Today, my wife and I revisited Marshfield, a village at the southern end of the Cotswold hills, about thirteen kilometres north of Bath and 110 metres higher. It’s been a market town since 1234 and became very wealthy, mostly from the wool trade, in the seventeenth century.
It’s been more than twenty years since we were last in the village. The thing I remembered most about it was the long narrow High Street (300+ metres) made up of stone buildings, mostly dating from the seventeenth century or earlier.
Walking along the street, it was clear that the houses are occupied and well-tended. The place feels like a living village, not a trapped-in-amber ‘heritage’ tourist village.
It was a Sunday so things were quiet but everyone we passed said hello. We walked to the eastern end of the village and visited St Mary’s Church.
l didn’t know the history of the place (Yes, I looked it up later. Of course I did. Church on the site for a thousand years, the current building only dates back to 1470) but I did get a sense of its personality. It stands tall and proud, visible not only from most places in the village but, because of its hilltop position, from other villages for miles around. The graves are in a well-kept, deliberately informal garden of the kind that says, ‘Come and sit awhile’ rather than ‘keep off the grass and keep your dogs and children on a leash‘. It has Commonwealth graves from World War II and a war memorial to the village men and graves that go back so far that they can no longer be read. Yet the overall spirit of the place was one of quiet hopefulness.
I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in the God this church was built to worship, but I do believe in the people who built it and used and celebrated and mourned and communed in it for centuries and who are still doing it today.
Standing in that garden today, looking up at the Church reaching into the sky, it seemed to me that some things, perhaps the most important things, can be written in stone. These stones carry the hope and pride and sorrow and love of generations. They survived Cromwell’s army. They provided shelter and solace through the drama of wars and the difficulties of daily life. And they have always been a place for communal celebration.
Today, the church was celebrating the harvest, an important thing in this rural community. We arrived around lunchtime. People were leaving the Church in ones and twos and small family groups. Those that passed us all gave us a friendly hello. One woman, seeing us sitting on a bench looking out over the valley, said, ‘Oh no! You’ve just missed coffee.’ She must have known we were strangers, yet she was ready to welcome us for the coffee and cakes that had followed the morning service to celebrate the harvest. Later today, the celebration will continue at Evensong. This is part of a pattern that has stretched, unbroken, for centuries, connecting the lives of the people in the village to the harvest and to all those others before them who harvested and gave thanks.
God or no God, these stones speak of human passion and persistence and community. Those things deserve to be written in stone.