I once had a girlfriend who thought that exploring old country churches was a deeply, deeply boring thing to do. I dare say it depends on your cultural background and point of view. And maybe your state of grace. Me, I just like the locations, the sense of local history often going back 1,000 years or more, and the photographic potential. I'm not at all religious - God forbid! - but I'm sensitive to the spirit of these places, the waiting presence of the divine. Not that you'd guess it from these shots, taken in what seemed at the time to be an interesting light for the camera:
Yes, well, if I may say so, the camera has lied in this instance, and has recorded a much too secular bust on my front side. Sorry for that: I suppose I should really morph it into a more holy bust, something much more in keeping with the surroundings. But I hate manipulating pictures on the computer. As it is, I look as if I'm on the cusp of doing a Madonna impersonation, as in her song Like a Prayer.
I was in fact standing in Beaminster Parish Church, dedicated to St Mary (the real Madonna), an attractive edifice found down a pretty lane off the town square. Beaminster is a small town in the West Dorset countryside. I think its church must be very much at the heart of the community: it was very well cared-for, it had been modernised, and it wasn't just a well-preserved museum for architecture students to visit. I was taken with this delicately sewn Mother's Union banner:
The standout feature of the church is the spanking new organ, with its polished stainless-steel pipes and huge number of keys and stops and pedals, which for organ players must be an irresistible draw. Imagine Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale played on this:
Are you reading this, Mel? Get down there pronto!
Let's shift gear a little, but stay with history. While in Dorset, I couldn't resist seeking out a remote wayside railway station now simply called Chetnole. But it was once Chetnole Halt, meaning that it was originally a spartan platform with a shelter and a nameplate, and that was all. Strictly for country folk who needed only two trains a day, and were happy to wait in the dark if need be. But look at it now:
It's still isolated and basic, but Health and Safety have ensured that it has proper lighting, non-slip stairs from the road with handrails, a Help Point to summon assistance if you are being attacked by a mad axeman, two information boards, and the shelter has a telephone inside so that you can chat even if you've left your mobile phone back at the farm. Talk about featherbedding the country traveller. I suppose that if you're waiting for the last train to Yeovil on a dark evening, these luxuries might matter.
Time was when isolated Dorset stations looked like this. Here's my own pix of Powerstock and Toller in May 1975, just a couple of days before the Bridport branch line closed forever:
Hah, men were men then, and women were women. But not any more. It's the same all over the country now. The sequestered delights of Lonely Country Railway Stations have been compromised with modern gadgetry to make the wait for the train unromantically civilised and high-tech. For example: Umberleigh station on the Barnstaple line, in the very heart of rural Devon, absolutely smothered in tendrilled greenery as Nature attempts to reclaim what is rightfully hers, nevertheless has a real-time display of the trains in each direction:
Tsk. Why not provide a TV screen in a mini auditorium so that passengers can't miss Eastenders if the train is late? And a vending machine so that they can have a mocha or cappuccino? All this mollycoddling will turn passengers into proper softies. They had to be made of sterner stuff in the Good Old Days of the Great Western or (in this case) the London & South Western Railway! Especially if travelling third class.
Even in the remotest parts of the country things have been tarted up and 'improved' to remove all possibility of being eaten by wolves while waiting for the train. I was at Georgemas Junction in April 2010. This is right up in the far north of Scotland, on the dead-end line to Wick, and is the junction for Thurso. It is in fact the most northerly railway junction in Britain, and, apart from Thurso, the most northerly station. But it's had a lick of paint, and looks spruce enough, and throughly modern swish trendy trains call:
However, authenticity has been partially maintained. You can still freeze to death in winter blizzards. Because although the station buildings look smart and well-kept, the public can't go inside, and must therefore die of hyperthermia in that draughty bus-shelter thing along the platform. I looked in through the windows. It's a different decade in there. The 1980s. It's just as they left it, when staffing was suddenly withdrawn. On the wall, this poster for the winter of 1984/85:
And a map of the country's rail network in 1984. I couldn't see any skeletons, but who knows.