A MASON’S mark on a piece of stone; a 19th century cast iron radiator hidden behind some pews; a grave slab covered by the altar… it’s surprising what turns up when a church is explored by an enthusiastic band of volunteers with a fine tooth comb.
Not only explored, but recorded in the finest of detail and put together in a weighty tome – an historical record of a moment in time and a valuable resource for the future.
Church recording in this detail takes place regularly all over the country, overseen by arts-based charity, the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS). And here in Tynedale, a local group has been hard at work on the two churches in Bywell.
St Peter’s was tackled first – a project which took three years to complete, before volunteers began to explore the interior of St Andrew’s. It is hoped the work on the church, with its Saxon tower, will be finished this year. A copy of the completed record is given to the local church and others are kept by English Heritage Archives and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The recording works by pairing up volunteers and asking them to focus on a particular subject inside each church. So one pair might examine the windows, while another looks at the woodwork, stonework or metalwork. Textiles, paintings, memorials, books… whatever is inside the church is methodically recorded.
The work for NADFAS brings together people from all walks of life. And you don’t have to be an expert in art and architecture to take part. Full training is given, so the voluntary work offers an opportunity to learn new skills.
Group leader Barbara Foti , who lives in Elsdon, explained: “You learn on the hoof. There’s a guidebook and various study days. I went down to York and spent the day learning how to put the whole thing together. In Harrogate we studied an Art Deco church and we had people there who knew their subject very well.”
St Andrew’s is the fourth church Barbara has been involved with. An interior designer by profession, she discovered NADFAS when she lived in Kent. “I love drawing and I got involved with a group down there and we did two churches. Then, when we moved up here I joined Tynemouth DFAS. They had just finished a church in Tynemouth and I thought I would get involved. A few months later I found I was group leader.
“NADFAS has been going for around 25 years and up to some 2,000 churches have been recorded. What was happening was, a church warden would find some documents or a piece of silver and keep it in their house. Then they would die and their descendants would come along and not know what it was and it would get lost. With this work you create a time capsule of information – we don’t do revisions.
“From an historical point of view it is very interesting. You find out things that you would not necessarily know about your local church.”
This was certainly the case for Gill Jones who up until recently, lived a stone’s throw away from the churches at Bywell. A keen photographer, Gill photographed items she would not normally have chosen as subject matter. At the outset, her knowledge of architectural features was, she confesses, fairly limited, but being involved with NADFAS became an education.
“We had to learn the terminology and we went to the county archives at Woodhorn to do research,” she said. “We could apply to look at ancient manuscripts belonging to the church. Church wardens records, for example, have been greatly used because they go into very fine details and say things like, ‘wheelbarrow replaced for churchyard’.
“This whole thing with NADFAS has been fascinating. Every time you go to the church, you find something you have not seen before.”
“I didn’t know a great deal about this myself, but the windows people at St Andrew’s were specialists. I found out that every colour in a stained-glass window has a specific name. They are a husband and wife team and she was in a wheelchair and he looked at the windows with binoculars and she wrote down all the details. It was absolutely amazing – the terminology they were using. It was like a medieval language. Each tiny piece had a particular colour with a description and I had a problem getting the colours right because I had not done digital photography before, so I was learning that as well.
“Everyone was fascinated to learn more about what they were recording. Some went to London to look up the makers of some of the things they discovered. They were very keen to delve into the records.
“We’re enthusiastic amateurs who would get together and say, ‘we have been to London this week to look up the maker of the altar rail and we have discovered there are only three like it in the country and it was donated from someone who lived at Bywell Hall’.”
Living a five-minute walk away from the church had its benefits. “I would walk up to the church almost every day and on one day they were painting and decorating and they had taken all the hatchments off the walls,” said Gill. “I asked, ‘how long are these going to be down here?’ and they said, ‘until this afternoon’. I went home and got my camera and got some close-in very detailed shots.”
Gill’s interest in photography took off when the husband of a school friend who took photographs for record sleeves came to stay with her and her husband Brian when they lived at Great Whittington.
“He said, ‘come down to my dark room for a week in Muswell Hill’ and he taught me about black and white photography and I set up my own little dark room in Great Whittington,” recalled Gill.
It wasn’t her first foray into the world of photography though. “I was a fashion buyer and I came up from London to be a hat buyer for Fenwicks in the 1950s and met Brian here. He was moved to Stockton so I got the job at Binns in Middlesbrough. I had a great time at the World Cup in 1966. The North Koreans were based in Middlesbrough. It was absolutely fascinating because they got them a South Korean translator and of course neither side could speak to each other. They had no security whatsoever. The story is they turned up with a bag of gold bars and took it to the National Provincial for their expenses.”
Gill put on fashion shows during the World Cup to raise money for charity and invited the team along to watch. “They almost became dependant on us. They did their training at Middleton St George airforce base which is now the airport. My oldest girlfriend was picture editor of The Sunday Times and she obviously would speak to me and she said, ‘do we want me to send photographer, Michael Ward’, so I said yes.”
When he arrived, he took Gill to the training ground at 5am. “He said there would be loads of press people there so that’s why we arrived early and he told me to get down on my hands and knees and crawl through the grass so no-one would see us. Eventually, I just stood up and said, there’s no-one else here! The team all gathered round and they wanted their photos taken. We got some taxis and took them to Middleton St George and walked up and down the street. Michael gave them Sunday Times money and they walked up and down the street buying things. They had some ice cream in a cones, which they had never seen before and it was the ice cream picture that appeared in The Sunday Times.”
Two years later, Gill happened to have her father’s camera in her hand at Heathrow airport and took a classic photo of Paul McCartney and John Lennon arriving from the US.
“My parents were building a bungalow and my father wanted photos of the groundwork so I went with his camera and photographed what the builders were doing,” she said. “I saved one exposure to take a picture of Brian arriving from America, but these two came off first.
“The photo was upstairs in the toilet for a few years and we had a meeting of the photographic group here and one went upstairs and came down with it and asked, ‘what is this doing in the toilet’?
“This whole thing with NADFAS has been fascinating. Every time you go to the church, you find something you have not seen before. There’s a radiator there for example – Victorian. It’s very fancy and we were all amazed we had not noticed it as we were walking past. There is no heating system and it is not connected to anything.
“It is all consuming. You just learn every time you go.”