Arrivals & Departures Church crawl has many blessings

Photo of William Yeoman

WILLIAM YEOMAN visits some of Somerset's parishes

This morning, I’m driving along the narrow country lanes of Somerset: through picturesque hills and valleys, all bright greens and sombre browns and greys, and dotted with cottages and sheep.

First, to the village of Croscombe; then, the larger town of Shepton-Mallet — to inspect their parish churches.

Croscombe’s 15th century parish church of St Mary the Virgin is every bit the “hidden gem” it has been described as. But it’s chiefly remarkable for its Jacobean woodwork, purported to be some of the best in the UK.

The ornate screen and pulpit are superb. But the Jacobean box pews are really impressive. I sit in one, trying to imagine the preacher’s voice and the sounds of a small choir and organ and perhaps even a viol consort. The vapour from my mouth melts into the icy gloom.

I love, too, closing my eyes and running my fingers over the poppy-head finials of the bench ends and other carvings, so I can at least feel in a real rather than imagined sense, what long-dead worshippers might have felt.

On the way out, I run into a lady vicar who is all smiles.

Shepton-Mallet’s parish church of St Peter & St Paul is much grander and of greater antiquity. To get there, I walk through the paved high street and past the old Market Cross of the town square.

It’s clear that life here continues as it has done for centuries. Elderly couples hobble down paths with their walking sticks and small dogs. Some enter butchers’ or bakers’ or cafes. Tradies laugh and curse as they go about their business. Lovers stroll arm in arm, their only destination each other.

In pre-Norman times the town was called Sepeton, from the Saxon words “scaep” (sheep) and “ton” (town); “Malet” was the name of a Norman family. The church itself dates from the Saxon period, with additions and alterations carrying on through subsequent centuries right up until our own.

I’m captivated by the spacious interior — the church’s box pews were removed in the 19th century — the eerie quality of the light streaming in through the mostly clear windows — the original stained-glass windows were destroyed long ago. The stone pulpit dates from around 1550.

I take to the road again, this time bound for the villages of Axbridge and Priddy.

Parking near the tiny medieval square of Axbridge, with its half-timbered hunting lodge, I walk to the 15th century Church of St John the Baptist at the top of the hill overlooking the square.

Entering this silent, sacred space, I touch its limestone walls and Doulting stone mouldings and notice how the sunlight kisses the stone through the clear windows. Benedictions, all.

But the greatest blessings were yet to come, as I discovered when first eating lunch at The Queen Victoria Inn at Priddy, a small village in the Mendips, before visiting the village’s small church.

Climbing out of the car after the long drive through more of those narrow country lanes which run between the picturesque patchwork of farmland and forests, I hear nothing but birdsong.

I enter the cosy pub with its low timber ceilings and open fires, and hear a different kind of music as locals enthusiastically chat in a strong Somerset accent. What a delight, and welcome relief from the cold outside.

But brave the cold again I must, in order to visit St Lawrence’s, the 13th century church which stands near the local primary school.

This is another of those small churches where you’re conscious of walking on the tombs of those people lucky enough to be buried inside: the “stinking rich.”

I am alarmed to see part of an ancient stone stairwell near the sanctuary ending in space. It reminds me of Glastonbury’s shattered rib vaults curling into nothingness.

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