And so ignorant myopia of my teenage self is corrected – the elements of Hexham Abbey which were of no interest to me then but which entranced me on my recent visit to the church. I wasn’t alone either, for on my arrival one of the women running the gift shop asked if I was there to meet the photography group, and no sooner had I entered that I came upon a group wielding what seemed to be the largest number of tripods I’d ever encountered in one place! Led by a local professional they soon disappeared, presumably to scout the exterior, giving me the freedom to explore and frame my shots without external influence.
My recent visit to Manchester Cathedral converted me to the art of the carpenter, and it was the wooden elements in Hexham that really captivated me (and later the other photographers). Like Manchester the choir is separated from the nave by a wooden screen which I assumed to be a rood screen but apparently is some different; a pulpitum, which not only kept the canons apart from the hoi-polloi but proved a barrier against draughts too! So many English churches, that were colourfully decorated in medieval times fell victim to the Reformation or to the later Victorian restoration movement. Hexham gives some hint of what might have been, though the artwork was restored in the 20th century, and the structure has seen a number of alterations in its lifetime such as the removal of the wooden staircases used by readers and preachers, now replaced by the metal spiral.
Elsewhere there are other wooden treats; an older screen featuring pained panels depicting the “Dance of Death”, a towering font cover, even the doors that greet your arrival. It’s not all wood that impresses of course, but Hexham seems to be a real treasury of the material.
Acca Cross – Fragment from tomb of 8th century bishop
Older than all of these are the triptych of panels in the tiny wooden chapel known as the Ogle Chantry, erected to pray for the soul of Northumbrian nobleman Sir Robert Ogle in the early 1400’s.
For the photographers present that day (what is the collective noun for us?) there seemed to be one feature that proved more attractive than any other. The panelled pulpit.
Of the two churches I visited in Manchester, it seemed right to begin with St Ann’s as archaeological evidence suggests that the first church to be built in Manchester was erected near that site though it was destroyed by vikings in the 10th Century.
That said my second church can also point to Anglo-Saxon origins as a carved stone from that period is embedded into the present building’s fabric. I refer to the Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George, or as it is now known, Manchester Cathedral. The present structure began as a parish church in the early 13th century, but in 1421 Baron Thomas de la Warre was granted permission by his king and the pope to establish a collegiate church here, and so began a remodelling into the current building. The use of the same red sandstone as St Ann’s produced the same issues of erosion and with wartime bomb damage contributing to the need for restoration, the building has a more youthful look and might be mistaken for a Victorian gothic revival. It is Grade I listed.
On this occasion then I’ll turn my back on the stonework, but not on the architecture for the most impressive structural details are in wood.
The roof beams are perhaps the first to catch your eye on entering the building, or perhaps the paired cherubs of the font cover, but these are soon forgotten when you reach the chancel area and see the choir stalls. Is exquisite too strong and adjective? Centuries of wear from cleric and choristers passing hands over the carvings have softened some of the lines, but once out of reach of human contact the structures are detailed and intricate and look as sharp as when they were installed installed in the Tudor period.
A recent exchange on British quiz show Pointless had two suggestions for the meaning of the word misericord, the first was that it was an organ-like musical instrument, the second that it was a medieval knife. Neither was fully correct, though there was dagger called a misericorde. The correct answer is that it is a protrusion on the underside of a folding seat which gives support to someone standing, for example through a lengthy set of prayers. The term means giver of mercy – hence the dagger. The thirty examples in Manchester are considered to be amongst the best in Europe, though several weren’t visible on the day as many seats were folded down so I didn’t see the example which apparently shows the earliest example of backgammon being played in the UK.
Something else that was hidden on this occasion was the choir screen for a new organ is being installed, meaning that the perpendicular gothic lines were overlaid with vertical scaffolding that camouflaged and obscured them.
Luckily I’d found myself with a moment or two to spare earlier this year when en route to catch a train at Manchester Victoria. I hadn’t had time to fully explore, but I did have enough to see this…