I still wander the cathedrals of my mind

I was driving through rural Northamptonshire one evening. Suddenly I saw a village name ahead: Earl's Barton. I had never been there in my life, but I knew the name instantly. This was because of a peculiarity of my school days - of my education, specifically.

My reaction was immediate. I thought "Earl's Barton, Northamptonshire. Anglo-Saxon tower, 10th or early 11th century." It was a knee-jerk thing.

Driving a little farther, I spotted the church. Again, perfect recognition, particularly of its dominant, square tower. The tower's stories were defined, as I knew they would be, by stone string courses, and patterned with processional rows of vertical strips, semicircles, and zig-zaggy lozenges. It was all so familiar! There, near the top, were the arcades like lined-up skittles and the battlement crowning all. It was like meeting an old friend.

"Heavens!" I muttered silently. "So it really exists!" I pulled in and gazed at it, tickled pink with unexpected pleasure.

My previous acquaintance with Earl's Barton parish church had been at school. A high proportion of our schooling had been memorization, and this was no exception. It was an integral part of the art syllabus, and as with most of the things foisted on us in the name of education then, we rarely asked, "Why?"

When it came to the book on parish churches and cathedrals, all I can remember thinking was "How?" How on earth would I memorize the vast number of requisite details of more than 100 old English ecclesiastical buildings - details without which one would not pass the impending state examination?

The book contained black-and-white photographs, and only a tiny minority of the churches pictured were within striking (or biking) distance of the school. So there was little thought of actually going into these fine examples of (mainly) medieval architecture, sniffing their musty coldness, sensing their ancient rootedness, touching their wonderful stonework, and peering at their dark, carved woodwork.

Essentially, it was an exercise in memorizing dates and styles. Was a given church "early English," "Decorated," or "Perpendicular"? Was it Norman? Anglo-Saxon? What features indicated periods or styles? Was this church 12th century or that church early 16th? Above all, where was the church located?

I am reading a book by a historian who rebels at labeling architectural styles. I suspect its author, Paul Johnson, also had to memorize the pictures in that school textbook on parish churches.

Today he questions the validity of the conventional divisions we had to learn. Maybe he has a point. Forget the labels! Just follow the amazing development of medieval church and cathedral architecture as it moved from massive, solemn, and shadowy to light-filled, lighthearted, and exultant. Why do we need to know that "early English" had narrow pointed-arch windows, rather like missiles? That "Norman" had hefty, wide, round-arched doorways and weighty round columns decorated with dog-tooth carvings? Why need we confuse ourselves with the label "Perpendicular" when perpendicularity was a feature of most churches, and this so-named style, for all its soaring upwardness, often sported rather horizontally-topped windows?

Once a label and an image have been drummed into one, it is hard to escape such connections, even if one wants to. And I am not sure I want to. I was pleased with myself for recognizing Earl's Barton church and knowing something of its date and style. All those hours lying on the summer grass, when I was theoretically watching cricket matches, I was endeavoring to remember if that tall, spired church at the far end of a street was Louth in Lincolnshire (it was) or if this nave belonged to Iffley in Oxfordshire (it did) or if this rood screen was at Cawston or Ludham (I hadn't a clue).

The hidden purpose behind this intense memorizing may have been to make us indelibly English. But instead of making me dislike church architecture for the rest of my life, it had to opposite effect. Flying buttresses and fan vaults, chantreys and chancels, crockets and cusps seem to me to be happily permanent features of the way things are, almost as if these buildings were works of nature.

Taking a visitor to see the only Gothic building in Glasgow (my home city now), I immediately felt on familiar terms with it, but not because I have visited it frequently. Glasgow Cathedral has been described as a perfect Gothic building. It is mainly "early English" (despite being in Scotland) and marvelously and unusually consistent in date and style. This splendid cathedral, stripped to its elegant bones during the Reformation but not destroyed as so many Scottish churches were, did not appear in the book of churches I had to memorize. But I feel sure that much of the character and quality it has in my eyes today, my feeling of affection toward it, I owe to that rather odd requirement of my education.

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