I will always reply to comments and always re-reply to re-replies.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


(click to enlarge)

My favourite local cycling area, Romney Marsh, is littered with ancient mediaeval parish churches. Reflecting the social life and population rise and fall of these little marsh villages, they are a particular interest of mine. So much has changed. There are quite large churches where the village has all but disappeared. Why? Well, the low lying marshlands, in former times, were very unhealthy due to malaria (and you thought this was a tropical disease?) and the Black Death of 1350 AD completely ravaged these villages, decimating the populations.

This by way of an introduction to the church of St George at Ivychurch. A large church for a (now) small village (it is known as "The Cathedral of Romney Marsh), it is no longer used for general services, the village population being so small, but is lovingly preserved. The ancient floor tiles of the northern aisle have been heavily cracked or destroyed as a result of Oliver Cromwell's soldiers stabling their horses there during the English Civil War.
But it is the latch to the church door that I want us to examine. It is obviously very old - it could even be as old as the oak door, which is as old as the church (1360). How many times has this latch been lifted over the centuries? For the usual services, for the school which was held there in ancient times, in times of sadness (see The Black Death above!) and in times of joy (the church has chapels and corners dedicated to various saints, each of whom had a village society who each celebrated "their" saint with a feast day each year).
My late father-in-law was a master blacksmith and I worked for him for a number of years, so have an appreciation of iron work that is probably above the average. This latch would have been made by the local village smith - a man who would have been well-respected, as workers with the sacred iron had been since its original discovery. A general job - a latch for the new church door, but he worked at it carefully and decorated it proudly, according to the limits of his simple village craftsmanship. He must have touched his work and checked it out each time he entered the church (as I still do when I see wrought ironwork that I crafted over 40 years ago).
The iron would have been delivered to him as heavy "pigs", carried by pack horses (the Marsh roads being usually impassable to wagons) probably from the local Sussex iron mines. He would then have to heat a pig yellow-hot in the forge and chisel off a lump for his latch. This then would be re-heated, beaten, shaped and chisel-cut to form the latch length. Look carefully at the latch and you will be able to see that there are no machine or file marks on it - it has been shaped by hammer blows alone. See how he has fined it down ("drawing it" is the craftsman's term) so that it is thinner where it meets the spindle coming through from the outer door. Here it has been flattened by heat and hammer - it would have been easier to make this bit circular, but, pride in his work, he has lengthened out the tip to form a heart shape - a grace note.
Now turn your attention to the latch end. It could have been left plain and would have worked just as well. But here was a craftsman, proud of his standing in the village and of the work he would do for it and his church. He is a simple country fellow but wanted to give it his mark. Notice that these diagonals, dots and lines would not have been made with files, but, again, have been worked in the fire. The metal has been heated to red-hot and the decorations have been made with a hammer and chisel. You will know this because no metal has been removed from the latch. Where the chisel has struck downwards the metal has been pushed to either side, causing raised "cushioning".
A village craftsman, long forgotten. But allowed to live again for just a little while because of the work he has left behind. One of our forefathers, summed up beautifully in Edmund Blunden's poem.


herhimnbryn said...

This is such a beautiful post A. Your love of The Marsh, churches and the ironwork shines through in your words and the image.

If you don't mind I would like to post a like on my blog?

tut-tut said...

Thank you for this post. You've written about/linked to a great many areas that interest me.

Lee said...

One of my ongoing wishes - destined forever to be unfulfilled - is to be able to see what life was like in the heyday of ancient buildings.

Avus said...

H: thank you for that - yes three of my loves. Link by all means - I feel honoured!

t.t.: Welcome, and thanks for your visit. Glad you found it interesting.

lee: I know exactly how you feel about this - me too! By co-incidence your "Valentine" post had a good picture of mediaeval workmen on a building.

Lucy said...

I just followed H's link to you - I'm so glad I did. this post is lovely and fascinating, and I was also really pleased to rediscover the Graves' 'Warning to children', which I haven't read for years...
I'll come again - can I put you on my links list?

Knowleypowley said...

This is a beautiful post. I have always found the Romney marsh not to my liking due to the very flatness of it's nature, but this post shows me there is much more to see. Thanks for sharing.

Avus said...

Lucy: thanks for visiting - by all means link to me, I enjoy making new friends.

Pete: My fascination with the Marsh relates to its geological and social history. Also flat means no hills to cycle up! But those sky scapes have to be seen at all seasons and times of day.

Jean said...

Quelle belle photo !
Le verrou , le bois de la porte !
Cette photo m'émeut beaucoup .
Mon grand père était forgeron .
Quand j'étais enfant , j'étais fasciné par son travail du fer .

Avus said...

Jean bienvenu
Content vous l'avez aimé - bon. Donc vous avez un forgeron dans votre famille, aussi !

Vita said...

Beautiful door. Lovely the way you've pointed out things about how that latch was made. I like to ponder my ancestors. No wonder hhnb likes silversmithing.

Bronwen said...

What a beautiful tribute! Reaching back in time is so important. You have allowed us to travel with you! thank you!

Bro. Bartleby said...

... and I followed Lucy ... and now I too witness the door latch, it the grand witness to so many over time that we can only imagine in mind and print.

Avus said...

V:With one grandfather being a carpenter and joiner and the other being a blacksmith - with my wife being good with the needle and my love of working with metal - it is small wonder that HHnB should be the amalgam all these!

Bron: Thanks for visiting - I see from your blog that you are a silversmith and understand the pleasure that good work gives.

bro.b. thanks for visiting. From your calling I think you will understand the love that went into the making of such a little thing for a village church.

Avus said...

Vita: I can no longer access your blog - it seems that you need to "re-publish your profile for access".
I hope you can manage this as I enjoy all those old motor sickles!

Helen said...

Have just read your very lovely and interesting post. One holiday in England I did some cycling (push bike type) and on our travels called into a small village pub. It was 14th century! That's what I love (and miss) about England - it's 'oldness' and authenticity. As I sat in the pew-like wooden seat next to the enormous stone fireplace (containing a REAL fire) I thought about who had might have sat there over the centuries. Just as you saw with the latch. We can take these things for granted so often. Thankyou.

Avus said...

Cycling, old pubs, large open fires - that is the England I enjoy and you ex-pats are nostalgic for. Forgetting, for a minute, our awful government and social problems. Kipling had it right (as he very often does):
"If England was what England seems
And not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass and paint,
How quick we'ed drop her, but she ain't"

Avus said...

Vita; You are back now!

chiefbiscuit said...

Britain is rich with history - it oozes from the very ground; can be discovered in a humble door latch. What a marvellous and informative description. In my ignorance, I would have completely missed all of that detail. Thanks for bringing it to light and in the process, alerting us to look at what we can so often take for granted. Marvellous.

Avus said...

Chief: Thank you very much!
I think William Blake sums it up;
"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour."

Nea said...

One of the wonderful things about GB is the history. As you know the US just doesn't have much history, well certainly not back to the 1300's. Anyway, I also love things made of iron, well any metal. I love copper, brass, bronze. Anything hand made, especially something that is quite old always makes me stop and take a second look. I guess that is what separates the people who appreciate antiques and heirlooms from those who don't.

That is indeed a lovely latch.

I bought an old house once, it was built about 1880. Inside they had some very old doors, the kind that have been painted over and over, and have the old metal box type latches with the porcelain knobs. I refused to replace the doors, I loved them, My Mom who does not care for antiques, never let up on me for keeping those "nasty" old doors. I thought them lovely.....

Anyone who can work with iron and actually make things, has my admiration. It is not as easy material to work.

Avus said...

Nea: good on you for keeping those old, characterful doors. I too love those porcelain knobs.

Granny J said...

What a wonderful piece of history. Here in the states (and especially the West) we must make-do our short history with relics of such recent vintage!

Avus said...

g.j.: short history or long - it is all fascinating.
Thanks for visiting.