Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Richard Hickox RIP

Richard Hickox would have been in the 6th form at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, when I first went there a a new student. I first remember him from a performance of the Dream of Gerontius he conducted in High Wycombe Parish Church as part of the Woburn Festival. With all the arrogance of a teenager I decided that performance was not a patch on what Sir Adrian Boult could do and so I decided to write of Hickox as no good!
I certainly had occasion to change that opinion over the years since then. Sadly I never did see him in concert since then but everyone will have their own cherished selection of his discography.
This evening I was listening to his wonderful recording of choral music by Sir Charles Stanford - the Songs of the Sea, Songs of the Fleet, and the Revenge. Also by no means to be missed are his wonderful recordings of the Haydn Masses - possibly not always as precise as those of John Eliot Gardiner, but possessed of a warmth and human feeling that more than made up for any lack. Also of note are his recordings of Masses by the very much underrated Hummel.
One could go on and on... and on. English music has lost one of its greatest champions, and in a year which has also seen the loss of Vernon Handley it comes as a double blow.
May they rest in peace.

Before the Conquest......

Last week we celebrated the feast of St Edmund, King and martyr - one of the many Anglo-Saxon saints who made this land once an island of saints indeed. Today I visited Oxfordshire's most important Saxon church - dating from round about the time of the Conquest. The village of Langford, like many of these remarkable places, is a little difficult to find - I suppose in the important places the churches got replaced with modern ones whereas in the real backwaters things remained much the same.

This isn't quite true at Langford though the Saxon tower is the first thing one sees = and an unusually elaborate one at that. The richness of decoration and the awareness of all the latest in architectural practice suggests that the architect was not simply some local man doing his best. In Domesday book Langford is listed as a royal manor, so this may suggest that before the Conquest it formed part of the holdings of King Harold or King Edward.

Around 1200 aisles were added to the nave, giving the church something of the appearance of an early Christian Basilica. The arcades with their round arches have wonderfully slender pillars with cruciform capitals very much at odds with typical Norman work, and it suggests that the importance of Langford was still such as to warrant getting an architect who was in tune with all the latest developments to come in to supervise the work. The lightness of the arcades is a delight to the eye and gives the church a real sense of spaciousness. The proportions have an Early English Style and lightness which is quite unusual for this date. Soon after this the chancel was rebuilt on a grand scale, again with unusual features. The tracery of the East windows is both pleasing and unusual, and the chancel includes a most unusual 13th century aumbry divided into six compartments.

The church also contains Anglo-Saxon sculpture on the grand scale. The East wall of the porch displays a life-size (but sadly decapitated) figure of the Crucified Christ, while over the porch doorway is set another scene of the crucifixion - though when it was moved into its present position those involved assembled it wrong - the figures of St John and Our Lady are on the wrong sides, both of them looking away from the cross!

All this is in a remote corner of Oxfordshire (between Witney and Faringdon) - and a part that is perhaps not much visited - but there is so much to repay the visitor in the villages and the scenery. One other delight is the little Norman church at Kencot.

On the down side this part of the county includes the ghastly development of Carterton. At risk of offending its inhabitants I think that if I wanted to encourage crime of all kinds I would build a place like Carterton. Happily some efforts are now being made to make it a place fit for humans to live in.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Wildest Hertfordshire...

...might sound like an unlikely scenario. Still, not far from Baldock is the wonderful village of Weston. It is reached by narrow roads climbing up the low hills from the valley floor and is an extremely spread-out village. To reach the Church of the Holy Trinity one drives down to the lower end of the village before climbing up a track past various timbered, weather-boarded and thatched houses - probably quite beautiful in the summer and possessed of a different charm in sombre November.

The importance of the Church itself rests in its Norman heart. On the approach there is little to see to suggest this, but on entering the Church the Norman tower on its four extrememly sturdy arches makes its presence more than felt. It remains the dominant feature of the Church's interior.

The North Transept (now used as an office) remains Norman with two simple single-light windows and a blocked up arch in the East wall. This presumably indicates the original presence of an apse holding an altar. The original church would have been cruciform with an apses in each transept and also a central apse in the East. The chancel was rebuilt in an incongruous though neo-Norman style c1840. Of the Norman nave nothing visible remains. The aspect from the North West is probably that which suggests the original building most faithfully.
The SW aspect shows clearly the Norman transept, suggesting the original height of the Nave would have matched it. The nave was heightened when a S aisle was added and a clerestory on that side in the 15th century. The original height of the tower would perhaps have been to below the present tower windows?