Thursday, August 27, 2020

Llanwarne, Herefordshire


Floods and fragments

Ruined churches. When I come across one in the countryside I naturally think their ruination has been caused by rural depopulation or population movement. The old church of St John the Baptist at Llanwarne in Herefordshire – a place I was quite unaware of until the other day – was abandoned for another reason. The building, which stands close to a brook, suffered repeated flooding, so in the Victorian period a new church was built on a higher site across the road. The old church still stands, minus its roof, an ornamental and tranquil place in which to contemplate the transience of the works of humankind and the visual qualities of weathered stone.

This building is fragile. Some of the mullions and tracery in the windows seem to be supported by the ironwork that must originally have held panes of glass in place; signs tell us not to climb on the walls. There’s a part of me that likes my ruins unkempt and desolate and productive of the sort of emotions that are summed up in the term ‘Romantic’ and in the useful German word Ruinenlust. That word can be translated as ‘Pleasure of ruins’, which is the title of a fascinating book about ruins by Rose Macaulay. Ruinenlust involves taking pleasure in something that also invokes dread or sadness. The melancholy aspect of ruins like this is obvious enough, but there are delights too – the vistas of trees and sky above and through window openings, the sense of a quiet haven that’s becoming part of nature, the softening effects (so admired by Ruskin) of time on stone.

As you can see from my photographs however, this is not the kind of ruin one sometimes sees slipping rapidly back to nature and surrounded by tall grass and drifts of nettles. It is looked after. The grass is trimmed and the latch on the gate still works. So although I can enjoy the ruin’s fragility, the fluid quality of some of its worn window tracery, the patina of its stonework, I can also appreciate the care and effort of the people who look after buildings like this, cut the grass, thoughtfully provide garden benches, and ensure the structure is stable.

Looking at the church is even more than usual an effort of piecing together the building’s story from a collection of assorted architectural fragments: a nave and arcade of the 13th century; a 14th-century aisle and graceful 14th-century window tracery; a tower of the same century, much the most solid-looking part of the building; a later porch, probably 17th century. Walking around inside an oddity becomes clear. At some point the ground level both inside and outside the building has been raised, so that now some of the window sills are not far from the turf and the capitals of the arcade piers are only a couple of feet from the floor. Why? Is this the effect of accumulated silt from centuries of flooding? One derivation of the name Llanwarne is ‘the church by the swamp’.

The inner doorway of the porch bears fragments of a carved inscription. The difficulty of reading this is demonstrated by the conflicting opinions of a 1931 RCHME survey and Pevsner. Pevsner thinks it’s in Latin. The 1931 account sees in it English words such as ‘[fad]eth – soe doth Man’s. . . . the [h]ouse of God’, as if a message about decay or ruination is trying to get out. Reading a medieval building can be baffling, but bafflement can be pleasurable, and the quiet enjoyment of a peaceful ruin can be too.


marlane said...

Aww my home county I was born in Hereford. Now in USA. Simi Vally So Cal

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

The mystery is why they built the church in the first place on a site prone to flooding. If the -warne bit is Welsh gwern, alder trees, that grow in water, they must have known what it was like before the first stone was put in place. Were they short of a site? A similar problem with Pensford in N E Somerset - now reduced to just a tower because it was badly placed next to the river. At Little Snoring, near Fakenham, Norfolk, the whole church was moved slightly in the early Romanesque period (This is how I interpret it) and the church guide suggests proneness to flooding, although the brook nearby is very small. A parish church served an agricultural area, and presumably the best land was already taken.Is there any pattern in parish churches being built on odd sites - maybe it accounts for so many being on steep hilltops or awkward slopes?

RogerB said...

The church of St Mary, Tadcaster, was similarly built, on the banks of the River Wharfe. It too suffered repeated flooding and in the late nineteenth century the floor level was raised so that the windows appear strangely low and the pillars base-less (the doorways were raised, however!).
This was before the days of climate change and was largely because farmers started installing land drainage upstream. Climate change has made the situation worse, of course.