Friday, November 18, 2011

Like pearls on a thread

A couple of weeks ago I walked to church on a bright, sunny, Sunday morning, along a road with perhaps one of the most beautiful views in Britain. As I did so, I found myself thinking back over the different churches which have played such an important part in my life since childhood.

In one of my earliest posts I wrote about the way in which living among hills has been a constant thread in my life. Alongside that thread runs another, made up of a variety of usually old, often beautiful, and sometimes spectacularly-set buildings, which have found their way into my heart.

Tockholes URC chapel
The thread begins for me with a small, plain, Congregational chapel in the little village in which I spent most of my childhood. The building itself is not particularly old, but its past is historic. It stands on the site of one of the first Nonconformist chapels, founded in 1662 when the Act of Uniformity of that year led to the expulsion from the Church of England of over 2000 clergy, who refused to comply with the compulsory use of the Book of Common Prayer in public worship. My memories of childhood are inextricably linked with this austere little building and my mother’s parents are both buried in its churchyard.

St Michael's Church, Trefeglwys
The next pearl was added to the thread in Mid-Wales, where at the age of 30, after having moved completely away from church-going in my late teens, I was confirmed into the Anglican Church. The story of how I came to this life-changing decision is told here. The parish church I began to attend was a mid C19th rebuilding of a C12th original, and a little research among the local history collection in the library in which I worked turned up the fact that until the Reformation it had belonged to Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire. It is right in the centre of the village and one day, to complete the circle, I shall be buried in its large and lovely churchyard, where in the past, as its Vicar, I myself conducted many burials.

Saint Idloes Church, Llanidloes
Twelve years later came another pearl, when I was ordained deacon and became a part-time, unpaid curate at the parish church in our local market town of Llanidloes, while still carrying on with my work as a librarian. If I had to choose which of the many churches I have known and loved is the most important to me, it would have to be Saint Idloes. It was the church where my vocation to ministry was nurtured and found expression. It was also the church where I had the joy of conducting the marriage of DD and her husband. It stands almost on the banks of the River Severn and is both beautiful and historic, and I love every stone of it.

Saint Llonio's Church, Llandinam
After thirteen happy years here I travelled downstream to another lovely village, when I went into full-time ministry and was appointed Vicar of three small country parishes, including the one where I had been confirmed. DH and I moved into the Vicarage, from where we could look across at the spur of land on which the parish church stands, high above the Severn in its cradle of hills. I have worshipped in many churches, but this is the only one where I have had to stop halfway up the steep path to catch my breath, only to have it taken away again when I turned round to look at the view. My third church was a tiny, simple building in a small hamlet, where the old rectory was probably bigger than the church itself, but where the equally tiny congregation was loyal and enthusiastic.

Saint Gwrhai's Church, Penstrowed.
St Michael and All Angels, Fringford
My subsequent move to a group of parishes in Oxford Diocese brought a complete change of scenery and a new historic link, not with a monastery or a Celtic saint or two, but with a writer whose work recently found great popularity, when it was dramatised for TV. For three years DH and I lived in Fringford, immortalised as Candleford Green by the locally-born author Flora Thompson, whose memories of her childhood in late 19th century rural Oxfordshire were captured so beautifully in her trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford.

Since my retirement four years ago, we have been back in Mid-Wales, where I can again worship in the local churches which have played such an important role in my life. When in Scotland I worship at the parish church in Tongue, where the view from the church gate encompasses both mountains and water, or sometimes at the little church overlooking the sea at Melness, one of the most northerly, still-used, church buildings in mainland Britain. In France I often attend the local RC church in the village on the hill above our cottage, a church which, like many in the area, had to be rebuilt after being totally destroyed in World War Two.  History again, but of a very different kind. 

St Andrew's Church, Tongue

Melness Church
The church at Juvigny-le-Tertre

So many churches, so many pearls on the thread of my life.


  1. What a lovely post Perpetus - a veritable string of pearls. I caused me to recall the many and varied churches I've been part of over the years... more a random string of glass beads methinks, colourful and mismatched but somehow lovely in its way.

  2. How beautiful and inspirational a string of pearls your churches are, Perpetua! It's interesting to think how our lives are linked so closely to special places like the churches where we found comfort, peace and inspiration! A beautiful post!

  3. Dear Perpetua,
    This post sent my mind winging back to the church in which I made my first holy communion and was confirmed--St. Mary's in Independence, Missouri. It was built in the mid-1800s and has bullet holes in its outer walls from the Civil War of 1861-1865.

    That's the beginning of my own "pearls on a thread." I so like that image. Thank you for it.

    And thank you, too, for this pilgrimage to the churches that have been your pearls.


  4. Golly, that's quick, you three! I publish a post and go away to put the supper on and there you are. Thank you, all of you.:-)

    Catriona, I almost used the simile of a string of beads, but changed my mind, as I do think our churches, whatever they look like, are pearls rather than mere beads. I'm sure your string is as beautiful and significant as mine.

    Kathy, like you I think our lives are inextricably bound up with places as well as people, whether these places are wider locations or simply individual buildings. Place matters intensely and if we cannot feel that link with any place we are literally rootless.

    Dee, I'm glad my post brought back memories of one of your own pearls and I'm sure you have many others to share. Thank you for that glimpse into your own country's history with the mention of the Civil War bullet holes. (Incidentally, your name now links back properly to your own blog, which is great!)

  5. Hello Perpetua:
    What an absolutely charming post this is. Such delightful pearls and how tenderly you have written about them, conveying what is an obviously deeply felt reverence for them all, albeit in different ways.

    It is so interesting to think of people and places which have been significant milestones in our lives and from which we have gained direction and support.

  6. Thank you, Jane and Lance. I'm so glad you enjoyed my pearls. You're quite right - all these churches matter deeply to me and it has been good to share them with you. I simply cannot imagine what my life would have been without them.

  7. Such a loving introduction to places which mean so much to you.
    Pearls indeed.

  8. What a beautiful necklace you have formed from your wonderful churches.
    A truly lovely bit of writing, and the illustrations set it off perfectly.

  9. Thank you, Fly. I'm glad you saw the love, which is indeed very strong for all of them. Such wonderful buildings, but equally such wonderful people connected with them. I feel very blessed.

  10. Thank you, Ray. I surprised myself as I wrote this - it was a piece which came almost out of the blue, not at all what I had expected when I sat down to write it. I have been very fortunate in the parishes in which I have worked and worshipped.

  11. The pictures and descriptions you posted are beautiful. They are just what I imagine the small, country churches in England to look like. You inspire me to reflect on the many different churches...and my life. Thank you.

  12. Hello, Janet, and welcome. Yes, we are very fortunate to have so very many lovely country churches in Britain. Maintaining them is becoming increasingly hard, but as long as they matter to enough people as they matter to me, we shall keep them and treasure them.

  13. Pearls indeeds, Perpetua. When I saw the title of your post on my blog, I saw a spider web hanging with dew drops in my mind's eye. Far too obvious! I love this metaphor; stringing these beautiful places that mean so much to you onto the thread of your life - including the place you intend to lie forever! I was - as always - totally charmed by your writing and way of telling a story. Looking at these places, you have been very lucky! (Hmmm is it luck, I wonder?)
    Thank you!

  14. Like several of your commenters before me, I too thoroughly enjoyed your 'string of pearls', both the actual pictures & the 'picture in words' which accompanied them.

    Two small points. Firstly, a technical one - your link about your 'life changing decision' doesn't appear to work. Secondly, a factual one - Fringford is Candleford Green, not Candleford. Candleford is usually understood to be an amalgam of Buckingham and Banbury, whilst Candleford Green is Fringford where Flora/Laura moves to work in the post office at the beginning of the third part of the trilogy.

  15. Thank you, Annie. I love the image of the spider web with dewdrops too. Isn't it fun working with words and images and trying to find the ones that best express what you want to convey?

    Yes, I do think I've been lucky in that DH and I were able to make a definite choice always to live and work in country areas. Our choice of beautiful Mid-Wales was serendipitous, but we are country mice at heart and country life includes as a big bonus the beauty and significance of country churches.

  16. Thanks, Ricky, I'm glad you enjoyed it. We had 10 lovely churches in our care when we worked together, didn't we?

    Thanks too for letting me know about the broken link and my mistake about Candleford Green. Both have now been corrected.

  17. Oh, Perpetua, how I love your pearls -- such beautiful churches so beautifully and lovingly described. How surprised I was to learn of your connection to Tockholes as it is such a small place and we regularly go to visit very close friends who live there!

  18. Thanks, Broad, I'm glad you like them so much. None of them is particularly well-known except in its local area, but they are all worth cherishing.

    Gosh, it's small-world syndrome again, is it? Tockholes really is a very small place and I've hardly ever met anyone who's even heard of it, let alone visits it regularly. I lived there from the age of 6 to 18 and my parents were there until they died. That's a long time ago now and I haven't been back for many years.

  19. Lovely post. I have no faith as such, but I recognise how places can have particular significance in our lives and how churches are special. Today I want to Helpstone church in homage to John Clare; the other week i went to Soar Y Mynydd in pilgrimage to my love of the place.

  20. Thanks, Mark. Religious faith is by no means the only motive which forges our links to buildings and places. Your obvious love of nature is another very strong one, and even if you can't share the faith that built them, churches have great architectural and historical significance in the landscapes you love.
    PS Your last post has inspired me to reread John Clare.

  21. What a gem of a post. Like the others I feel the way you write about 'your' churches just adds a lovely glow.
    Having moved around an a fair bit during my life I can only agree at how important significant places as well as people are in our lives.

  22. Thank you, Niall and Antoinette. I'm so pleased to find that my love for, and appreciation of, these churches is striking a chord with my readers. I think most, if not all, of us have significant places in our lives and even mine are not all churches.

  23. Dear Perpetual,
    It's Dee, here again. I'm glad my name is linking back!
    I want to thank you for commenting on my Saturday posting about transcendence. As you recognized, it was truly what led me to the convent. I believe we all have these moments of Oneness and they speak to us in different ways.


  24. Ref: Bird sense. The book is due to be published in February and there is a website about it already.

    Tim Birkhead has written other books that are worth looking at too.

  25. Many thanks for coming across to tell me this, Mark. That's his next birthday present sorted. :-)

  26. This post of yours really set me thinking.. Our family church was St Helen's Church, Sefton (circa 1170).'s_Church,_Sefton
    My father was the organist there in the pre-electricity days (a hand-pumped organ) and all the major events in our family happened there. My sister was married there, as was my brother; my brother's children were christened there; my wife and I had our marriage blessed there and both my parents are at rest there.
    Living in SW France, my only regret is that I can't visit the church as I used to. It always had a wonderful sense of tranquillity and a visit there never fails to remind me of the continuity of the thread of life.

  27. Hello Piperade and thanks for visiting. I'm glad my post stirred so many memories for you. Churches do that, especially when so much of our family history is linked to them. To be organist in such a fine and historic building must have been a memorable experience for your father. I don't know St Helen's, but having read the Wikipedia article I must make a point of visiting it next time I'm in that area.

  28. What lovely churches to have as a golden thread running through your life. Britain is blessed to have so many lovely old church buildings.

  29. Yes, I feel very fortunate to have known them all, Anita. As you say, they are only a tiny number from the multitude of marvellous church buildings we have around us here.

  30. Coming late to this post after a period when I was not up to much reading and even less up to coherent comment, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed it. Reading about these precious places and how they fit into your life is very moving. Just a lovely post.

  31. Thank you, DB. I know you haven't been feeling well, so I appreciate your visit and comment very much. They are all lovely churches and I just wanted to share what they mean to me.

  32. I'm so glad you linked to this older post today, as I'd never read it. What beautiful places you've served. Now I'm off to follow another link of yours!

    1. I've been enormously fortunate in the places where I've lived and worshipped, so it was very satisfying to write about them here. I like it when others link to earlier posts, as it helps me to explore their blogs, so do a bit of such linking myself. :-)


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