Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

26 August 2009

Simple Tombstones of Rural England

Revered shrines of old England such as St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, York Minster or Canterbury Cathedral draw such crowds in the tourist season that the crush all but ruins enjoyment. There are alternatives and there’s as much history and vastly more peace in the provincial and rural parish churches. You could spend years visiting them: a new one each day without repeat.

By way of example, I was attracted to the parish church of St. Margaret’s, Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk while touring in the northern summer. It, and most especially its churchyard’s tombstones, is typical of all that is best in England’s rich catalogue of country churches.

Cley (sounds like ‘high’) was once one of the busiest seaports of north Norfolk. It lies at the mouth of the River Glaven, handy in mediaeval times for the flourishing export of wool to the low countries across the English Channel. Like many East Anglian churches, it seems far larger today than the size of the town warrants; that’s because Norfolk’s population shrank as the wool trade declined.

St Margaret’s was started in the 14th century to a grand plan that was never quite accomplished because the Black Death of 1348 devastated the local population. Nevertheless the evidence of its planners’ ambition lies in the perpendicular tracery of the windows of the nave and south porch, and the elegant skeleton of the roofless south transept.

The churchyard, heavily scented with wild flowers at the time I visited, has a scattering of 18th century tombstones some of which I photographed. I was intrigued by their naïve carving and an almost cartoon-like rendering of the icons of death: skulls, hour glasses and crossed bones interspersed with cherub heads, arabesques and stylized flowers. They date generally between 1720 and 1790 and appear to have been carved by the same hand; hardly possible but perhaps a father and son may have carried on a masonic tradition? I doubt that anybody knows for when I enquired of a local historian about the gravestones he was unable to tell me the masons’ names.
He did, however, comment that after the Reformation in the 16th century, the inscribing of religious symbols on tombstones was forbidden, forcing the carvers to use non-religious devices. This accounts for the death’s heads and hourglasses; only towards the end of the 18th century did crosses, crucifixes and saints reappear.

For all their simplicity, the stones are fluidly carved with sure hands guided, perhaps, by uneducated minds. The sculptor was undismayed if he misspelled or came to the end of a line with a word part finished - he simply inserted words or letters above the omissions or finished on the next line! The lettering style owed much to the printing typefaces of the time and are particularly reminiscent of the types of John Baskerville (1705-1775) the Birmingham calligrapher, engraver and printer; but with idiosyncratic swashes and flourishes that must have given great joy to the man with the chisel!

You don’t have to go to Cley-next-the-Sea to enjoy these arts; they’re found in churchyards all over England and other parts of the United Kingdom. Apart from their aesthetic qualities, they give an insight into local social history, too. With unerring English capacity for correctness, the armigerous nobility occupy tombs and niches within the church while those not so ennobled (but bigwigs nonetheless, such as wool merchants and successful farmers) have the best spots and the biggest mausolea, urns, obelisks and table-tombs in the surrounding grounds.

Meanwhile the lesser stones, of limestone, ironstone or slate, that lie outside the protection of the knapped-flint church walls erode inexorably. Names become obscure, doggerel epitaphs lose their rhymes, dates decay; and where the stones have lost their dressing, grey-green and orange-yellow lichens gain hold and spread a charming obliteration. You must catch the stones when the sun’s rays are parallel to their faces to decipher their inscriptions and see them at their best.

The wonder of it, as I have said, is that you may do so in peace, far away from the traffic growl and jostling shoulders of the big towns’ tourist shrines.


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By Don Donovan