Leicestershire/Nottinghamshire churchcrawl July 2020. Visiting the church of St James Little Dalby, St Swithun Great Dalby, St Mary & St Hardulph Breedon On The Hill & St Mary East Leake
The first English lockdown had ended and churches were again allowed to be open; for private prayer and for regular worship. Very few churches had taken up the chance of communal worship as yet. I had a trip planned in to Leicestershire after a morning zoom service with the Salvation Army; which for the last few months had become my new normal. Churches had been closed, but in some ways they had never been more open!
First point of call was Little Dalby, a little way of the A606, three and a half miles south east of Melton Mowbray. The welcoming committee was first rate! A black Labrador trotted up to the van as we pulled up and stayed happily with me as I photographed the exterior. A man was cutting the grass and was happy for me to go inside. A nice welcome from him too!
There is some great age to the church here. There has been a church here since Norman times. It is time to bring out my favourite Chuckle Brothers joke before we get started ‘Nice church Vicar’ ‘It’s Norman’ ‘Nice church Norman’!
The original 11th century structure was given an almost complete makeover in the 1840’s, with the west tower being rebuilt, transepts added and the rest restored. The church of St James is built of dressed ironstone and consists of west tower with broache spire. The nave has north and south aisles; with four beautiful triple lancet windows forming the clerestory to north and south; south porch, substantial north and south transepts and chancel. The whole is quite heavily buttressed.
There are many gargoyles here of very high quality. Very few appear to have any great age and I suspect that most date from the time of the Victorian rebuilding. A black Labrador nose, followed quickly by a tongue, appeared from nowhere as I was crouched down taking an arty shot of the tower. What a good boy!
The church was open and, to be honest; the virus felt a million miles away in this quiet, picturesque part of Leicestershire, on a gloriously sunny and warm Sunday afternoon. On a mental health point of view, afternoons such as this were really important and it was good to be able to travel freely again!
Moving inside, it was bright and welcoming inside; a very pleasing church. There is plenty of stained glass here, all dating from the time of the rebuilding; and to be honest it is not of great quality. One panel of a higher quality depicts the risen Christ meeting Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. Jesus raises His hand in greeting and the onlooker can see wounds in His hands feet and side.
Angels line the north and south walls of the nave; one in particular, with long flowing hair and playing a mandolin catching the eye. Another holding what looks like a palm leaf has a serene expression and oversized hands; a symbol of piety.
Moving outside again and renewing acquaintances with the black lab, I started to work around what is a very interesting collection of slate gravestones. One near to the south transept is of stunning quality. Carved in slate it has at the centre three angels, symbolising the flight of the soul to heaven. To the left of the angels as we look at it; are three human skulls, to the right a coffin, hourglass, gravedigger’s tools and a candle which has been snuffed out. All of these are symbols of death and the mortality of Man.
Close by is a fabulous carving of an Ouroboros, a serpent with its tail in its mouth; an often used symbol of eternity. This is wrapped around the gravediggers tools. The message here is that, yes the deceased has passed away but there is eternal life in heaven as reward for the Christian life lived.
Gravestone symbolism at the church of St James, Little Dalby.
The church of St Swithun, Great Dalby
I enjoyed my time here very much. We moved on, travelling the short distance to Great Dalby and the church of St Swithun. Walking up the long path, which leads up to the south porch; it was evident that some calamity had befallen this church at some point in time. The west tower ends abruptly, with a small conical feature on top. A closer look at the top of the tower shows what appears to be stonework used to fill in damage; with this being centred around the east end, where the tower joins the nave.
A little research after I got home showed that there was once a spire here, but it was struck by lightning in 1658. The spire fell in to the nave, destroying much of the church as it fell. The church was left in a state of near ruin for several years before finances were in place to rebuild.
Curious architecturally! The south aisle is simply huge relative to the rest of the church. Two enormous windows are completely out of proportion to what you would normally expect to see; covering virtually the entire height of the wall. Of any church that I have ever visited, this one above all others does not need the addition of a clerestory!
The church was closed to visitors due to covid. A message on the website says that the church will be back again for its congregation when it is deemed safe. These are hard times but this church, on a purely local level has seen worse! It has been virtually demolished, laid ruined for several years, was rebuilt and came back due to the efforts of those there at the time. This church has come back from worse than these present times!
The church grounds are large, well maintained and of interest. A bench is placed close to the south face of the tower. A pleasant place to sit on a warm summer evening; watching the world go by! A slate gravestone close to the south porch has a depiction of a skull on it, low down and partly sunk in to the ground. An hourglass sits on top of the skull. Tempus fugit, time flies; Man is mortal and will die it says to the onlooker. Don’t be caught out when your day is come! The same message today as it was then.
Close by ‘search the scriptures’ is still just discernible. To the left of this text as we look at it are symbols of death, a scythe and the hourglass. To the right is a cross and a shoot of a plant; Christian faith and rebirth, new life. As always, the church grounds in this area are fascinating!
The Priory church of St Mary & St Hardulph, Breedon On The Hill.
It was a few miles journey to next point of call, Breedon On The Hill; we had gone out of way to this this beautiful church due to its history and setting! Breedon is five miles north of Ashby De La Zouche, very close to the Derbyshire border. There is a limestone hill here, `122 metres above sea level, on which is the Bulwarks Iron Age hill fort. Within this is the Priory church of St Mary and St Hardulph.
In terms of history, this takes some beating. A monastery here was founded back as far as 675. This was mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. This was turned in to an Augustinian monastery. The present building as we see it today was a result of much building work over the centuries. Building took place in the 13th century with aisles and clerestory being added in the 15th century. The tower is very old, dating back in parts to the early 12th century. An ornately carved Norman doorway can be seen to the north of the tower and it is possible to see that other structures once came out past the western end of the tower.
This priory was dissolved along with all others during the reformation. Breedon had its own parish church at that time, but is was in ruinous condition so the priory became the parish church and still is today.
The church was closed, which I regretted very much as it houses an internationally famous collection of Anglo Saxon carvings. A little internet research indicated that there is also a fabulous cadaver tomb, which I would like to have seen. This is a definite one to call back and see inside once the present problems have cleared.
There were a lot of people about; taking advantage of the warm summer afternoon. The church grounds were very large and filled with slate gravestones. ‘Reader prepare to meet thy God’ was the stark message carved in to one grave. An Ouroboros, wrapped around an hourglass, similar to that seen earlier was carved in to another. An epitaph to a four year old reads ‘Like birds of pray, death snatcht away, this harmless dove whose soul so pure, is now secure in Heaven above.
Three angels, symbolising the flight of the soul to Heaven, are depicted with trumpets, with a part of I Corinthians Chapter 13 verse 52, which reads ‘and the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised’.
As you would expect, the views out across the fields from the top of the hill were excellent. I would not fancy being up here though in the middle of winter with the snow falling. What a beautiful church and surroundings!
The church of St Mary, East Leake.
We moved across the border in to Nottinghamshire, and to East Leake and the ancient church of St Mary. East Leake is a large bustling village of around 7,000. There was mention of a village here at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086. The church of St Mary sits on slightly high ground, level with the top of the church wall, leaving an uninterrupted view across the grounds. Plenty of people were around; the church grounds providing a little oasis of peace!
The church here dates from the 12th century, with the west tower dating from that time. The recessed spire dates from the 15th century. The tower and nave are battlemented. The south porch has a modern statue of the Virgin Mary in an older image niche. An impressive church! A statement piece!
It was great to find this church open; and especially interesting as that Sunday morning was the first time that communal worship had been allowed in this country since the first English three month lockdown had been lifted.
There was hand sanitiser on entry and unrestricted movement throughout the church. It was fascinating seeing how things had been set out for worship that morning. There are no pews here, just modern stacking chairs. Most of the chairs had been removed, with those remaining set out in a pattern so that each was two metres away from the next. Chairs were set out both in the nave and the south aisle.
Standing at the chancel and looking to the west, at the arrangement of chairs; this was the first time that I had seen a church set up for the ‘new normal’ worship. How strange in looked! This is being typed on the first day of 2021 and how quickly we get used to something new. Sitting here now it would now seem really strange to go back to how we used to be; sitting with chairs in a row, and actually sitting next to someone. How strange and worrying!
To be in a church, or anywhere else for that matter, without first sanitising hands; once inside peering through steamed up glasses or glasses off entirely and ensuring that correct distancing was maintained would seem really strange now. We adapt and move on!
I wanted this site to help mark a certain, and tragic time in our history. For this reason, I saw the interior of the church here important as a piece of social history; how our churches were adapting to the pandemic rather than just looking at it architecturally.
Due to the lack of chairs it seemed very spacious inside. The five light east window is of clear glass; the east window of the south chapel has a depiction of the crucifixion, a modern representation of the Virgin Mary can be seen in one of the windows of the south aisle. St George, with slain dragon below can be seen in another. Unusually, there is a font at the entrance to the chancel; this would normally be found at the west end.
I have a great deal of respect for those churches who opened up as soon as they could. I visited a church in Norfolk who had a midweek communion service on the first morning that the second English lockdown ended in November. Zoom has been and is still very useful but it is not the same. Hats off to them! Well done guys! An enjoyable afternoon out!