St Mary, Kirkburn

15 September 2006

Grotesque on wall of St Mary, Kirkburn Carving – south wall, St Mary, Kirkburn, Yorkshire

These wonderful creatures were found on the south wall of St Mary’s, Kirkburn, and show that visiting churches isn’t always about looking at pious and serious things.

The Pevsner guide says of St Mary’s, Kirkburn: "After Newbald it is the best Norman parish church in the East Riding."

Porch – St Mary, Kirkburn Norman window, St Mary, Kirkburn

As a relative newcomer to church appreciation I often end up bemused when trying to follow more detailed descriptions of the architecture. I can however identify that the niche above the door of the porch contains a carved figure, which appears to be of Mary, holding the Christ child.

Of an earlier date than the porch is this window, also on the south side of the church, a Norman window, with deep zig-zag carving.

Detail of Norman window Chancel (exterior view)

This photo shows a closer view of the same window. It’s a very handsome church, with many varied architectural features, and I found it inspired a strong feeling of connection with our past, our ancestors – even without going inside the church. Instead I walked around it. The photo above right is of course of the eastern part of the church – which seemed particularly handsome even from the outside.

I’ve realised, as an agnostic who has only recently started to look more carefully at churches, that I need to read up on the subject, try to learn how to see them more clearly, understand them better. These buildings that were at the centre of the lives of our ancestors are unfamiliar to many of us.

North door Norman window, north side

Norman doorway and carving, north side

These photos are from the north side of the church.

At this church in particular I noticed the change between the light south side and the shaded north. The north side is quieter and darker. This isn’t the side that the church presents to the world, but is hidden away, while the south entrance faces the road, has a path leading to the road. This northern side felt even more rooted in the past, somehow – more plain, less restored, less "inhabited".

Tower at St Mary's, Kirkburn

The tower, to the west of the church. Partly Norman, but, as the Pevsner guide explains: "The top stage is Perp, and the stage below with the unmistakable E.E. twin former bell-openings, E.E.".

I’ve included that for anyone reading who would find it enlightening. At this stage in my appreciation of churches, it’s like Greek to me. I know that it’s referring to Perpendicular and Early English, but as yet no great light has switched on in my head that helps me understand such things properly or recognise them for myself.

Still, it’s very handsome, I can see that.

Norman south doorway, St Mary, Kirkburn. Click to enlarge. Detail of doorway

Back on the south side of the church now, and the most impressive Norman doorway is of course the south one, pictured above. (The left-hand image can be enlarged with a click of the mouse.) The same Pevsner guide quoted above judges this doorway "spectacular if coarse".

My visit was one of those occasions when ignorance is bliss, for those of us who wouldn’t know a coarse Norman doorway from a refined one. When I approached it, on a sunny September morning, I just thought it was fantastic. It was one of those moments when you get a real insight into times long gone.

The impression I got was of exuberance, rather than coarseness, like those carved stones were alive and still saying something to a 21st century visitor, even an agnostic and ignorant one like me.

I’m not sure the message was a particularly religious one – natural imagery abounds, and what seemed to be transmitted most was an exuberant appreciation of the natural world.

Memorial – Sir Prince Prince- Smith, Baronet Headstones, St Mary's churchyard, Kirkburn

The churchyard, like so many older burial grounds, seemed like a haven for birds and other wildlife. I always try to find time to wander or sit in the churchyard for a while. The old memorials are often beautifully carved and the inscriptions fascinating. Above, a memorial to “Sir Prince Prince-Smith Baronet”. And alongside the path to the church door, a pair of headstones of the same design, for members of the same family, but apparently erected some time apart, one covered in lichen and leaning a little, while the other is still legible, and still upright.

Noticeboard, church porch

This church has the atmosphere it has because it’s still cared for now, after so many centuries. The Norman doorway displays the artistic skills of our ancestors, and represents a part of their view of the world. Close by, also in the porch, modern artistic skill is displayed in a beautifully presented noticeboard. The display reflects something of our modern-day concerns, showing photos of wildlife conservation work in the churchyard.

This church has survived so many of our catastrophes and conflicts, and still adapts. Despite viewing only its exterior, I left feeling not only connected to the past, but optimistic about the present. I guess that’s how churches want to make us feel. It’s impressive though, I think, if a mere building can do that, without any words being spoken from a pulpit.

Links/more information

More information about St Mary’s, Kirkburn can be found on the church website:

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