Visiting St Æthelmond’s

Here is a little extract from my next Radwinter novel, Thomas is visiting a church to discover more about the ancestor of a client:

The village was quite small and we came in from a side road onto the High Street. There was a pub on the corner, The Woolpack, and I asked Roland what it was like. Not bad he replied. The church was almost opposite this junction, in the heart of the village on a slight rise which was why it had been visible across the fields.

Roland pulled up against the church wall and asked if this was ok. Yes, it was perfect as I was going to the church first of all; I’d have a look round, then see what was visible of family graves outside. I said I’d be about an hour, hinting that I expected to explore on my own; I wasn’t surprised when he got out of the car and came with me.

The curving path to the church must have been swept for the service last Sunday but much snow had fallen since and we walked between banks of white with more piled upon them. I tried to behave as if I was on my own, but was very aware of the dark haired man beside me. I stopped and looked up at the church of St Æthelmod, an attractive old building; the oldest parts were the tower soaring upwards, and inside, the thirteenth century font.

“That’s the west tower,” I told Roland. “It’s got a ring of four bells and they were actually cast in Bagbrock check bbc story? which isn’t that far away is it?” I looked up at the splendid tower against the brilliant blue sky and took a few pictures with my camera. Roland murmured some comment and I went on to tell him that the bells were cast by the son of a famous bell-founder from Essex, both called Martin Christopher. Martin the younger lived near here for four years, casting these bells and others for local churches. I didn’t tell Roland that the nave and the chancel were rebuilt in the 1370’s, that there was not one but two leper’s squints, and there were two contemporary niches flanking the chancel arch. Nor did I mention that the timber frame of the nave roof was more recent, constructed in the 1800’s, at a similar time as the hanging of the bells.

I’d read that the church was made of ironstone and limestone; I had no idea what ironstone was, but I do now. It’s a sedimentary rock called ironstone because it has iron in it; it goes a sort of rusty brown when exposed to the air. It’s also called tiger iron because it can become sort of stripy. I told Roland but he didn’t seem impressed either by the ironstone or my knowledge. Limestone obviously is a grey-white so the church had quite an attractive appearance beneath its covering of snow.

We went up to the church and I wondered if it would be open or locked as are so many parish churches these days. But no, the big black iron ring handle turned and the massive nail studded wooden door opened, and we stepped into a chilly vestibule where the parish notice boards hung.

We went through another wooden door and into the church. It was lovely inside, and I stood for a moment looking round. I’m very familiar with churches as Marcus used to be a vicar, so I knew what I was looking at in terms of architecture and fittings. The thirteenth century font stood quietly waiting for the next baptism; it was in wonderful good condition, many of the carvings clearly visible after nearly eight hundred years. I could sense that Roland was fidgety beside me – not that he actually did fidget, but he was clearly bored already.

Beside the door was a huge wooden panel with all the vicars from 1025 inscribed on it, and there was the name I sought. Good old Jaarziel held the office from 1790 – 1852… good grief he was old, ancient in those days, I must check his date of birth – I hadn’t properly explored the Hoppers yet.

He must have been a very wealthy man by the time he died; I’d been reading up about the area and discovered some interesting stuff – not how he acquired his wealth originally, but the fact from very modest beginnings, the family had become very wealthy. The area of Baggibrock was inclosed (the word is now ‘enclosed’) in 1847 under an Act of Parliament of 1843. This inclosure dealt with thousands of acres, but not the roads, tracks or dykes across this area. There were what were called open fields, not sure what that meant exactly, maybe just marked out and without hedges or boundaries. They had names like were Old Willow  End, Linden End, Brookfield, and Ell Fields. There were over a hundred and fifty allottees – those who received these parcels of hundreds of acres in 1847; the largest was a local lord, a bishop, an ecclesiastical school and, among other names – Caius Jonathan Oscar, Margaret Drage, Mary Humphreys Greene and others, blow me, there was the Reverend Jaarziel Hopper of Athelmond Grange!

What did he have to do to acquire this land? Historical research was beyond me, I’d get in touch with Livia and if she didn’t know, I bet she knew someone who did!

I began to wander round the church, not quite sure what I was looking for; however for a small church it had some mighty fine features, some mighty expensive features – but old expensive, not modern. Maybe, I wondered, thanks to the Rev Jaar?

Roland wandered with me for a while, making uh-huh, hmm-mm, sort of noises when I pointed things out to him. He was itching to ask what this had to do with my research, I could tell, but had obviously (well, obvious to me) been briefed not to.

I took various photos, of the font, of the board with the vicars’ names, of a largish window with rather lovely stained glass of a load of musicians and a Biblical king. I’d done my homework and I guessed this might be King David. I picked up a nearby Bible and leafed through:

And David spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers with instruments of music, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy.
So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren, Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of the sons of Merari their brethren, Ethan the son of Kushaiah; and with them their brethren of the second degree, Zechariah, Ben, and Jaarziel,

So Jaarziel was a musician appointed by the Levites, with a load of his brethren. There about half a dozen blokes with earnest expressions and medieval style clothes lined up steps leading up to an imposing building. In front of them was David with his crown, looking up towards the building which may be the temple. The musicians had comical hats and there was a drum, a very long pipe, a couple of mandolin looking things, a harp and then an imposing man with a huge beard staring out of the window with of all things, a triangle!

“Rock and roll,” someone said, making me jump.

It wasn’t Roland, who’d wandered away and was staring at a display of postcards, but a woman who looked as if she’d been transported from a previous era – or was an extra in a film set in the 1940’s. She had a tweedy skirt, a wraparound sort pinafore apron thing, and her hair done up with a scarf knotted at the front. I guess she was a bit younger than me, and was looking at me with a cheerful, enquiring expression.

“Good old Heman and his brethren!” I replied to the friendly lady who was smiling at me.

She was astonished – but of course, although I’m a complete atheist, I know my Bible very well – so many of Marcus’s fire and brimstone sermons to sit through. I used to read the Bible to keep myself occupied. What a completely different man Marcus is now; I still can’t quite believe it, and occasionally think of the Old Testament figure he seemed to be, long untidy beard, fierce eye-brows, wild hair… Now he is almost unrecognizable, and I struggle to think of him with cropped hair and beard, brown, sun-burned face and perpetual smile.

“My brother was a vicar,” I explained and told her about those seemingly endless sermons, the only thing to entertain me was the Bible with its sex and violence.

She laughed and told me she was the vicar here! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, there are plenty of lady vicars about these days.  She asked me what it was about this particular window which had captivated me. I was tempted to come straight out about Jaarziel, but I replied it had amused me – I recognised the subject matter of David and the Levites, and the window with these ‘brethren’ looking as if they were some Hebrew rock band had amused me.

“It’s a rather obscure and unusual story to have a whole window, isn’t it?” I asked.

I glanced towards Roland who pointed at the door, indicating he was going outside. I raised a hand in acknowledgement.

“Well if I tell you that it was commissioned by a previous incumbent here, the rather exotically named Jaarziel Hopper, does that make it even more intriguing?”

I agreed with her, yes indeed it was intriguing, and I wondered if one of the brethren of the second degree was Jaarziel Hopper.

“Church legend has it that he is the one with the triangle, the one with the psaltery looks far too soppy and the mandolin too effete for the Reverend Hopper.”

The triangle player had a particularly fierce face with a hooked nose, almost manic eyes and masses of curling hair and huge beard.

“Do you know anything about him?” I asked casually, I couldn’t be too interested, it would seem suspicious.

“Only that he was supposed to have made a pact with the devil!” she exclaimed.

I tried my utmost not to look too surprised or shocked.

“I guess a lot of vicars did, or were thought to have done,” I remarked.

“Yes – there was that French priest who found treasure and used it to do up his church… where was it.. oh yes, Rennes-le-Château… I was quite fascinated by it after reading ‘The de Vinci Code’…”

I vaguely remembered Rebecca my first wife going on about it and dragging me to see the film with Tom Hanks… I don’t mean Tom Hanks came with us, obviously, I mean the film had Tom Hanks in it.

“You could write a best seller – The Upper Bagbrock Code!” I said, and she laughed and said there were more than enough stories to write a best seller. I told her I’d buy it if she ever did… and suddenly it seemed there was a little undercurrent of something going on here… nothing mysterious or satanic, but more a little flirtation…

I turned my back on the window and made a few general comments about the church, and how lovely it was, and after a few more scraps of conversation she said she had to get back to cleaning. She always had to help out but none of the village people who came in were able to today and I left her to polish the brass.

I trotted round the rest of the church fairly quickly; I’d like to come back, but would have to think up a good reason for doing so. I left after buying a little guide book and calling ‘cheerio’ to the brass polishing vicar, I hurried out. I’d found a few plaques on the wall with mentions of the family and taken quite a few photos, but now I came back out into the dazzling sunshine, gleaming and glistening off the pure white snow.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.