Tag Archives: England

The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-9

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One of the great treasures of London’s National Gallery is the Wilton Diptych.  The piece, made up of two oak panels hinged together, bearing images on both sides, represents the presentation of Richard II of England to the Virgin and Child.  This form, the diptych, was designed to be close, so as to allow portability.  The diptych would thus be carried with Richard on his travels, providing a movable focus for his prayer and personal devotion.  Though it is debatable whether the work was created by English or French artists, it stands as a stunning example of the International Gothic style, characterised by the depiction of the figures and drapery, as well as the treatment of the backgrounds.

The diptych is an undeniably beautiful piece, and couldn’t fail to catch the eye, but it becomes even more intriguing when viewed in the context of the life of its patron.  Shakespeare’s presentation of Richard II has unsurprisingly become the one that has shaped modern characterisations of him.  Though it is not without its inaccuracies, it does a good job of capturing Richard’s firm belief in the royal prerogative, and the literally divine right of kings.  The Wilton Diptych ties into this idea, depicting Richard being presented to the Virgin and Child by two earlier English kings who were recognised as saints, alongside his own patron saint, John the Baptist.  The left most saint is Edmund the Martyr, king of East Anglia from about 855 until his martyrdom in 869.  Having been defeated by the Viking, Edmund refused to renounce his Christian faith, for which he was executed by the still-pagan Vikings.  His story bears some unsettling similarities to Richard’s own eventual fate.  The middle saint is Edward the Confessor, king of the English from 1042 until his death in 1066.  His epithet summarises the view of him as pious and unworldly.  Opinion is divided as to whether he did much to earn this reputation during his lifetime, but a cult did develop around him after his death, resulting in his canonisation (probably for political reasons) by Pope Alexander III in 1161.  As king-saint, Edward the Confessor served as a model to which Richard II aspired.  Richard made his own coat of arms by impaling the arms of the kings of England with the mythical arms of Edward the Confessor (heraldry as such did not exist in that period).  These arms can be seen on the back of the Wilton Diptych.  So the diptych itself offers strong evidence for Richard’s personal identification with Edward the Confessor.

The diptych also points towards Richard’s general conviction in his divine right to rule.  Alongside his coat of arms, the back of the diptych also depicts a white hart wearing a golden collar and chain, Richard’s personal badge.  In its position on the back, it serves to denote Richard’s ownership of the diptych.  On the inside however it serves a more pointed purpose.  Richard wears a literal badge depicting it, as do all the assembled angels.  This is a very simple way of showing that Richard enjoys divine favour.  He is being presented to them by a selection of worthy and appropriate saints, but the Virgin, Child, and the Holy Court already know about and favour him.

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The reversed Diptych – what one would see when the Diptych was closed

While it is by no means uncommon for a patron to be presented to the Virgin and Child in this way, such blatant side-taking is perhaps a little more unusual.  But this was a particularly key period in Richard’s reign.  Created at some point in the last four years of his reign, the Wilton Diptych dates from a period when Richard became increasingly autocratic, acting on personal dislikes, and seemingly taking revenge on aristocrats who had rebelled against him in earlier years of instability. He sought and increased control over the aristocracy, and cultivated a culture of close personal rule, which has by some been called a tyranny.  Breakdowns in relations with the French after the rise of Louis, Duke or Orleans, left the way open for the return of the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, who brought a considerable force to bear against Richard, supposedly with the sole aim of regaining his patrimony, but clearly becoming a rallying point for those dissatisfied with Richard’s autocratic rule.  He eventually gained a surrender from Richard, who was later imprisoned, where he died in dubious circumstances, the most popular theory being that he starved to death in early 1400.

It is hard not to view the Wilton Diptych in the context of what we know about the rest of Richard’s life.  From one perspective, it reinforces the idea of a pious king wrongfully deposed.  However it can equally be related to a king convinced of his own divine right to rule and desirous of a majestic and lavish court dedicated to serving him.  It was in Richard’s reign that the word ‘majesty’ began to be used as a royal epithet, with ‘highness’ being replaced with ‘royal majesty’ or ‘high majesty’ (terms which are still used when referring to the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II).  The diptych is equally lavish, making wide use of the most expensive pigments, gold and lapis lazuli, to create a vivid image.  But the expense of these materials is matched by the skill of the artists to create an even more impressive piece.  The figures are elongated in their proportions, suiting the latest continental trends, and carefully detailed naturalistic elements such as the flowers are used to create an appealing image.  The floral elements five the impression of the heavenly setting in which the Virgin and Child stand, as well as recalling the aesthetic of the most popular and impressive art form of the time, the tapestry.

The diptych gives some insight into the thoughts of a man increasingly obsessed with his own power, and yet perhaps feeling the need to reassure himself of its divine origin.  As he knelt before his diptych on his increasingly desperate travels, it must have served as some comfort to see the most Holy Virgin and Child literally welcoming him with open arms, and showing that, whatever his aristocrats might think, they most certainly were on side his.  Even it is was only in an image of his own making.

The National Gallery’s entry on the painting can be found here.

 

All images sourced from Wikicommons.

St Dubricius Church, Porlock

20160323_165541My family have been holidaying on the coast of Exmoor every year for nearly a decade now, and we still find new and fascinating things to see and places to visit.  One such site is this marvelous church, St Dubricius, in Porlock.  We frequently drive through the village or Porlock to get to its even smaller neighbour, the harbour village of Porlock Weir, but it was only on our last trip that we stopped in Porlock itself, with the express purpose of making a visit to this unusually dedicated and oddly-spired church.

Dyfrig.jpgSt Dubricius was a sixth century Celt, born in the Kingdom of Ergin, and became a highly influential scholar in the areas around Herefordshire, Brecon, and Glamorgan.  His Welsh name is Dyffrig, and it was to Wales, and the Cathedral of Llandaff, that his remains were brought on the 23rd May 1120 (he of course died some time earlier!), having lived out his last days as a hermit on the island of Bardsley, where he retired having set up a school at Henlland (Hentland) on the Wye, and a monastic college at Llanfrawthir (Llanwith Major).  It might seem odd that this church in Somerset should be dedicated to a saint who spent most of his life in Wales, but it is thought that he may have passed through Porlock on his travels, possibly even founding an earlier incarnation of the current church.  Our modern, Rome-centric view of pre-Reformation Christianity also distracts us from the fact that Christianity came to the West Country via Wales, from Ireland, so a Welsh facing, as it were, church is quite understandable, and indeed common in this region.

20160323_162452_HDRThe most striking quality of the exterior of the church is its bizarrely truncated spire.  The majority of the body of the current church dates from some time between 1180 and 1280, but the tower itself may have elements from earlier than this.  The spire itself is likely thirteenth century, and is covered with oak shales, giving it a pleasingly Scandinavian feel.  The truncation itself is thought to not be by design, but rather the result of damage inflicted by the Great Gale of 1703.  This seems to have been left, without any attempt to add a point to the spire again.  Considerable work was done to the church in the fifteenth century, which was also when the fine polychrome chapel was added (which I believe was the Harrington Chantry Chapel – see below), a slightly odd decorative addition to the otherwise sturdy and robust façade.

20160323_163619The substantial porch now contains one of a pair of tombs left by the Will of Alive Hensley, in 1527.  Carved in nearby Dunster, the tomb in the porch commemorates her and her mother, while the other to the left of the altar, commemorates the burial place of her 20160323_163352husband, who, according to the aforementioned will, died in Porlock.  These are two of the several noteworthy tombs in the church.  The south aisle contains a monument to a knight, likely of the thirteenth century, locally called the ‘Crusader’, due to his cross-footed pose.  It is locally thought to represent Sit Simon Fitz-Roges, who 20160323_162756died in 1306, and whose family held the manor of Porlock.  It has clearly suffered some alterations; the recess in which it sits is probably fourteenth century, and made for a different figure, and in order to fit the knight effigy into it at a later date, he has suffered the indignity of having his feet cut off.

20160323_162826The other tomb, which alone would make the church well worth a visit, commemorates John, 4th Lord Harrington, and his wife Elizabeth Courtenay.  This impressive alabaster memorial contains two finely carved figures, of a standard worthy of a cathedral, let alone this small country parish church.  In his will Lord Harrington left instructions for a chantry to be set up, with two associated priests.  In this pre-Reformation period this was commonplace amongst the aristocracy and those who could afford it.  The priests would say masses for the deceased founder’s soul (and any other specified in his will, deceased or still living, probably including past and present members of his family, his children, and such), in order to reduce the soul’s time spent in Purgatory.  The founder would have left money not only to pay for the building of the chapel, but also to pay the priests to perform these masses.  In some cases this may have involved promising them, say, the rent from certain properties or land, as well as simpler sums of money.  The memorial is no longer in its original position, as it would have been in the chantry itself.  Nothing was done to act on Harrington’s will until 1474, about three years after the death of his widow Elizabeth.  He himself had died in 1417, on expedition in France with Henry V.  The monument probably dates from 1474 or thereabouts. The priests were usually chosen from the nearby Cleeve Abbey (on which I will probably write a blog post), and lived in what is at least now called Chantry Cottage, which stands next to the church wall.  Though20160323_162837 the memorial has lost the polychromy and gilding which would have made it even more spectacular many beautifully carved details remain, including Lord Harrington’s garland of roses and leaves, and the ornate netting of Elizabeth’s hairpiece.  The stiff folds of her dress make little attempt to imitate a real lying figure, looking more like the deep flutes of a column, but they pleasingly fold to demonstrate the presence of her pointed feet, in line with the armour clad feet of her husband.  Both their heads lie on cushions supported by angels.  It is thought that the canopy above them, with its dense tracery patterns, is slightly later in date than the figures themselves, perhaps suggestive of even further delays in the creation of the chantry and its monument.20160323_162920

Other interesting features inside the church include the font, which dates from the fifteenth century reconstruction.  Its pattern of tracery, foliate forms and shields is pleasingly proportioned, and it is likely that the shields themselves would have once been painted to contain the arms of locally significant families.  The church also contains the remains of an early fifteenth century clock, which was apparently in use until Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.  Without face and hands, it would have struck the tenor bell in the bell tower.  The bells are also of note (no pun intended), with a ring of six, the earliest of which dates from 1617.  They are rung from a gallery, constructed in 1987, which overlooks the north aisle.

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Canopy of the Harrington Memorial

 

One of the more recent additions to the church is the reredos, sitting behind the altar, dedicated in April, 1931. It contains numerous images, sculpted and painted, of figures and saints connected to the church including, alongside an image of the Resurrection, St Olave, the patron saint of the nearby chapel at Porlock Weir, Alan Bellendon, Bishop of Aberdeen and Chancellor of Aberdeen University, and rector at Porlock between 1642 and 1647, as well as St Petroc, St Cranoc, St Bridget, St Brendon, and of course, St Dubricius himself.  It is medievalising in style, looking more like a product of the Arts and Crafts Movement than the 1930s but makes an interesting focal point in the church.

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The overall impression of the interior is of it being slightly cluttered, quite full, especially compared to the relative sternness of the exterior.  It is however a church full of interest, and it more than repays a visit.  I was unfortunately not able to see all of its marvels, as it also contains a Chapel of the High Cross, built as the Parvise Chamber in the fifteenth century, and eventually restored as a chapel in 1985, but it was sadly, on this occasion, locked.

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The churchyard also boasts a yew tree, rather stunted and looking slightly worse for wear, claimed to be over 1000 years old. All in all this church lives up to the beautiful and rugged landscape which surrounds the village, and would make a worthy stopping point for anyone finding themselves in this wonderful corner of the West Country.

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I am as ever indebted to the compilers of the little guide book available for sale in the church (a rather fine colour-printed affair), for information on the church and its history, the proceeds of which go towards the maintenance of the church.  Information about the church and service times can be found here, and the current rector is, I believe, Bill Lemmey.

The Twin Churches of St Mary and Sts Cyriac and Julietta, Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire

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I have recently come to the realisation that a considerable proportion of my spare time is spent exploring churches.  On visiting a new part of the country, my first thought is to discover if there are any notable churches in the region.  Beyond the essential guide Betjeman’s Best British Churches, of which I have the 2011 edition, complete with updates by Richard Surman, it is often surprisingly hard to find, as it were, ‘reviews’ of churches, and recommendations as to which are worth a visit.  Thus I have decided to start writing my own (far humbler than Betjeman’s of course) thoughts and impressions on the churches I visit.  I find it particularly hard to find information on smaller churches on the internet (which, on returning to the car after a successful church visit, and with time for another, one often has recourse to consult), so I hope that these blog posts may serve some small use to those in similar quandaries.

I have decided to commence this series with a review of not one, but two churches.  These are the remarkable twin churches of St Mary the Virgin, and Sts. Cyriac and Julietta, in the small village of Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire.  This village hosts another pair of twins, being home also to two windmills not, alas, adjacent to one another, as with the churches).  Aside from this there is little to suggest the village as the obvious site for two churches, it is a small village, hardly, one would think, ever having been home to enough people to require double churches.  The reason for these two seems to have been related more to altering claims over parishes and changing boundaries, the later St Mary’s seeming to have been built in what was once a separate parish.  St Cyriac may originally date from before the Norman Conquest, while the current building has parts built before 1200.  St Mary’s has had a troubled history, and after falling to ruin was restored in the early twentieth century.  However, a fine tower dating from the twelfth century remained, so this twin church arrangement is certainly a long-standing one (no pun intended).  It was not until an Act of 1667 that the two churches were united under the leadership of a single vicar.  The congregation seems to have shuffled back and forth for some time after, depending on the whim of each vicar, or the state of dilapidation each church found itself in.  This arrangement is not, however, as unusual as it might seem, there being several other instanced of church twinning in Cambridgeshire, and even a case of three churches once having shared the same churchyard at Reepham, in the not so distant Norfolk.

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St Cyriac and St Julietta, from the top of the hill

The two churches sit on the side of a low (perhaps high by the standards of this rather flat county) hill, overlooking the village.  St Cyriac’s occupies the higher position, which is also more central in the churchyard, one of the reasons why it has been supposed to be the older of the two churches.  St Cyriac’s is currently being cared for the The Churches Conservation Trust, although it still occasionally hosts services.  Both these churches are notable for their fantastic octagonal towers, which seem abundant in the local area, the most significant of course being the tower of Ely Cathedral.  St Cyriac’s belltower dates from the fifteenth century, and is particularly impressive.  From the outside you can still see where it was connected to the medieval body of the church, which, having fallen into disrepair, was demolished in order to make way for a new building, commenced in 1806.  The impression of walking into the churchyard, which we entered from the higher ground, is quite astonishing.  The two towers reaching up in their faceted forms, and the bodies of the churches an easy stone’s throw away from one another, is certainly memorable.  The newer body of St Cyriac’s is large, and gives the impression of being oddly flat.  It is cruciform, with stubby transepts, which contrast with the tall and comparatively slender tower.  The church’s history of building and rebuilding is apparent from its outer fabric, and presents the visitor with something of a puzzle to piece together.  20151213_094242.jpgAfter the striking qualities of the exterior, the interior of the church is perhaps a touch underwhelming.  Stripped of its pews, all that remains is a somewhat stark Georgian interior.  A plastered ceiling gives a strange sense of the space being confined and enclosed, despite its generous dimensions.  The acoustics are astonishing, it is perhaps the most echoey church I have ever been in, to the extent that one might imagine it actually interfering with the running of services.  Nevertheless, this was the church which, having been rebuilt from 1806 to 1809, by Charles Humfrey, a Cambridge-based architect, was used for the following hundred years or so, until 1903, when St Mary’s was finally restored.  The bells however remain in St Cyriac’s, as the tower of St Mary’s was not restored until 1965.  The slender columns supporting the ceiling of the church add to, in a bizarre way, the sense of sparsity – if it were an uninterrupted space, perhaps one’s 20151213_094338attention would not be so drawn to the low ceiling.  The entrance of the church is overhung by a gallery, which, understandably, is not open to the public.  From here you step up into the church, but any sense of it opening up is thwarted by the ceiling.  Not meaning to do down this church, it must be noted that it is wonderfully light, even on the dreary and rainy winter day that we visited it.  The sanctuary, small, as typical of the period, is painted with the
Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  The provide an interesting contrast to the rest of the interior, which is largely white, with details painted in duck egg blue and terracotta, a somewhat bizarre choice of colour scheme, the antiquity of which I am unsure of.

Other points of interest inside St Cyriac’s are the Victorian parish bier, placed in the North West corner, used to transport coffins (one imagines not the easiest activity on the steep slope of the churchyard), and the charity cupboard, inlai20151213_094930.jpgd with the initials of the church’s saints, SC and SJ, also Victorian.

While it is thus well worth a look inside St Cyriac, it cannot be denied that most interest is found on the exterior.  The octagonal upper stage of the tower rises from corbel heads of lions, human grotesques, and half-angels, carrying shield or crowns, some of the few sculptures found on either church.  The north-west wall of the tower also holds the clock face.  The face itself is a repair, dating from 1811, but the original mechanism of the clock dates from the late seventeenth century.  As far as I can tell it is no longer attached to a bell. 20151213_105311_HDR.jpg The contrast on the exterior between the medieval tower and the Georgian body of the church is great, and as noted above, you can at various points see traces of the original medieval church.  The squat cruciform church would not, I suspect, meet current tastes for the harmonious integration of new and old, the new not meeting the height of the old, giving the impression of two buildings that just happen to have been stuck together.  Nonetheless, the weirdness of this building is part of its attraction, and I would highly recommend a visit.

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The tower of St Mary, the Virgin

If one church were not enough to please you, Swaffham Prior of course answers this with the adjacent St Mary’s.  Its most striking feature is the twelfth and thirteenth century tower, constructed in flint and fieldstone.  The upper-most level was added in 1964, as
was the stainless steel fleche with ‘Queen of Heaven’ crown.  This addition would seem incongruous anywhere else, but given the long history of alteration and addition at Swaffham Prior, it rather seems to be the continuation of a tradition (even if I must admit it is not to my taste).  This also serves to recall the church’s lost spire.  The porch, now with charismatically crumbling tracery, dates from the fifteenth century, and was identified by Pevsner as originally containing fan vaulting.  Through this one moves into the tower itself, which is truly remarkable.  As an individual with distinctly medieval taste, getting to look up through the tower, its stages open, lit by its narrow Norman windows, was a joy.  My photographs don’t capture it, needless to say this unusual building is best appreciated in person.  The simple construction, that has been used to achieve such a clever design,

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Looking up through the open stages of the tower

is quite wonderful.  From here you progress into the church through a modern glass screen, cleverly inserted into the fabric of the building.  One is again met with a vaguely underwhelming church.  One of my residing memories is of orange, reminding me of the various furniture in my 1990s childhood bedroom.  However, on venturing further inside, one finds much of interest.

 

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Looking up the nave, complete with parquet flooring and rood screen of 1909

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rather stern faces of William and Alice Water of Reach are commemorated in a brass of the early sixteenth century, above a smaller one thought to depict their six sons.  The presumably related Richard Water, also with a wife named Alice, are also commemorated in a brass of a similar date.  The church (I think unusually) has a parquet floor, the culprit behind its orange appearance, made of memel fir, a choice apparently made to reduce the noise of walking about the church.  The current rood screen was gifted to the church in 1909 by the Allix family, local squires, and a family prominent in the history of the two churches, an imposing yet elegant structure.  The height of the church is emphasised by the clerestory windows, which give it a bright atmosphere.  The pews, pleasingly simple, but probably rather uncomfortable for anything by the shortest of services, are those missing from St Cyriac’s.  Clearly there was no need to commission or buy a new set when there was a ready set waiting at a soon to be unused church next door.

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William and Alice Water, of Reach, with their adoring sons below

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Robert Chambers, Gent.

The church also contains two medieval piscinae, and a rather interesting brass commemorating ‘Robert Cambers, Gent.’, of 1638, and a floor marble commemorating Sir John Ellys, tutor at Gonville and Caius, having studied there from 1647.  But perhaps the most interesting element of the interior of St Mary’s (even to this medievalist), are the stained glass windows, designed by the local squire, C.P. Allix.  Those in the North aisle were designed as the village’s First World War Memorial.  There are three in number, two being dedicated to war, and a third to peace.  The modern subject matter is an unusual choice for the ancient art of stained glass, with windows depicting the various industries or exercises of war, including tanks, trenches, submarines, munitions factories, field hospitals, and a Howitzer.  Specific sections also depict the water pipeline laid across Sinai Peninsula during the invasion of Palestine, and the sinking of the Lusitania.  The images are believed to have been drawn from Allix’s personal scrapbook, and the tank image is noted as an exact copy of a photograph in the Imperial War Museum, showing a Mark I tank.  Each section is captioned by a relevant biblical passage, with the text of the Book of Revelation, 14:13, running along the bottom, ‘And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’.  The final window celebrates the happier industries of peace, depicting ploughing, harvesting, and animal husbandry, as well as the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:5-15).  Along the bottom is Psalm 104:23, ‘Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour, until the evening’.  The windows are arranged progressively, West to East, beginning with the call to arms and various weapons, with the second illustrating (in an arguably rather sterile fashion) the horrors of war, and the final window, depicting peace, the furthest east, appropriately closest to the altar.

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Airship and Mark I Tank from the North Aisle Windows

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Munitions hospital scene, from C. P. Allix’s North Aisle, First World War Memorial Windows

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The Peace Window

Allix’s other set of windows are in the south aisle, featuring more unusual subject matter from his own interests.  The windows were designed to commemorate the vicar of the parish, John Peter Allix, and his son Charles, presumably relations of some sort to C.P.  They predate those of the North aisle, having been dedicated in 1914.  Scenes include the 1771 eruption of Vesuvius, an image of the earth, moon, and starts, seen from space, and Greenland glacier, drawn directly from an illustration in Sir James Geikies The Great Ice Age.  There is also an image of Mount Pilatus, in Switzerland.  Each of the subjects is labelled, within the frame of the image.  The technique of these windows is unusual, creating a striking appearance, particularly in the image of Eart, and of Aurora chasing away night, the former in the form of a lark, the latter an owl.  These remarkable sets of windows are worth a visit in their own right, even if they were not houses in such a fascinating church.

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The Earth, Moon, and Stars, as seen from space, in the South Aisle

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Mount Pilatus, Switzerland

 

All in all these are two of the most interesting churches I have visited; their variety and complicated history of dereliction, restoration, use and reuse, makes them particularly worth a visit.  It is worth noting too that the village itself, even in the rain, was charming, and the walk we took around it also led us in sight of one windmill, and past the other, so it is worth exploring.  About eight miles from Cambridge, we were able to part outside the church gate, at the top of the hill.  There is also a pub for those wishing to quench themselves after the thirsty work of church spotting, although it was closed on the Sunday morning that we visited.  The village is of course accessible by bicycle from Cambridge, and I believe there is also something of a regular bus service.  The two churches now share a vicar with at least two other churches, so I believe St Mary only holds services every few weeks.

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I owe a debt of gratitude to the Churches Conservation Trust, for their marvellous work in general, but also specifically with their highly information leaflet on St Cyriac and St Julietta, and to Elisabeth Everitt, for having written such a comprehensive and useful booklet on the history of St Mary the Virgin.  I would highly recommend reading both of these for further information, the former to be found here, the latter available in the church itself, for a modest and highly reasonable fee.  There are collection boxes in both churches, and should you wish to donate to support the work of the Churches Conservation Trust in general, one can do so here.