The little Wiltshire town of Bradford On Avon is considered by some to be the most picturesque in England.
Undaunted, my Medievalist wife, Katy, had somehow convinced her husband and three young children to forgo the crescents of Bath for an afternoon and search instead for the tiny Saxon church of St.Laurence built by St.Aldhelm at the turn of the 8th century. Lost for centuries, the small church served as a school, a house and then a warehouse before its resurrection in 1856 by a local curate.
Sheltering from the rain, we found it permeated by gloom, cave-like. It exuded age, the most thoroughly ancient building we’d encountered so far on a month’s sojourn in England.
My four year old daughter, Molly Claire, her eyes adjusting to the dim light, responded to the architecture of the tiny chancel by singing, her plaid skirt swinging as see twirled, lost in the mystery of the place. She was alone in a circle of sound that reverberated off the aged stone walls.
Maybe it was a good thing St.Laurence was lost for a thousand years, consumed by the organic build up of the town around it. It survived with its soul intact never having suffered alteration, its spare interior imbued with atmosphere, “whispering”, as Mathew Arnold said of nearby Oxford “the last enchantments of the Middle Age” .
Carved angels above us on a striking Saxon arch, we watched silently from the side stalls as Molly Claire’s voice rose and lost itself in the echoing shadows amongst the ancient oak black with years.
No one had told her to sing, but the building suggested it and she heeded. She sang the only song that somehow seem appropriate, an old Victorian hymn her grandmother had used to lull her to sleep: “This Is My Father’s World”.
“All nature sings
And round me rings
The music of the spheres”
I kind of doubt she grasped the meaning of the words, if indeed that even mattered. But I’m certain she did sense that some magic was happening, that the architecture had elicited something from her that was real, and spiritual and beautiful. The notes she sang rose and joined the myriad others, notes from 8th century voices and a million songs and latin chants since then.
She joined in and became part of something that day, like a part of the building’s very architectural fabric. Her response to the spirit of the place and the built form of the room were nothing short of exactly right. And really, she had such a cute little voice.
(First published in PERSPECTIVES magazine, Fall 2015)