As part of my ongoing investigation into the history and background of Old St John’s Church, Boughton, Northampton, I have recently been to photograph and catalogue some of the less degraded images on the older gravestones ( burials have been carried out as recently as 2011, presumably a pre- arranged family plot?)
” It is summer, and nature has once again taken its course – the site is heavily overgrown with nettles, weeds, and bracken. I take a circuitous route around the old church site, but the going is treacherous. Thorns tear at my clothing and flesh..a warning? ..a test? Am I desecrating this site in my search for a clue, a story? Are those interred here willing to permit me to record their demise? “
Adapted from As Above by the author
“Here nature worships, where no psalm upflows,
With song of bird and incense of the rose;
Only the dead, who with their church decay,
Mark where the vanished village had it’s day..”
CT Yelland: “Boughton Churchyard”
Each gravestone tells its solitary tale. Many are scoured clean by the actions of time and weather. Mute, anonymous memorials, bejewelled with the patina of lichen and moss, leaning into diffuse sunlight . Yet somehow, the unlikely symbiosis of nature and built form creates a subtle harmony here. Where nature tends to reclaim and envelop, here it seems balanced by some unseen force, held in check, preventing church and gravestones from being assimilated into the earth once more. Some glimmer of memory preserved.
And what of the lives that these tablets silently commemorate? These brief epitaphs are simply full stops, conclusions, mineral waymarkers that merely symbolise an end-point, yet conspire to conceal whole lives lived in this village, and possibly beyond. What could these stones tell us of those nameless souls, and how they departed this world?
On our first visit, we were more captivated by the stories of loss told amongst these stones, than the charm of the church building itself. Three teenaged boys, lost in the first world war, in Italy, & North Africa, The Somme. A grieving mother follows soon afterwards presumably broken hearted, and lost in the world without her offspring. Then a man, and his wife placed together, and another, with the same surname, a second wife maybe, or sister? We could only guess.
A writer in The Gentleman’s Magazine who visited Boughton Fair in June 1746 says that
“..having amus’d myself with the diversions of this gay and busy spot, I retired to view the ruins of a church near it in an open field, a solitary scene remote from any house. Here, I found a gravestone, which spoke to me in a pleasing tho’ solemn manner: if it pleases you as much let it speak to the world:
“Time was, I stood where thou dost now,
And view’d the dead as thou dost me
Ere long thou’lt lie as low as I,
And others stand and look on thee.. ”
Sadly, on my many excursions here, I have been unable to locate this particular gravestone. It has more than likely been erased over time, or crumbled into dust, as many of those old grave markers were made of local limestone. This poignant poem bears an epitaph that should resonate with all of us, reminding us of our fragility, and the brevity of our time on earth.
“Across the churchyard, bramble and bracken threads its way across the site, a thorny cartilage that inexplicably fuses the living with the dead.
It is Spring.
The first fern fronds are unfurling amidst the gravestones, pushing through the damp humus, their mysterious curlicues, symbols of rebirth and renewal, nature’s constants since prehistory…”
Adapted from As Above by the author
I am intrigued and enchanted by these gravestones, and the clues hidden within the images on the headstones. What messages are encrypted into these beautiful, elegiac carvings I wonder? What would they tell us of personalities, dramas, traumas, love and joy?
The church site was first documented in 1201, but almost nothing remains in the historical record of it as the living, working hub of a community. The only references to it in the County Records office are of the site as an abandoned, derelict, and overgrown remnant. I view this with great sadness, and hope to revitalise interest in this place once more, by decoding some of it’s secrets, and re-interpeting it’s history.
I am currently re-writing the original text that accompanied the “As Above” art edition that I released last year, an attempt to update it with fresh findings, new revelations. As a separate project, the images of the gravestones and some historical notes will be released as a separate, but complimentary edition early next year.