Saturday, 2 September 2017

Screened Off

I was walking yesterday, with friends, in the outer reaches of Betjeman's Metroland, along the valley of the Chess, a beautifully clear chalk stream, from Chesham to Rickmansworth. On the route was Chenies, where the parish church contains a magnificent collection of monuments to members of the Russell family, the Dukes of Bedford. Naturally I was looking forward to seeing these, but better informed members of the party warned me not to get too excited, as all the monuments are in the Bedford Chapel, which is screened off from the rest of the church and the entrance to which is more or less permanently locked. The screen is of foliate wrought iron, so it is possible to squint through into the gloom and get a rough idea of what these splendid tombs look like from one particular angle - or even poke a camera through and take a picture - but essentially this chapel is out of bounds, an outpost of the Bedford estate rather than an integral part of the parish church. I could only put my face against the screen, see what I could see, and imagine what it would be like to walk among those magnificent tombs.
 This depressing situation is certainly not unique to Chenies - I've peered through many a screen at many a closed-off family chapel, and at least one other collection of monuments of national importance, the Spencer tombs at Great Brington in Northamptonshire, is similarly closed off from the church it stands in. Why should this ever be the case? It might have made some kind of sense once, but surely not now. If monuments are in a parish church, they should be as accessible as any other part of that church - especially if they are its principal glory. The great assembly of Rutland monuments at Bottesford - probably the greatest in the land - inhabits the parish church in a perfectly natural and appropriate way, with no screens and no separation, and surely that should be the model. Take down those screens!


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