OF THINGS UNSEEN
On the first morning in May, I walk to the early call of birds over wet pavements pink with blossom blown in the night’s storm, which had landed, now waterlogged on the ground.
The first bells sound as I enter the church gates and ascend the winding path to the ringing tower. The damp morning’s misty vapour dots my hair and cheeks and gleaming plants line my path, green and vital in electric grey light. At the foot of the tower I pass under pointed stone archways and into woodland, turning back to view the belfry. Through a small blue stained glass window where light shines through from the opposite side, I watch the blurred flicker of pulled bell ropes on their vertical passage up and down the tower. Standing amongst the trees, the chirruping birds and hum of traffic sound dimly against the resounding peal of bells. As a hovering mist rests upon everything, the chiming of the bells seems all around.
Returning to the cloister at the foot of the tower, I sit on a stone step beneath a striped ceiling laid with floral grotesques around a central octagon. Its opposite side forms the floor to the ringing room, where a configuration of eight ringers stand at the end of eight ropes; together, apart.
Looking out, stone archways frame three perspectives on the town. To the left lies the wooded hillside graveyard. This opening beckons the enduring presence of the resting congregation, tucked away behind knowing trees bearing fresh young leaves. An invisible thread seems to pass under this space to connect it with the town centre viewed through the opposite archway. Outlines of housing and shared buildings are drawn in the shapes of different eras, each containing the present. A few do not, and these disused spaces contemplate being gone unless the present is carefully put back into them. Ahead is a visible layering of routes – the footpath, roadways, canal and railway all run in parallel, leading in and out of the town. This sheltered space offers a point of intersection; the convergence of influences that seem to pass above and through it. In the stillness, the eternal ochre surfaces seem imbued with memory, of witnessed everyday exchanges, the passing of people and time and the intangible.
Within the stonework a padlocked door slimly nestles, behind which stairs spiral upwards to a succession of stacked chambers, linked by ropes and ladders. Between these spaces runs an intricate circuit for ringing the bells. These can be struck according to hammers, rods and levers working from the original clock mechanism or rung by an arranged gathering of voluntary ringers. I listen as methodical changes sound out in unique variations of eight. Occasionally, one or two bells become dominant in the pattern through their proximity to one another, creating a brief, anomalous line of harmony.
Days ago I climbed the enclosed space above me, over rickety ladder rungs and passing through small wooden openings in floors. Climbing over an ancient oak frame, I moved between the bells, clutching vast wooden wheels that swung as I walked between them and continued to rock into stillness as I let go.
On the first morning in May, 1869, these bells sounded their first peal. A variant of this original gesture is being played over me as I write, leaking through the same small stone apertures in the bell chamber walls. Stepping out of the cloister, I walk up into the graveyard where the ringing resounds most strongly.
As I enter this lofty resting place, set amongst knowing beech and holly trees, I pass graves of the original congregation arranged in ascending rows. Around these, the scattered spread of self-seeded saplings mingles with luminous clusters of bluebells and forget-me-nots. Climbing wooden steps set into the earth, I reach a young orchard, recently planted. As the ringing swells under this leafy canopy, it seems to act as a call to the parted congregation upon whose ears the original sound may have settled. A wrought iron railing marks out the boundary edge. It is cut off, incomplete, linking this transcendental space with the open fields beyond it. As the bells fall silent, I gaze out at ethereal misty open fields, behind which the valley sinks, and up to where the hills meet the sky.
FROM THESE WOODEN PLACES
From a point in the town that leads out on the old road you can look up to the sky and hills or downwards towards the centre. Before Christmas we stood in lofty woodland on greasy ancient cobbles listening to the sound of a brass band playing carols in the town below us, the sincere swell of sound lilting in and out of the air on our path through sodden earth and cocooning brambles. We followed the sound – the same we had heard standing in a queue the day before, as brass song filled the pale green and white rafters of the market hall, touching everyone in it, the band nestled into the balcony above. We could not locate where it was coming from but it led us down from our vantage point and onto the pavements below, blackened brick and shop fronts static and ageless, an outdoor market bustling in seasonal anticipation and people buying tea and chat from the green stand as the bright carriages of an intercity train passed by overhead.
Visible from so many points around the town, the dark studded spire of the Unitarian rises up out of branches, dusted with iridescent lichen, forming an instantly recognisable part of the skyline, although the church itself remains tucked away, quietly perched on a modest hillside.
I first visited the church in September. The ascent up the curving path, past imposing dark walls bearing benign, watchful grotesques, and perspective-altering bell tower cutting a bold shape in the sky, brings me to a heavy wooden door and a threshold that has been crossed by many. Inside, at the foot of dark oak pews, on parted trestles beneath magnificent Devonshire marble pillars, lies an outstretched bounty of fruit and vegetables. It is days before harvest. The space is staggeringly beautiful and intact, curiously ornate for a Unitarian church and yet my eye is drawn to the insignificant things. Small in scale, mundane in their nature, these are the traces of people who occupy the space, items that betray the actions of its inhabitants or of congregations past and imbuing it with a sense of place.
This morning I am back and it is February and bright. Steam rises up from a warming urn, clouding a window set with yellow glass circles, whose sill bears a jaunty collection of obscure tea cosies crafted mostly around a vegetable theme. An adjacent rail of mismatched cups and jugs spanning many decades await deployment, their steadily altering configuration alluding to the comings and goings within this re-appropriated space. A faded printed tea towel lies over the arm of a pew, where a garden hoe sits bolt upright as if the last remaining member of a long since parted congregation. The chirruping of communal industry sounds around me as those now occupying the space prepare a monthly lunch for the gardeners out working the town’s vegetable beds. Beneath the lofty ark-like roof and the rising fug from simmering pans, cutlery and condiments are laid across a checked cheesecloth. The hubbub of conversation fluctuates as a free-standing old school blackboard is chalked with agenda items, quietly watched on by an impassive ancient stone face carved into the brickwork, newly adorned with a wreath of ivy.
This space houses many features, alterations and objects which are at odds with its original design,or which seem out of place, and yet which now lend its sense of authenticity. The faint narrative of the empty rafters, pillars and stained glass is over-written in china, cloth and other everyday materials.
I consider belonging and not belonging, the individual within a structure, the body and its parts. At the foot of each pew, to the left, lies a row of small holes. Large enough in diameter to stick your finger into, their purpose is not immediately obvious. One hole contained a button that fit all the others, carved in solid oak. It could be taken out and replaced, and moved between the spaces.
A black-bound miniature pamphlet, issued on the occasion of the opening of the church – Wednesday, April 7th, 1869 describes a displaced congregation, “filled with a mixture of regret and rejoicing”, migrating on foot, from old to new, finding a home in a new space.
“The bells began to ring a little before 12 o’clock, and rung merry peals until 2 o’clock. A large number of strangers arrived in the town anxious to take part in the auspicious event, and the townspeople came out in holiday attire – some to make use of their tickets of admission to the opening service, others to watch what was to be seen from outside. The scholars and teachers of the Sunday school assembled in the old chapel at one o’clock, and marched in procession to the new church…”
Today I am walking home and it is February. Spring beckons, although it is still bitingly cold. It is a Monday lunchtime and half-day closing. I walk back through the market, faded damask and bright brocade curtains pulled closely around market stalls as though cloaking the sleeping and aged beloved. I walk past a series of once grand, now derelict buildings, back through Patmos Gardens, built on the site of the old non-conformist Chapel. In times of flooding, this site became an island – a place of refuge, perhaps. It has a duality about it – the stillness it offers – a momentary pause, and its underlying sense of flux – a quiet detour in and out of town on which two nineteenth century chapels were built and demolished, the flood waters drawing in and receding. Here, the weekly metamorphosis of densely planted flowerbeds seems to measure passing time. On this February morning, spring bulbs cover ancient graves and an orange lighter rests on the arm of a wooden bench. It embodies the continuous cycle of those who have occupied its silvered beams, in the place where pews stood before. It seems that there is a sense of authenticity here, which lies in the co-existence of the old and new – narratives partly told through physical traces. On pathways and benches, in churches and chapels, market stalls and alleyways, there remain timeless spaces and sites bearing spectres of previous inhabitants, the passage of those living their lives around these humble places.