Saturday, 5 July 2014

A month in the country


It was a Summer just like this one when I helped H.I. restore the medieval Doom-Board at the church of St James the Great, Dauntsey, Wiltshire.

"What does this remind you of?" we would ask each other every now and then.

"A Month in the Country, but without the shell-shock", would be the answer, sometimes tinged with a wistful regret on my part that the vicar's wife was not so accommodating as the book's one.

When the architect first arrived for a site-visit to see how the work was progressing, he finished the business by slowly looking around the cool interior of the gloomy church and said, "This whole situation really reminds me of A Month in the Country".

The painted oak boards were hidden somewhere under the flag-stones of the old building to preserve them from destruction during the Reformation. Then they were forgotten about, after all the fuss had died down.

As in so many cases, it was this neglect that saved them, but - for some reason - several boards went missing, never to be found again. That's where H.I. came into it.

New boards of the right size were pit-sawn in the old way, then given to me to be gessoed and primed with red ochre and rabbit-skin size - also in the old way.

All of the original boards depicting sinners going to Hell and the righteous going to Heaven were put up above the rood-screen, and H.I. was brought in to apply colour to the new infills - in a deliberately non-figurative way, so that the new could be discerned from the old without resorting to the museum battleship-grey that was the norm before this job.

The old boards did not match the 'new' roof-line, so I painted that band of running cloud on the face of lime-mortar which fills the gap. That was my most obvious contribution, and I'm pleased it might out-live me.

This bold approach won the architect the John Betjeman prize for that year, and we are hoping that the boards will last as long again, assuming the black flag of ISIS does not fly over the Town Hall any time soon.

This really - and literally - was a dream job, and the time spent at the church was so unspeakably precious and contemplative, that I am amazed we were actually paid for it as well.

When it finished, we suffered a sort of withdrawal which was actually painful, but as Autumn turned into Winter, the feeling of loss slowly subsided.

I got a key made - about 8 inches long to fit through the massive oak door - so we didn't have to go through the rigmarole of collecting one from a warden every day, and I have not yet got around to giving it to the church, now that the job is done.

Somehow I can't bear to part with it. We feel a sort of ownership attached to the place, and this is the last memento of an unforgettable experience, though we haven't snuck back and used it.


15 comments:

  1. Thank you Tom for this wonderful article and your restoration work on the Doom Boards. I have spend an educational 1/2 hour reading about Dauntsey Village and the Church. British history is remarkable, so much has been lost and unappreciated. Drastic change is almost a regular part of our heritage, and England is living through another period of upheaval now. Unlike Lady Anne Danvers, my ancestors would have been sitting next to Oliver Twist in the workhouse.

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    1. The other thing I love about this church is that it was the family one of my hero, John Aubrey - another member of the Danvers family.

      Did you read about the priest who was done for murder and strung up in a cage in the churchyard to starve to death? They knew how to deal with naughty vicars in those days.

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  2. Beautiful work. The replaced panels seem as if they aged in place. I'd keep the key, too. Pass it along and in a few generations its history could be as lost as the missing panels. I have an image of curious young people trying it in church doors all over England.

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    1. There could be a treasure-hunt involved...

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  3. "a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased. And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent to A. W. with folliries and misinformations, which would sometimes guid him into the paths of errour" Woods' opinion of Aubrey after a falling out. What a life he led.

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    1. This is spot on. I have the complete works of Aubrey, including the illustrated antiquary ones.

      Aubrey must have been a very entertaining pain in the arse.

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  4. You both have enviable professions. Beautiful.

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    1. True, but sometimes I have to remind myself of that.

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  5. It looks like a collection of medieval cartoons to me. I have been trying to work out a month in the country all day and cant quite equate it with my life about here, very much in the country albeit I am aware I am considered slightly strange to some people. I haven't had to have a tooth pulled by a gang with a rope and hook recently either.

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  6. Magic moments like this Tom are what makes the world go round in such a pleasant way (as long as you don't listen to the News)

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    1. The news is right here, right now, but in those days, ISIS would have given you about 48 hours warning before disembarking.

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  7. What a marvelous thing. I am impressed that being confronted by the morbid obsession with torture and retribution depicted was completely overwhelmed by the peace and calm of working in the space and the historical beauty. When in England I found my colonial self quite taken aback by the gruesomeness of the past there. People are so strange that they talk of the good old days...

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    1. Hanging, drawing and quartering should be reinstated as far as I am concerned, Maryanne.

      It was no trouble at all to be surrounded by the gruesomeness whilst working on the Doom Board.

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