Monday, 29 August 2011

Baldock, Hertfordshire

St Mary the Virgin is another one of those large churches that has something for everyone, roof angels abound, numerous brasses, 15th century screens and much more.

Mee is quite fulsome so I shall contain myself with the observation that the size of the church is probably due to Baldock's importance as a staging post between London and the North and its being situate on the crossroad of the Great North Road and the Icknield Way which made it an important market town (and later it became a major malting town).

ST MARY. A roomy church, architecturally in several points the sister of Ashwell, a few miles away. Big broad W tower of the early C14 with Dec Windows, and on the embattled parapet a small octagonal lantern crowned by a Herts spike. The body of the church also embattled, mostly of flint. But the lower part of the chancel is of stone. Here traces can be found of C13 windows and a Double Piscina with a C13 shaft. The S porch is two-storeyed with a turret in the NW angle and an outer doorway of the early C14. The other windows are Perp. The interior is in its appearance almost completely early C14: tower arch, arcades of six bays, chancel arcades of two bays, Sedilia and Piscina in the S chapel with nodding ogee arches. The. piers are quatrefoil with additional thin shafts (without capitals) in the diagonals (just as at Ashwell), typical moulded capitals (on the S side slightly more finely detailed than on the N), and double-chamfered arches. Good contemporary head corbels for the outer labels. C15 clerestory roofs (on head corbels). The aisles are wide and on the low side. The church is generally broad and roomy: a wealthy town church. - FONT. Octagonal, on nine shafts; C13. - SCREENS. A complete C15 set across aisles and chancel arch, the rood screen, of course, more ornate than the others, but all three relatively elementary in their tracery. - STAINED GLASS. W window 1849, looks as if it might be by Wailes; E window similar; N aisle Simpson window 1881, a typical early Kempe. - PLATE. Chalice and Paten, 1629. - MONUMENTS. C13 Purbeck marble coffin-lid with cross (N chapel). - Brasses to a nun, c. 1400, small (nave, W end); to a man and woman, c. 1400, smallish (N chapel); to a man and woman, later C15, larger figures (N chapel); to a man and woman, shrouded, c. 1520, c. 3 ft long (N chapel). - Monument to Georgiana Caldecott d. 1846, by Baily. She lies on a couch mourned by a kneeling young woman, while an angel in the background of the relief carries her soul up to heaven. - Many minor epitaphs (e.g. by Gaffin).

St Mary the Virgin (3)

Unknown brass (5)

Corbel (7)

Baldock. It has a piece of the Great North Road for its fine main street, lined with grass banks and trees, and it has at Quickswood Farm a clock which has worked with very few stoppages since the year Charles I came to the throne. On to the street look the dormer windows of a charming row of almshouses, telling their age with a syllable under each window: An No Do Mi Ni 1621. John Wynne, who gave them, also wrote on the wall that he left money to carry them on "to the worldes end." Close by is a stalwart pair of panelled gates 500 years old, and down every side street we find old homes and old inns, many with overhanging storeys.

Baldock’s church has as spacious an air as its highway, and is almost complete from the 14th century, with nave and chancel, two aisles and two chapels, and a clerestory added in the 15th century. Inside is a pillared font 100 years older than the church itself, and much line carving in wood and stone. Niches and sedilia and piscina show the art of the medieval mason, and the 15th century woodcarver has a grand display in the screens stretching across the nave and aisles, three in a line, each different. The middle screen has its original doors, and over the patched doors of the north screen is a laughing face. Other faces in stone catch our eye wherever we look up, and there are 22 quaint little oak figures between the beams of the north aisle roof. The staircase door to the priest’s room (now made one with the porch) is 500 years old, and some of the roofs are medieval, but, like the screens, they have needed patching, and we found a strenuous battle going on with the deathwatch beetle. Fragments of medieval painted glass are in the north chapel, which has a 17th century altar table.

There are several brass portraits, one of c. 1400 picturing a man kneeling in prayer. Another shows a woman with her husband, whose dress proclaims him a 15th century forester. His horn hangs from his belt, but his dog has gone from his side. Two other men from the 15th and 16th centuries are here with their wives, and beside them hang two ancient deeds, one of 1289 telling of a yearly payment of twopence. Such deeds were probably kept in the little medieval iron bound chest, and there are two other chests with Jacobean carving. Over the north door hang two old breastplates and a sword.

There lies in the church a man with a simple name famous for a great achievement. He came here as rector, but was known long before he came for his work at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he toiled for 10,000 hours over six small volumes of closely packed and mysterious shorthand, fully 3000 pages. They had lain in Pepys’s library at Magdalene for 95 years, unregarded, when Lord Grenville looked into them and deciphered some of the arbitrary signs. These he handed to John Smith, an undergraduate of St John’s, who promised to decipher the whole and at the end of three years produced the immortal Diary of Samuel Pepys. It was an extraordinary piece of work, and a remarkable fact concerning it is that among the books in Pepys’s library at Magdalene was a small volume which would have given John Smith the key to the mysterious characters he had to work out, for in this volume was a shorthand account, written by Pepys from the dictation of Charles II, of the king’s escape after the Battle of Worcester, with the longhand translation of it. John Smith, who became rector of Baldock, lies in the church.

The broad road leads into Icknield Way, and where this prehistoric track crosses Stane Street the Romans settled in the second century. Their cemetery was in Wall’s Field, where hundreds of urns, lamps, beakers, jugs, dishes, and cups have been unearthed; we have seen them in Letchworth Museum, a truly remarkable collection of elegant vessels of all shapes and sizes. Most curious of all the discoveries is a lead tablet with an inscription which has been translated:

Tacita, or by whatever other name she is called, is hereby cursed.

Some vindictive person placed this in Tacita’s burial urn, and sent her with a curse into the unknown world.

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