS Great Britain. Recovered, preserved, and partially reconstructed, it is the mighty memorial to the engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Even though I have a blind spot about mechanics of most kinds, it was impossible not to be thrilled by this remarkable ship; not least by the contrast with the “Matthew”. The ships that fought in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 were, in size and appearance, recognisably like Cabot’s. But under fifty years later Brunel conceived and built his maritime colossus. Laid down in 1839 and launched in 1843, her maiden voyage in 1845 dramatically changed the nature and the appearance of shipping. Nowadays we see so much technological innovation that it hardly merits attention. The shift from HMS Victory to SS Great Britain in such a short time is breathtaking. Rescued from decades of slow disintegration moored off the Falkland Islands, the return home to Bristol in 1970 was a technical marvel. She passed under another of Brunel’s engineering triumphs, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, for the first time. It has taken several years and much dedication to conserve and restore this valuable part of our heritage. The facilities are first-rate, not least for those in wheelchairs or with difficulty walking; and the historical and technical information is excellent. History is not just about kings and queens and dressing-up. Our industrial history matters.
The pantomime season – by which I do not mean, on this occasion, the drollery of General Synod – is over. A highlight for me was a performance (one night only) of a shortened version of “Cinderella” by the St Stephen’s Players at Lewisham. There was a sharply witty script in rhyming couplets by parishioner Anne Kennedy, appealing performances from several members of the parish (Rosali Pretorius was charming in the title role), a splendidly orated narration by Charles Britton, and bravura performances by Fr Philip Corbett and Fr Stephen Wilson as the Ugly Sisters. There was also twerking. Dramatic societies were a long-standing, widespread feature in Anglo-Catholic parishes when the church was the hub of community entertainment. Perhaps St Stephen’s will set a trend for a revival. Goodness knows we need cheering up.