Thursday, 6 September 2007

St John the Baptist, Brighton

Blackpool is “noted for fresh air and fun”, Skegness is “So bracing”, Brighton… well, in the words of Keith Waterhouse: “Brighton looks like a town that is helping the police with their enquiries."

It has had a reputation as a place of sensual pleasures ever since the Prince Regent had John Nash build him a pleasure dome here in 1815. It became synonymous with the dirty weekend, a town where News of the World reporters made their excuses and left, and where those who wanted a divorce would arrange to be caught in flagrante.

In the Royal Pavilion, one big gold-leaf and blood-red boudoir of a place, I pick up brochures that offer tours of the town built around the racy lives of its most colourful inhabitants: from decadent fin-de-siecle Aubrey Beardsley to cheeky chappie Max Miller via Maria Fitzherbert, the secret wife of a king.

And yet the only shocking thing about Mrs Fitzherbert’s story – in Brighton terms – is that she refused to become mistress to the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and George IV, insisting instead on marriage. Their 1785 wedding had to be secret because it was illegal. It violated the Bill of Rights, whereby anyone marrying a Catholic was excluded from the succession, and the Royal Marriage Act, under which any descendant of George II was forbidden to marry under the age of 25 without the monarch's permission.

But while the British Constitution would not accept the marriage, Pope Pius VII declared that Maria and George were married in the eyes of God. George went on to marry Caroline of Brunswick, who became his queen, but never divorced Maria.

Mrs Fitzherbert is well remembered in Brighton, and nowhere better than in St John the Baptist, the city’s mother church in Bristol Road, which she helped endow and where she is buried.

My train has made me late for Mass and I sprint there, past the pavilion and, a couple of doors away, 55 Old Steine where Mrs Fitzgerald lived and where she and the prince would sit on the balcony, acknowledging the passers by. It is now a YMCA homeless hostel.

I must hurry the half mile up hot, dusty St James Street toward the church. Brighton it just stirring; the crocodiles of French schoolchildren vying for space with the crusty cider drinkers with dogs on strings. The freshly moisturised gay couples are preening in pavement cafes, lattes reflected in dark glasses, and the bars are being slooshed out ready for another day’s drinking.

I slip into the cool dark church with a minute to spare. It takes my eyes a while to adjust but when they do I find a church of baroque opulence, the painted reredos gleaming with gold and large canvases of the life of St John on the walls.

I discover I have chosen a pew beneath the white marble memorial to Maria Fitzherbert. In it she kneels before a Bible open at Acts XX 35: “It is a more blessed thing to give than to receive.” On her finger are three gold wedding rings to denote her three legitimate marriages – she was widowed twice. Beneath is a tribute, placed there by the daughter that she and the Prince adopted - Mary Seymour, known as Minnie. It reads in part: “One to whom she was more than a parent has placed this monument to her revered and beloved memory.”

Rejected by the establishment, Brighton adopted her. The woman who attended her sea bathing – taking to the waters brought Brighton its early fame – called her Mrs Prince. She was the unofficial Catholic Queen of Brighton.

Before the town had a church of its own, she had a priest say Mass at her house, and invited local Catholics.

Two years before her death in 1837 this elegant church was built, only the fourth in England since the Reformation, to replace a more modest one in High Street.

As I go up for Communion I step over the plaque to Maria in the central aisle, above the vault where she is buried. It is a plain lozenge of stone that reads simply :
“Maria Fitzherbert

After Mass I speak to the parish priest, Fr David Foley. It is clear Mrs Fitzherbert is held in great affection in the parish and the church. “We have one or two of her things in a safe,” he says, “a brooch, a soup tureen, cutlery: a few little items.”

The parish priest in her day, Fr Cullen, said of her: “She felt for the necessities of all and amply contributed to their relief. The sick, the helpless, the young, the aged experienced her benefactions, but what she favoured most was our little Charity School.”

This is a thriving Catholic community. To one side the Sisters of Mercy run a home for the elderly, on the other is the Fitzherbert Centre in a building that once housed the school but is now a day centre for Brighton’s homeless and lonely. Each day of the year the Society of St Vincent De Paul organises a soup run with 60 ecumenical volunteers.

There have always been a lot of poor in the parish, says Fr Foley. “A census in the 19th century found 30 people living in a small house. This was always a mixed parish, from Mrs Fitzherbert down to beggars and vagrants, then the rich built another church, St Mary Magdalen, to get away from them!

“Today we have a lot of immigrants, we have a welcome sign in the 40 languages that are spoken in the parish. If you get the 37 bus through Kemp Town and the Bristol Estate you won’t hear a word of English spoken. There are many east Europeans; Africans, Brazilians, Argentinean, Filipinos.

“I’m getting old but the Filipinos have been wonderful for my social life. They love parties and invite me to them. They make me feel young again.

“We get a few holiday makers, not many. I was in Eastbourne before and there visitors would increase the congregation by 200 per cent. When I came here 14 years ago it was the same, but not any more. People now come mostly for day trips, and those who come for the weekend don’t come to go to church!”

Fr Foley has spent half his tenure as a priest inland, half at the seaside. “I am originally from West Cork and I like to be beside the sea. It is always changing, the sun on the sea, the cloud formations: never two days the same. I missed that inland.”

I say goodbye to Fr Foley and take a walk around the block, and pass the homes of a cross-section of Brighton’s distinguished former residents. In my circuit down to the seafront and back I find the homes of Sir Terence Rattigan, Lord Olivier and Max Miller.

I pause to peer down from Marine Parade to the seafront and Brighton’s dull strip of shingle, a miniature tourist train and a few fishermen’s huts. In the middle distance is the pier, its once rather grand wooden pavilions replaced with a fun fair. Somehow the seafront seems like a very minor side show to the real charm of Brighton - its mix of the shabby and genteel, the edgy and the established.

Two doors along is the egg yolk and mulberry painted Hand in Hand brew pub with the sign above the door: “You are Entering the Free State of Kemp Town.”

Sitting in the Free State with a pint of Kemp Town Bitter I ponder something Fr Foley told me about two pages cut from the baptismal records. “Why are they missing,” he had asked. “Did Mrs Fitzherbert and George have children? There are tales that they did and that they were sent away, but it’s all stories.”

I look it up in the booklet he has given me, Three Wedding Rings for Mrs Fitzherbert of Brighton, by Robert Bogan. It confirms that the pages covering entries for 1800 were neatly sliced away, and recounts the rumours that a second adopted daughter, Marianne, was actually the child of Mrs Fitzherbert and George IV, and that there may have been a son as well.

Even if true, it’s hardly something to scandalise Brighton, whatever impact it might have had on the monarchy. “Woman has husband’s child” would never have set a Brighton pulse racing.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

St Mary's, Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk

Norfolk has never quite forgiven Noel Coward for his jibe about the county: “Very flat, Norfolk.” Locals will insist it’s simply not true. Now, if he had said “Very round, Norfolk church towers” they would have had no argument with him.

Norfolk is a treasure house of churches, and the round church tower - so rare as to be almost non-existent outside East Anglia - is a particular local feature. Of 175 surviving examples, 124 are in Norfolk, 38 in Suffolk, six in Essex, three in Sussex and two each in Cambridgeshire and Berkshire.

Round towers, with their heavy flint construction, often with battlements and tiny windows placed high out of reach, make the churches they adorn feel like places of physical as well as spiritual sanctuary.

The Reverend Lawrence Campbell has two round towers among the six Church of England parish churches he is rector of on an idyllic 15-mile stretch of ash-blonde sandbanks and moss-green salt marsh between Old Hunstanton and Burnham Deepdale.

St Mary’s at Titchwell has a tower topped with a charming spirelet pointing elegantly heavenwards from a churchyard that grows daisies and mole hills. Inside, children from the local Brancaster C of E Primary School have left a scrapbook of their researches into the church’s history.

At Burnham Deepdale the tower is one of a trio of treasures. The second is a Norman font carved with representations of the farmer’s year – including weeding in June, threshing in September and feasting in December. The third is a rich and varied collection of medieval glass. While the Victorians were throwing it out, the then vicar here was collecting it, grouping fragments as best he could. The window in the round tower shows Mary Magdalene holding a scroll and above her an angel pulling the chains of a censur. In the porch is a delightful medieval face of the moon; the sun that would have been its counterpoint substituted by the face of a cherub.

The many memorial plaques, and the plants for sale in the porch, are testament to the fact that this is a church well-loved and tended by its parishioners. Such love is evident in all of Mr Campbell’s churches, nowhere more so than at St Mary the Virgin in Old Hunstanton; a great, soaring lead-roofed ark of a place across the duck pond from the rectory. Hand-embroidered kneelers dot the pews with bright patches of colour, and there is one for the rector, in shades of green, boldly embroidered “VICAR”.

All six of his churches are wonderful, historic, and, says Mr Campbell: “extremely expensive to maintain. There is a constant fund-raising effort.”

Along with Old Hunstanton, Titchwell and Burnham Deepdale the rector serves Holme-next-the-Sea, Thornham and Brancaster.

Six parishes is a challenge. “I have to spread myself more thinly than I’d like. There are things I can’t do; for instance support the many local charities, but we have a service in each of the six churches each Sunday, and keep them open. I have a retired priest who helps, plus local teams who can take morning prayers and deliver a homily.”

All the churches’ congregations are swelled by summer visitors, who come for the sailing, the bird watching and the general beauty, peace and quiet. A lot of people have second homes that they either visit themselves or rent out. There is a newsletter that goes out to all in the parish including camp sites, hotels and holiday homes where visitors will find them.

The round towers bring visitors too. But why are there round towers? There are a number of theories, some more plausible than others
The most fanciful, prevalent 150 years ago, was that they were actually the shafts of wells. A great flood washed away the soil and left the shafts standing proud, to which enterprising locals added churches.
Others have believed that the towers echo the circles of ancient pagan cults. Heathen temples were round, so was Stonehenge, hence the tower was the circle and the ceremonies took place outside it.
Some have been convinced that the round towers were used as defence or watch towers during the time of the Viking raids.
One of the more mundane, but plausible, explanations is that there was no dressed stone available in East Anglia and it was much easier to build thick round walls of flint and undressed stone, avoiding corners that would be hard to construct with such materials.
But it was not until a chap called Bill Goode undertook an exhaustive 20 year study of the churches in the final quarter of the last century that they began to give up their secrets, and were properly dated. They had long been thought of as Norman, but Mr Goode concluded they were built by the Saxons; not for defence but added to existing churches as bell towers.
And why were they built? Many, perhaps, because King Athelstan, first king of all England, decreed in 937 that a bell tower be built “on the land of every thegn [a man granted land by the king]”. Whether for religious or defence considerations is unclear, but Bill Goode dates some 97 of East Anglia's round towers to around this time.

So enamoured of the round tower churches was Bill that he wrote a book about them and, when no publisher would touch the project, used his savings to print 500 copies. They sold out and he used the funds to support the Round Tower Churches Society, of which Prince Charles is now patron.

I ask which of the theories is the rector’s favourite. “I like the idea that they were easy to build because they were round, with no corners to cut stone for, but that you could only do a few courses each year because you had to wait for the mortar to dry, so they took a long time to construct.”

Originally from the northern Irish seaside town of Portstewart in County Londonderry, Mr Campbell served as a Navy chaplain for 16 years, and has been here since 1983. He liked the idea of raising his two children in the peace of the Norfolk seaside, away from then-troubled Londonderry, and of ministering to a place where the congregation would be swelled rather than depleted each summer.

If there is a problem to contend with in the parishes it is the cost of housing in this idyllic spot, fuelled partly by the demand for second homes, which prices locals out.

One initiative -- the church is not formally part of it but the committee members are all parishioners -- was to create Deepdale and Brancaster Housing Society. “It started out helping the elderly, “says the rector. “If you worked on a farm the cottage was tied to the job, so once you retired you needed a home, but it has since expanded to build affordable housing for local families.”

Mr Campbell clearly has great affection for his parishioners. “The people here are proud and independent. In Deepdale they were traditionally farmers, in Brancaster fishermen. The two are quite distinct, and there was some rivalry between them, but we hold a Sea Service each July or August with appropriate readings and hymns that is popular with everyone.”

So far on my visit I have been neglecting the sea but, with the churches explored, I turn to the coastal footpath that links the parishes. Their shores are as distinct as their churches and traditions. Close to Burnham Deepdale I find Brancaster Staithe, a natural harbour filled with yachts, their tenders and a couple of fishing boats. The lawns of the village houses run right to the water’s edge, and the coast feels more like the Broads than the shoreline as I look out to where I know the open sea must be over the salt marsh.

A few miles on, I cross reedy dunes that feel like a dried-out seabed and reach the sandy outcrop at Brancaster Beach. Here I get the strange illusion that the land is actually lower than the sea: I seem to be looking up at the breakers rolling in over the perfect sand. But, looking back to land, I recover my perspective, helped by glimpses of the string of church towers like God’s bright beacons strung along the Norfolk shore.