On Tuesday 12th November David Longman gave a talk entitled Bedfordshire churches: the weird, the wonderful and the curious. It proved to be a very enjoyable insight into the social history revealed by some of our local churches. David explored the interior of the churches and looked specifically at brasses, monuments and stained glass. In addition, outside gravestones told many stories.
He began with Harlington Church which was the site of the first Grand National Steeplechase race. The race began at the steeple of the church and ended at the obelisk at Wrest Park, a distance of four and a quarter miles. The Grand National today is of course run at Aintree, but the distance remains the same.
David went on to talk about Southill Church and John Byng who is buried there. He was a soldier court-martialled for failing to do his best and he was sentenced to death. Despite clemency being suggested, he was executed by being shot. The Byng family still dispute his guilt and on 14th March each year the church bell is tolled 52 times, one for each year of his life.
Next was Willington Parish Church, where the patron saint is St Lawrence, a lesser known saint who in Roman times was martyred by being lowered over burning coals. He is said to have said during this process, ‘Turn me over, I’m done on this side’. Hence he is now known as the patron saint of chefs and cooks!
Cockayne Hatley Church has several beautiful intact brasses. Robert Louis Stevenson and JM Barrie visited the estate and church there. Long John Silver was modelled on William Earnest Henley, a Victorian poet who lived there and Wendy in Peter Pan was modelled on his daughter who is buried in the churchyard.
Several of the churches David mentioned are depopulated and abandoned. Shillington Church has an exquisite medieval prayer book and Cardington Church has connections with the airship R101 which blew up in 1929.
Finally, David was pressed to tell us about the Reverend Drax Free who lived a scandalous life as vicar in Sutton Parish during the 1800s. It is alleged that he stole the lead off his own church roof and allowed his pigs and sheep to desecrate the church. He was often drunk and led a debauched life, so much so that he was defrocked! A colourful character indeed!
It was all most interesting. Many thanks must go to David for his talk.
Our next meeting is on 10th December at 7.30pm in Sutton Village Hall when Alison Ross will engage us in the sport of new age kurling. Visitors are always welcome so please feel free to come and join us.
Cynthia Brewerton, Press Secretary