Sunday, 29 August 2010

A Churchyard in Surrey

Paradoxically perhaps, as a non-believer, I love churches.  Especially parish churches.

It's the history I think (you don't have to look far to find centuries of evolving social relations), and the quiet atmosphere, together with the astonishing achievements of art and architecture all around, not to mention feats of engineering - often entirely by hand.

And the complex web of human and spiritual longings that they embody is always moving.

Anyway, I rarely miss an opportunity to visit one.

This little town, Farnham, had all its religious bases covered by the early-mid 12th century. The Bishop's Castle was on the hill, from which the whole valley could be controlled, and St. Andrew's was there on its knoll by the river, close to (and no doubt protecting) the muddy track between the two power centres of London and Winchester. The hamlet of a few hundred people was safely tucked between church and castle.

SU8346 : Farnham view by Richard Croft
View of St. Andrew's Church from the Bishop's Castle
© Copyright Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

View of Bishops Castle from the St. Andrews Church Tower.

The church overlooked the ford in the river and another track, this time across the water-meadows to  Waverley Abbey, just down stream, where a small band of Cistercian monks were living their work-filled lives.

Downloaded from Flickr under Creative Commons License

That knoll above the ford, safe from the regular flooding of the water meadows, was noted long before as a strategic point.  There had been a wooden church on the site in Saxon times, and the earliest use of the town's name, deriving from the swampy, reedy character of the landscape (fen and fearn have the same root), was in a deed from Caedwalla, King of the West Saxons, "to Cedd, Cissa and the Christians" for a "monisterium" to be established on the site, way back in 688.

So it's pretty old.

Whatever its origins, there have been many re-constructions and additions over the years, and the church has become an imposing building, the largest parish church in Surrey.  It is not particularly distinguished as churches go, pleasant more than beautiful, and  "violently restored" (Pevsner) by the Victorians.  Nevertheless, it is built of the local chalk-stone, which is a gorgeous soft creamy colour, and a recent renovation has been highly successful, giving it a particularly lovely internal space.  

And like all parish churches, it has many charming details

For example, it is approached from the north along Church Passage, which features the lovely ironstone cobbling typical of the area, with cart tracks.

And several other delights, such as this brass plaque among the cobbles.  Not bad for a drain cover.

Reflected sunlight on the aged wall

Memories of an ancient pub

And a traditional half-round wall heading

The graveyard is expansive

And somewhat parklike

With plenty of graves (of course), great and small

Some are quite grand, for a country town

Not all are well-cared for, or perhaps they were the targets of grave-robbers in days gone by.....

Some are in damp corners, shiny when wet, and mossy

Most are subsiding, worn and covered in lichen so you can't read the inscriptions.

And some have simply gone to the wall

But one of the town's greatest sons, William Cobbet, that vigorous iconoclast, rural reformer and corn law repealer is there.  He died in 1835.

And it looks as though they popped in a couple of other family members as well.  I like that.  Cottage Economy.

I particularly like the well-used paths, with their combination of old flag stones and ironstone cobble.  There are several of these - the churchyard is, naturally enough, at the junction of some of the many footways that criss-cross the town.  Quite a few people use it as a short-cut: I do myself, almost every day.  In this simple way the church is a real part of the everyday secular life of the town.

This is the Old Rectory

It looks like a gingerbread house. It has been here since before the Reformation.

You enter the church through this exceptionally attractive porch.  The stone wall has been replaced with glass to let more light in.

Inside, the Church is cool and quiet, with the usual churchy stillness that I love so much

In accordance with modern practice, the fixed old wooden pews have been removed, allowing for more flexible seating arrangements. Although more modern, it is likely that this is closer to the use of space in the earliest years of the church, when people stood to worship, and also used to space to store equipment for market day, to shelter their cattle, and in emergencies even lived there.

Simple and attractive georgian-style pavillions have been built at the back of the nave for various community uses.  It has full wheelchair access, and altogether is a very pleasant space.

There is the usual collection of elaborate and complacent memorials to several centuries of local dignitaries: baronets, merchants, colonial administrators and generals who died in foreign wars. Many of these plaques remain in their usual spots around the walls of the church, but some have been attractively gathered together in the tower.  Unfortunately most are too high to read, thwarting one of the greatest pleasures of church-visiting.  

But some of these plaques are simple and dignified, like this one to William Cobbett

And this one, to George Sturt, disciple of William Morris (and perhaps like him an atheist and socialist) and a member of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  The plaque was carved by the iconic and controversial Eric Gill.

And this one

All in all, I like this church and its environs very much.  Its simple, its peaceful and its unpretentious.  And I like how the steeple can be glimpsed from all over the town, up many streets and courts and alleyways.

From across the water-meadows

And even from across what used to be the Hyde Field, and is now the Waitrose car park.

And this, on a notice-board, shows that the Parish Council is not immune from worldly limitations, and is  blessed with the gift of irony.

Dave Walker.


A terrific study of the role of a church and its priest in the life of a pre-reformation village is: The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and rebellion in an English Village by Eamonn Duffy.  Totally readable and wonderful.

There is also The Rev Robo's 1935 study of mediaeval Farnham, drawn from the Bishop's pipe-rolls.  Interesting, but not quite so readable.

St. Andrew's, Farnham

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