Visiting quiet country churches has long become a staple of my holidays. I generally fit in two or more on most days. Each one is different; each reveals something about local families and local affairs; and the architecture and ornaments may well be unusual or even unique. I am always careful for the sanctity of the place: I may not be religious myself, but I am never going to be anything but solemn and serious while inside one of these buildings. Some country churches are so ancient that their very age commands silence and respect.
Ideally I hope for a one-to-one relationship with an old and hallowed place, with nobody else present. I'm not always so lucky. I have once or twice blundered in on someone else's communion with the infinite. Occasionally a churchwarden or florist will be there, and conversation ensues. Only rarely, thankfully, do I encounter the priest. I try to go when the church is most likely to be empty of other human beings, so that I can look around inside just as I please, and take whatever photos I like.
For of course there is pleasure to be had, exploring a church with a camera in hand. Few other environments are such a challenge to the photographer. The interior light is often dim, making the fine details of monuments, tombs, pew-ends, floors and ceilings hard to capture. If sunshine floods in, then exposing correctly for a stained-glass window makes the rest of the picture turn deep black. But a proper exposure for the rest of that picture makes the window become merely a chink of bright light, with all detail lost in the glare. I do my best.
Photography requires an easy mind. If I feel inhibited in any way, then taking pictures becomes difficult, and sometimes absolutely impossible. For if someone else is there, I am turned into an intruder. My freedom to explore and record is curtailed or completely denied. Perhaps I shouldn't feel like that. But at the best of times, I know that I am, in a sense, trespassing; and I dread the potential embarrassment of being caught up in a minstrels' gallery, or belfry, or too close to the altar - even though there is never, of course, any notice that says 'Keep away, if you are not here to worship'. Even though I am certain that heavenly eyes, if any are watching, would prefer me to come in and look around, and not stay away.
Two afternoons ago I came to the church at Newton St Petrock, deep in the countryside between Holsworthy and Great Torrington in Devon. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday. Unless anybody was making next-day wedding preps, I should have the place to myself.
I opened the stout oak door and had a shock.
There was a man inside, grinning at me.
Next instant, I realised he was a life-sized cardboard cut-out, offering churchgoers the chance to make a donation via PayPal. But how lifelike he seemed in the dim light!