The current Church of the St Nicholas, at Sydling St Nicholas, dates largely to the fifteenth century, with the tall tower being the oldest part of the building. However, it stands on the site of at least two earlier churches that go back to the earliest days of Christianity in the country.
We had been unable to get inside the church when we had come down to reconnoitre for the workshop weekend as it was in use, so this would be an adventure for all of us… we had no idea what we might find.
There are a good many unusual features. For a start, the church is covered in gargoyles, all of whom are up for adoption in an effort to raise funds to preserve the building. Gargoyles were working sculptures, designed to carry water away from the foundations of the building when it rained, while grotesques served either as decorations only or as a symbolic spiritual message… although there are many that seem to be a covert commentary by the mason, making a point about local notables.
Above the porch, an ascetic saint holds his finger skywards in blessing or warning. Most of these niches are now empty, but most parish churches would have had a similar statue before the Reformation. There is an old fireplace in the porch, where, one assumes, the parishioners could warm themselves in winter. I doubt if Cromwell’s Puritans would have approved of that either.
They certainly did not approve of the stained-glass, and little of the early glass survived their stones and muskets… just a few intriguing fragments placed in a frame and hung above the font at the base of the tower.
The font is a really curious affair, most unusual. It appears to have been made from a Roman column and set upon a later pedestal. Beside it, leaning forlornly against the wall, is another old basin, large enough to be a font.
High above the nave is a collection of painted roof bosses. Most of them are simple floral designs, but a few of them seem to have more to say…
The protruding tongue of one of the bosses is echoed in another fragment of old masonry, now ensconced in the squint. Traces of the old pigment remain and you get a glimpse of how magnificent, colourful and possibly garish these churches once were, when they were painted throughout. They must have been startling indeed to the common folk for whom dyes, tapestries and colour were largely out of reach.
They were reserved for the wealthier families, like the Smiths who once lived at Sydling Court. Rumour has it that there is, or was, a tunnel from the crypt of the church to the Court too, and not for the first time, I wish we could access some of the lesser frequented areas of these old churches.
There are several memorials to the Smith family, including one to Mary Smith, a mother of twelve who lost eight of her children in infancy. She died aged eighty-one in 1797, ‘full of years and good works’.
The two most intriguing features of the church for us, though, were in the east and west. In the east, on the altar, is a carving which we assume must be Christ with outstretched arms as it sits in the place of the Cross. I wasn’t the only one to think this figure looked rather like an alien from a sci-fi movie…
In the west is the tower where we gathered for our meditation. We had assigned the planet Jupiter and the colour orange to this spot, along with our seed thought. As we finished our meditation, the sun came through a small fragment of stained-glass and it appeared that we had made the right choice…
The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.
After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.
If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.