I have long had a sense that the ordinary folk of England have not taken Christianity too seriously since Henry made such a mess of it, and this applies especially to far flung villages. This is a real gem from W.H Hudson’s wonderful book ‘Afoot in England’. I think this is somewhere in Devon – Hudson can be infuriatingly vague at times. He writes of arriving in the loveliest village he had ever seen, which was utterly silent.
“I was wishing that I had come a little earlier on the scene to have had time to borrow the key of the church and get a sight of the interior, when all at once I heard a shrill voice and a boy appeared running across the wide green space of the churchyard. A second boy followed, then another, then still others, and I saw they were going into the church by the side door. They were choir-boys going to practice. The church was open then, and late as it was I could have half an hour inside before it was dark! The stream was spanned by an old stone bridge above the ford, and going over it I at once made my way to the great building, but even before entering I discovered that it possesed an organ of extraordinary power and that someone was performing on it with a vengeance. Inside, the noise was tremendous – a bigger noise from an organ, it seemed to me, than I had ever heard before, even at the Albert Hall and the Crystal Palace; but even more astonishing than the uproar was the sight that met my eyes. The boys, nine or ten sturdy little rustics with round sunburnt West Country faces, were playing the roughest game ever witnessed in a church. Some were engaged in a sort of flying fight, madly pursuing one another up and down the aisles and over the pews, and whenever one overtook another he would seize nold of him and they would struggle together until one was thrown and received a vigorous pommelling. Those who were not fighting were dancing to the music. It was great fun to them, and they were shoutinig and laughing their loudest, only not a sound of it could be heard on account of the thunderous roar of the organ which filled and seemed to make the whole building tremble.
The boys took no notice of me, and seeing there was a singularly fine west window, I went to it and stood there some time with my back to the game which was going on at the other end of the building, admiring the beautiful colours nd trying to make out the subjects depicted. In the centre part, lit by the afterglow in the sky to a wonderful brilliance, was the figure of a saint, a lovely yougn woman in a blue robe with an abundance of loose golden-red hair, and an aureole about her head. Her pale face wore a sweet and placid expression, and her eyes of a pure forget-me-not blue, were loooking straight into mine. As I stood there the music, or noise, ceased and a very profound silence follwoed – not a giggle, not a whisper from the outrageous young barbarians, and not a sound of the organist or of any one speaking to them. Presently I became conscious of some person standing almost but not quite abreast of me, and turning sharply I found a clergyman at my side.”
The cleric was the organist, and he explained how the present church had been built by the woman portrayed in the window. Hudson comments how the church is fine, but he regrets that it must have replaced an ancient one.
“I agree with every word you say; the meanest church in the land should be cherished as long as it will hold together. But unfortunately ours had to come down. It was very old and decayed past mending. The floor was six feet below the level of the surrounding ground and frightfully damp. It had been examined over and over again by experts during the past forty or fifty years, and from the first they pronounced it a hopeless case, so that it was never restored. The interior, right down to the time of demolition, was like that of most country churches of a century ago, with the old black wormeaten pews, in which the worshippers shut themselves up as if in their own houses or castles. On account of the damp we were haunted by toads. You smile, sir, but it wsa no smiling matter for me during my first year as vicar when I discovered that it ws the custom here to keep pet toads in the church. It sounds strange and funny, no doubt, but it is a fact that all the best people in the parish had one of these creatures, and it was customary for the ladies to bring in a weekly supply of provisions – bits of meat, hard-boiled eggs chopped up, and earth-worms, and whatever else they fancied it would like – in their reticules. The toads, I suppose, knew when it was Sunday – their feeding day; at all events they would crawl out of their holes in the floor under the pews to receive their rations – and caresses. The toads got on my nerves with rather unpleasant consequences. I preached in a way which my listeners did not appreciate or properly understand, particularly when I took for my subject our duty towards the lower animals, including reptiles.’
‘Batrachians’, I interposed…
‘Very well, batrachians – I am not a naturalist. But the impression created on their minds appeared to be that I was rather an odd person in the pulpit. When the time came to pull the old church down the toad-keepers were bidden to remove their pets, which they did with considerable reluctance. What became of them I do not know – I never inquired. I used to have a careful inspection made of the floor to make sure that these creatures were not put back into the new building, and I am happy to think it is not suited to their habit. The floors are very well cemented and are dry and clean.’
I had often wondered why so many old churches were below ground level as this one, and it is because of the amount of burials in the churchyard had raised the surrounding earth. I read somewhere it is possible to make an estimate of the number of dead per inch of ground, and it is a lot, so this was a very very old church.