More than Places
This month our local historian Ruth E. Richardson reflects how new uses for country churches reflects what happened in the past
Few Medieval churches flood as they were built on higher land. Tewkesbury Abbey surrounded by flood–water shows this. Even Llanwarne Old Church was dry until the adjacent marsh was drained. The Medieval church – and the lord's manor–house – were often the most substantial village buildings. Therefore, the church, and its tower, was a secure refuge for local people in time of trouble, which explains the thickness of tower walls.
Even in peaceful times the church was at the heart of each community. Church Services focused on the chancel, the congregations observing from the nave. Marriages took place at the church door to be witnessed by everyone, useful if their validity was questioned. The nave, repaired and maintained by parishioners, doubling as a boys' schoolroom, was the place where business was transacted. In addition, those churches and cathedrals which were places of pilgrimage expected donations and sold souvenirs. By Tudor times, St. Paul's Cathedral in London was a centre for commerce. Gentlemen gathered in 'Paul's Walk', the middle aisle, from 11 am to 12 noon, and after dinner from 3 pm to 6 pm, for gossip from 'news–mongers' and to arrange business deals. In the 18th century York Minster was the favourite Sunday venue for local gentry to promenade, meet friends and show–off their best clothes.
Once other premises became available, church use became more restricted. Quiet serenity was perhaps essential for those millions who had lost loved–ones during the carnage of the First World War. However, churches as multi–purpose buildings did not completely disappear. Munstone, part of Holmer parish near Hereford, had a small church largely made of corrugated iron sheets. Two wooden doors could be closed in front of the altar to turn the room into the village hall.
Beautiful Medieval Churches are wonderful, free, places to visit. Many have Flower Festivals, Craft Exhibitions, or Open Days when delicious refreshments are served. Those which are community centres have had sympathetic alterations. Here the chancel remains the worship area. Removal of pews has made the nave a venue for local clubs. Kitchens, toilet (disabled) facilities and meeting rooms have been inserted. Some churches have more. All Saints, Hereford has a café open daily, while St. Paul's, Tupsley, has joined with the local pub. as a venue for community activities.
Increasing use is made of the New Bridge Community Centre in St. Andrew's, by Bridge Sollers, and similarly of the facilities in St Peter's, Peterstow. St. Peter's, Peterchurch, helps families with information about government services, and houses a branch library. Activities at St Michael & All Angels, Mansell Lacy, include Scottish dancing, and local elections. It was featured when Sir Roy Strong discussed the way–forward for rural churches on TV. The dedicated volunteers at St. Leonard's, Yarpole won The Queen's Award for Voluntary Service. There you will find a well–stocked village shop, Post Office and morning café, raising money to donate to other projects.
Do check the websites for these churches. Returning churches to being multi–purpose community centres is simply continuing their traditional use.
©Ruth E. Richardson 2014