Tuesday, 11 February 2014

St Peter, Buntingford

Last week I visited my 915th, and final, in area church and so completed my mission.

At its heart St Peter is a C17th building which was built under Alexander Strange's direction to accommodate those people who could not attend mass at nearby Layston. Not the best of churches but open.

ST PETER. Built in 1614-26 as a chapel-of-ease to Layston. Brick, on the Greek cross plan to which in 1899 a porch and apse were added. The windows were also altered. Kept in the church is a C17 BRASS PLATE showing the interior of the church.

St Peter (2)

Alexander Strange 1620 (3)

Buntingford. A small town on the River Rib, it has a wide stretch of a Roman road for its High Street, full of quaint houses with gables, overhanging storeys, deep archways, and red roofs turned yellow here and there with creeping stone-crop.

By a group of lime trees are the 17th century almshouses, standing round a court filled with flowers; they are the homes of four old men and four old women, founded in 1684, by that famous man of his day, Seth Ward. His portrait hangs inside, and outside are his arms and mitre, carved in stone. He was born at Aspenden, and walked over here every day to the free school till he left for Cambridge. He lost his fellowship there by refusing to take the Covenant, but later was made Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and, branching into philosophy, started his long controversy with Hobbes. After having been Bishop of Exeter, he became Bishop of Salisbury, and one of his first acts there was to call on his friend Christopher Wren to survey the cathedral. Wren’s report is now in the possession of the Royal Society, of which Seth Ward was the second President.

Close to his almshouses is a red brick chapel, built about 1625 to gather in more of the people of Buntingford than could attend the old church on the hill. Inside is a picture drawn on brass soon after the chapel was finished, showing it, with its vicar Alexander Strange in the pulpit, as it was before the apse and porch were added in 1899; and hanging in the vestry is a charter giving the town permission to hold a market. It has a portrait of Henry VIII on the seal hanging from it.

In a garden farther down the street is a Roman Catholic chapel and priest’s house, with roses climbing up the walls. Robert Hugh Benson lived and wrote many of his novels close by, at Hare Street, and now lies in the graveyard. Son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he became a priest and private chamberlain to Pope Pius X.

All round are fine old houses. Hare Street has many and near it is the 17th-century Alswick Hall. The Court was the Grammar School 300 years ago, and the Old Manor is a little way out at Corney Bury. In the main street are many 16th- and 17th-century houses and hostelries, one with its sign hanging from magnificent ironwork. An old turret over the archway of the Angel Inn has a clock with one hand, and a bell which the Charity Commissioners (who own the inn) used to have rung whenever there was a service in the chapel down the street or in the church on the hill.

The church on the hill is still called Layston, though nothing else is left of that lost village. The chancel is now used only occasionally, and the nave has, unfortunately, been deprived of its roof. The bells still hang in the 15th-century tower. The chancel is 13th century and the rest mainly late medieval, but the thickness of the nave walls suggests an earlier origin. During repairs a few years ago pieces of carved alabaster work were discovered which when reassembled were found to portray the Crucifixion with the Blessed Virgin and St John. These fragments are now in the Hertford museum, where also is part of the 15th century font.

Close by, in a new little graveyard which we found as bright with flowers as his own decorative work, lies Claud Lovat Fraser, a delightful artist of our time. He was the son of a Buntingford solicitor, and he loved beauty over all. Very early he began to make drawings for books and rhyme sheets - long slips of paper with a poem or a ballad printed on them. People loved them partly because of the verses and the artist’s work, and partly because many hundreds of years ago the same kind of sheets were printed, and balladmongers walked the streets selling them as fishmongers sell fish. Looking at these works of art, some of them not much bigger than a postage-stamp, it would seem that the artist’s greatest genius lay in drawing minute head-pieces and tail-pieces for poems. They look as if he did them with one hand while he was waving the other about, telling a story; they look as if he had just thought about them that minute, and must put them down before he forgot. They are little images of people and places, not as ordinary people see them but as Mr Fraser saw them. He knew that at night tree trunks become "little old men with twisted knees." He knew what a lovely colour a highwayman’s cloak ought to be. He knew exactly, down to a spar, the kind of ship that went a-sailing, a-sailing on the sea.