The Light Ships launch

The Light Ships 21

Last Saturday was windy and cold. A good part of my drive from Nottingham to Whaplode was through torrents of rain, but as I got closer, the weather grew calmer and I grew more anxious about The Light Ships event. It’s been many years since I’ve organised anything quite like this and I wasn’t confident about how many people would brave the early breath of winter or what they’d think of it all if they did.

With the stalwart help of Lauren Williams and Kristina Taylor at Transported, and one or two local friends, the exhibition had been installed on Friday afternoon. It included drawings by Rosie Redzia, woollen sculptures by knitting groups, photographs by Tony Quinton, amateur paintings gathered by Mary Brice of Moulton, new and archive films, and a recreation by Jo Wheeler of the Bus Fayre from her Village Postcard project. But the principal exhibit was the wonderful church of St Mary’s at Whaplode, whose nave was begun about 890 years ago: I wanted the exhibition to enrich the building not obscure it.

Music was made with organ recitals by Tony Fitt-Savage and Tim Galley and the bellringers of Whaplode, and generous hospitality provided in the form of tea and cakes by the church community. The rain kept off. People came and the atmosphere was warm (despite the weather). There was even a rainbow…

These photos give a lovely sense of the occasion. They were taken by Steve Hatton at Electric Egg for Transported, and I’m grateful to them for permission to include them here.

The Light Ships will be presented at 3.00pm on Saturday 22 November 2014 at Wrangle church and at the same time the following Saturday (29 November ) at Gosberton church – and anyone is most welcome to come along. The book will be available to download from this site shortly and copies can be ordered from Transported (it costs £5, plus postage).

Holbeach St. Marks Community Association Building, Sluice Road, Holbeach St. Marks, Lincolnshire PE12 8HF

Tel 01406 701006 Email:

The Light Ships 22

The Light Ships: First Words

TLS Fleet Church flowerThe fourth Regular Marvel is called The Light Ships: Church, art and community in the Lincolnshire Fens. It will be published on 8 November 2014 by Transported, at an event in Whaplode Church. In the custom of Regular Marvels, here are the books opening words:

Two thirds of every eyeful sky

If you know the Lincolnshire Fenlands only from the windows of a car or a bus, you may not think very much of them. The landscape is neither dramatic nor picturesque: no mountains, lakes or pretty villages to catch the eye. On each side of the straight road stretch equally straight lines of cabbages, beet and potatoes, interrupted only by glasshouses, bungalows and truck stops hedged with flags. This is working land, in working gear. It is very productive though: much of what we eat grows in these fields, in rich earth won from water. Workers bend over crops in the morning mist, picking, weighing and packing. A steady convoy of trailers rumbles out from farm, store and factory so that our supermarket shelves are never bare. Its waterways are also straight and functional. Their names—Forty Foot Drain, New River—don’t stop for poetry as they hurry rainwater out to sea. Above them, pylons stalk into the distance like tent pegs for the sky. Turbines lazily harvest the wind. And higher still, jet contrails draw the straightest lines of all across this land of levels and right angles.

If you know the Lincolnshire Fenlands only from a distance, you may not think much of them at all. But if you stop, if you turn off the trunk routes that connect Newark with Kings Lynn or Peterborough with Skegness, you find another Fenland, ancient, self-reliant and rich in unexpected treasure.

The spires are the clue. They pierce the horizon through little stands of trees. Like lighthouses across a still sea, church steeples signal where people live to those who rush by with places to go, people to see. They are still points in a busy world: pointedly pointless. They have stood a very, very long time and they have seen it all.

 The book will be available as a free download from this site after 8 November, with details of how to get printed copies. They’ll also be available at three Light Ships events in Whaplode, Wrangle and Gosberton in in November. If you’re in the area, do come along – everyone’s very welcome.

The Light Ships Invitation


Christian art in a post-Christian society

‘If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian. It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian. But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.’

The only really surprising thing about these measured, thoughtful words is that they were spoken by Rowan Williams, poet, theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury. In many ways it seemed – and was greeted as – a statement of the obvious. Dr Williams’ interview was followed by quiet murmurs rather than controversy, as if he’d said something everyone knew but was too embarrassed to say.

The consequences of European Christianity’s decline in authority are vast and unforeseeable. They affect individual and social life not just here but also across the world, because elsewhere religion is replacing political theory as the principle territory of ideological struggle. And the results may be seen in the dirty religious wars now poisoning Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and so many other places. It is naïve to celebrate the passing of Christianity without knowing what may fill the vacuum it leaves, or to assume that its decline will not be reversed in future: history is long.

On a smaller, local scale, though, this change also challenges our artistic and cultural life. So much European art is not just Christian in culture and sensibility but dedicated to articulating Christian theology. What does it mean if we do not share its beliefs? What is it worth?

Master of Moulins, Nativity

One approach has been to treat the subjects and narratives of Christian art as puzzles to be decoded. In this conception, a 14th century nativity or a Bach Passion can be approached in the same way as a play by Euripides or the Parthenon sculptures. If you learn the myths and symbols that animated their creators’ imaginations, you can understand their intentions and assess their performance. But is this more than an indulgence of privilege? It’s hard to believe that Bach, who annotated his own copy of Luther’s translation of the Bible, would understand or approve of music he’d composed for a sacred church service being performed out of season in a public hall to people with no interest in its meaning. Perhaps he’d rather be forgotten than remembered like this.

There are other problems too. The struggle for creative freedom pursued by artists since the Enlightenment, and which is so central to Romanticism and Modernism, has made individual integrity an article of faith. We have learned that no true artist would make work to order, and especially not to serve an ideology they do not share. The artistic quislings who lived comfortably serving the Soviet state are anathematised today: we rightly admire those, like Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn, who became martyrs to the system. But what then do we think of 20th century artists like Jacob Epstein who produced so much religious sculpture without sharing the beliefs of those who commissioned it? Those charged with the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral paid for a remarkable body of post-war religious art without needing to investigate the beliefs of the artists.

Coventry Cathedral

And then there is the problem of quality. If an artwork is valued by the faithful in supporting their worship, prayer or meditation, do aesthetic considerations matter? It’s easy for believers and non-believers both to value an icon produced by an Orthodox master, albeit for different reasons. But the art to be seen in the new churches built in post-Communist Eastern Europe would, I suspect, be dismissed by critics, though it may be of profound importance to those who attend the services.

I have spent much of the past three months thinking about these questions as I’ve met people who use and care for the beautiful churches of the Lincolnshire Fens. Now, as that part of the process draws to a close this week, I am thinking of how to make sense of and do justice to this world. As so often with the Regular Marvels, an idea that seemed manageable has simply grown in scale and complexity as I have worked on it. The Light Ships book is due to be published by Transported in October: I have a busy summer ahead.

A painful edge to oral history

The Light Ships is proving to be a revelation. An exploration of the church’s place in a community’s artistic life, it focuses on 14 villages in the Lincolnshire fenland. I’ve been meeting people involved in every aspect of church and chapel (and learning about the myriad differences between them). The buildings are often of great beauty, reconciling the styles of different centuries because all the art serves a common purpose, while the diverse creative work that happens now – from concerts to children’s art activities – is accommodated for the same reason.

At the same time, I’m astonished by the diversity that exists even in these 14 places, so close and apparently so similar in culture. The project has its own website because there is so much to look and think about that it would overwhelm this one. But if you’re interested in sculpture, poetry, art, flowers, stained glass, music, architecture, history, travellers, needlework and so on, do take a look.

Underneath these riches are some complex and difficult questions: belief, community, the use of resources and many more. Small, ageing congregations feel the burden of their responsibilities and ask themselves whether different styles of service would attract young people or might alienate those who already attend. Yesterday, I felt the sadness of a group who fear that their chapel might finally end with them, closing its doors and being turned, like so many others, into a stylish home for incomers.

Oral history can shade into nostalgia or even sentimentality. In this case, deeply held beliefs mean that, even when people are speaking of the past, there is an urgency to a debate about what it is to be a community and to live well.

An ancient art

The Light Ships website has been growing with short posts that touch on the rich and varied artistic life of rural churches – not just art and architecture, but music, poetry, crafts and, in this case, flowers. Follow the link to get a glimpse of some of that. From June, I’ll be meeting some of the people involved now for the next stage of the project.

The Light Ships

Arranging flowers into a pleasing display must be one of the oldest expressions of human creativity. One can imagine even a Neanderthal responding to the colour and form of flowers by wanting to bring them close, to keep them as living evidence of nature’s extraordinary abundance. A flower arrangement is a still life that embodies the transitory nature of life that paintings can only represent.

Is it art? Of course it is, if art involves trying to articulate what you feel, think, believe and value through creative work that speaks to others.

In the Fenland church flower festivals people make arrangements in response to themes. Long Sutton’s ‘Count your Blessings’ inspired creations that celebrated hearing, books, music, friends and neighbours, employment and the health service. At Moulton, people represented ‘The Wonderful World of Colour’ with displays on Dulux, Cluedo, the Blue Danube and Lincolnshire Yellowbellies.

Having no aptitude for…

View original post 120 more words

The Light Ships cast off

From ‘Shadow Play’ by William Lindley, Leasingham Church, 3-5 May 2014

‘I feel quite moved that this is happening.’ Mary is the spirit behind ‘Handmade in Moulton’, her village’s arts and crafts festival, and a member of the congregation of All Saints, We were chatting about The Light Ships, the latest regular marvel, which celebrates the parish church as a centre of artistic creation in community life. I couldn’t have hoped for a more generous welcome to this project. Mary will help spread the word and host some conversations over tea when I come back to Moulton next month.

The Light Ships focuses on 14 villages in the Lincolnshire Fenland. It is a commission from Transported, an initiative to encourage the arts in this very distinctive part of the country. It will be more intensive than other regular marvels, which have taken up to three years to complete: this started yesterday and will be completed by the autumn, probably in October.

Its online presence will also be different, with a dedicated website, updated as often as I can manage. The Light Ships blog is separate from the main Regular Marvels site because it is intended as a window onto the art of the churches themselves. Updated as frequently as I can manage, with images and texts from many sources, including Lincolnshire’s museum collections, libraries and archives, it is intended to be an evolving exhibition of the art of these exceptional places. My thoughts on the evolving project – and the occasional re-blogged post – will be posted here as usual.

The Light Ships blog is now live: please follow this link to see the first few snapshots.

Noah's Ark, from the font made by William Tydd in 1719 for Moulton Church at a cost of £7 3s
Noah’s Ark, from the font made by William Tydd in 1719 for Moulton Church at a cost of £7 3s

Filming creation

Each Regular Marvel is the result of conversations, reflection and shared creativity. They only exist because of many people’s willingness to join a trip across unknown land. Their different voices and observations, experiences and perspectives, shape what story is told and how. I’ve also involved artists and friends like Bill Ming, Rosie RedziaMik GodleyBen Wigley and the Ligeti Quartet whose work has greatly enriched both past and current projects.

The Light Ships follows the same pattern, but this time the artist working alongside me is my son, Laurence, a young filmmaker who has just completed his first big commission. Looking for Melody is a 50 minute documentary about the recording of Sine Qua Non, an album of Serge Gainsbourg songs recast in a jazz idiom. Filmed mainly at Abbey Road Studios in London, it captures the evolution of musical creation in the hands and minds of a diverse group of musicians, engineers, and producer. It’s a process of exploration and discussion, trying things out, abandoning things that don’t work, arguing for what you hear or hope to hear, starting, stopping and starting again.

Laurence and I have worked together before, but The Light Ships, with its focus on the village church in artistic and social life, is a more open, exploratory project. The short film we’ll make, alongside the book and other activities, will take shape only as the conversations that are the heart of the project begin to take place. All that will begin in June, once the website is live and we’ve been able to do more of the background research. In the meantime, although the subject is very different, we hope you will enjoy Looking for Melody.


The Light Ships

This summer, a new regular marvel will unfold in the ancient and distinctive fenlands of south east Lincolnshire. The Light Ships, which I’m doing in partnership with Transported, is:

  • A revaluation of Fenland churches as historic works of art and as sites of contemporary creativity;
  • An exploration of the village church’s layered meanings in community life now; and
  • A celebration of the stories, memories and associations bound up in every church.

The Light Ships revolves around the Fenland’s ancient churches. Each one is unique, its form, treasures and meanings built up over centuries by the people who have lived alongside, used and owned it. Each one is an ark of creativity and memory, carrying a community’s life across oceans of time, continually refitted during the voyage to meet changing needs in changing times.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Light Ships focuses on 14 Lincolnshire villages, prioritised by Transported, an arts initiative working across Boston and South Holland Districts. It welcomes anyone and everyone with an interest to be involved – parishioners, vicars and volunteers; masons, cleaners and gardeners; choirs, bell-ringers, musicians, needleworkers and other artists; schools, clubs and community associations. We’ll share stories, insights and knowledge of each unique place, looking and talking and listening until a collective image of ‘church-ness’ begins to form.

Words, film and photography will portray the buildings as lived-in spaces not just architectural wonders – sites of meaning and local spirit of place. A separate website will record progress, collect research materials and enable online conversation. The Light Ships will end with a book and a short film that are both documents of a summer’s work and a millennium of life in Fenland Lincolnshire.

The Light Ships website will go live on 1 May and the project will be completed with some celebratory events in September.