With 350 UK buildings in their care, the Churches Conservation Trust is a national charity that saves historic churches at risk. All of these churches are handed over to the Trust by the Church of England, when they are no longer needed by the communities they used to serve. Although the primary role of the Trust is to keep these churches from falling into ruin, they also seek to find new uses for them, whether as community hubs, venues for arts events, or even private housing.
On a recent visit to north Lincolnshire, I discovered a group of 14 churches owned by the trust scattered over a relatively small geographical area. Although situated in the industrial north of England, Lincolnshire is really kin with East Anglia – a mostly flat landscape of wide-open spaces still dominated by an agricultural use that stretches back centuries to the medieval period when sheep farming and the wool trade brought enormous wealth to the area. And in the medieval period, riches almost always found their way into churches, which were statements of the pride and power of local landowners. Just as in Norfolk and Suffolk, most of Lincolnshire’s churches have ostentatious towers, creating a network of religious landmarks that still punctuate the otherwise monotonous landscape. Even as sheep have mostly been replaced by crops today and the farming population has thinned out, the churches remain – testaments to the fragility of wealth and the ravages of time.
Nowhere is this more evident than at All Saints in Saltfleetby. Its 12th-century tower leans alarmingly westwards, a result of centuries of slow subsidence; its crooked interior is dominated by time-stained timber and stone. Rows of chairs and a portable organ flanked by candles suggest the presence of worshippers – like all the churches owned by the Trust, All Saints is still consecrated and used for occasional services; but the air of stillness, the musty smell and the chill of the outside pervading the interior all magnify a sense of absence. A very similar scene awaits the visitor at St Peter’s church nearby in South Somercotes – the same chairs, peculiar organ and weathered wood. Here, Victorian angels carved into the wooden ceiling of the choir silently blow two horns – as powerful a symbol of absent presence as one might imagine.
More time-ravaged still is St Boltoph’s church in Skidbrooke. Encircled by a small coppice, the church can only be visited on foot across arable fields, and the building has a powerful air of isolation. Only when one is up close do you realise that the church has no windows or doors; completely open to the elements, it has been swept clean of all its human accruements. Only a cavernous sun-dappled space remains, held together by greening stone pillars sporting carvings blunted by the elements. One imagines this place as a home for countless animals, but the tiled floor is clean, presumably the kind of conservation deemed appropriate for such a stark place.
At least this church can never be locked – as I discovered to be the case with several of the other Lincolnshire buildings owned by the Trust. After a frustrating morning call on St Martin’s in Waithe, I returned in the afternoon to search for the owner of the key (conveniently, she lived in the house next door). Church keys are invariably impressive objects – large in size and heavy in hand; and on turning the key and opening the door, I discovered a wholly unexpected interior. Medieval and Saxon outside; it was almost entirely Victorian within. And Victorian with bells on: a riot of colour in the restored chancel, with its covering of decorative tiles made by Minton & Co in Staffordshire. Here, two eras – the medieval and the Victorian – vied for dominance; yet they did so in a kind of frozen present, as if history had ended when the church was restored in 1861.
In some of these churches, the present has intruded in the form of art. As part of the Trust’s outreach work, they commissioned the arts practice Glassball to create a series of works that linked the 14 Trust-owned churches in Lincolnshire. Described by Glassball as adding a ‘new digital layer to the existing historical and social information for each of these churches’, the works consist variously of still images, digital codes, short films, soundscapes and art works that respond to each church’s unique location, history and human qualities. In the Victorian interior of St Martin’s I found one of these artworks – a stained-glass panel incorporating a poem that imagined a future when the trees around the church ‘will take it back’. A plaintive reminder of the inescapable advance of nature on human artefacts – of what crowds back in once we depart. What all of these churches, each in their own distinct ways, demonstrate is the complexity of time itself, of the ways in which time past, time present and time future are always intertwined.