Monday 21 December 2015

Churches Locked and Open, and a Relief

'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through God's house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...'
Over the weekend I was up in Staffordshire and Derbyshire with my cousin, hoping for a little light church-crawling (the weather having ruled out most other options). However, as things turned out, not one of our target churches was open. All were locked and lifeless, with no indication of where to get a key and little sign that anyone had ever thought to enter - and these were not little out-of-the-way churches in remote and isolated spots; all were in fair-sized villages, one (Morley) is among Derbyshire's finest medieval churches, and two (Uttoxeter, Ilkeston) were big and interesting town-centre churches. All locked, all lifeless - and this in the weekend before Christmas, the last of Advent. The contrast with the teeming crowds in the shopping centres could hardly be more pointed, or more dispiriting.
 Still, the glorious cathedral-like St Oswald's in Ashbourne was open and alive, with visitors wandering at large, the twilight interior illuminated by dozens of Christmas trees, and a small-scale devotional service under way. And, next day in Derby, the cathedral too was open - a vast and gorgeous Georgian box attached to a mighty medieval tower. A grand collection of opulent 17th- and 18th-century memorials (and coffin plates) here, all firmly Classical, with barely a Christian symbol to be seen - no continuity with Nazareth, only with Imperial Rome and Periclean Athens...

And, in Uttoxeter, the church may have been shut, but at least the Johnson memorial was to be seen. On a wall of a 19th-century conduit house in a corner of the marketplace - a kind of enclosed classical temple with a dome on top - is a relief carving (a copy of one in Lichfield) showing Samuel Johnson's famous act of penance when, on his last visit to the county of his birth, he stood bareheaded in the rain, to the wonder of onlookers, to do penance for an act of filial disobedience half a century earlier. The young Johnson had refused his ill father's request to man his bookstall at Uttoxeter market:
'Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago, I desired to atone for this fault; I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.'


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  2. You really should consult your friendly oracle on Derbyshire church matters before you embark on your fruitless quests, Nige. I could have told you not to head off to Morley, Ilkeston etc. Here is a handy guide to Derbyshire churches, which tells you which ones are open (although it's not entirely reliable):

    Derbyshire is generally quite good for opening up its churches. Staffordshire is very bad.

    I'm glad you liked Derby Cathedral - I think it's quite splendid.

    Have you seen the church at Breedon on the Hill? (Leicestershire). It's not far from Melbourne, so you could catch the sheelanagig in the church there and follow it up with some inhabited vines at Breedon. Corking stuff. Put it in your to-do list for your next visit.

  3. Oh yes - Breedon looks marvellous - thanks Mary! I think I've been softened up by visiting so many churches that fall within the tourist/hiker zone of the Peak District so tend to be open. Elsewhere, I guess it's much like the rest of the country - which is so saddening, especially just before Christmas - and no indication of where or how to get a key. On the other hand, there's the odd wonderful surprise when you find a normally locked church open because someone is doing the flowers or preparing for a wedding - or fixing the roof...