From time to time, we like to shine the spotlight on a particular Herefordshire church and invite a representative of that church ‘into the pulpit’ to speak to us. In this interview with Bill Gunn of St George’s church, Woolhope, we talk Lady Godiva, the beauty of holiness, and agree with the Prince of Wales…
Bill, tell us a bit about Woolhope.
Woolhope is a uniquely beautiful Herefordshire enclave. The local farms can trace their origins to the Doomsday Book, and little has ever disturbed the peace of ‘Wulviva’s Valley’; armies have passed by over the centuries, but seemingly always on the other side of the wooded hills that surround us. My wife Amanda and I count ourselves exceptionally lucky to live here, within five minutes puffing distance uphill to St George’s Church (and also, incidentally, within easy distance of Woolhope’s two excellent pubs, The Crown and The Butcher’s Arms, both well known to walkers). We moved here from Yorkshire in the early 1980s and have put down ever-deeper roots. Our elder daughter was married in St George’s in 2002.
I have long passed my sell-by date as Churchwarden of St George’s and will retire next year, but have greatly enjoyed the role. Happily, I will not be stepping down completely as I shall continue as a Trustee of the Friends of Woolhope Church, the charity we set up in 2012 (with generous advice from John Caiger, featured in your last In the pulpit interview) to look after the fabric and churchyard.
What work is being done to the church at the moment, or needs to be done?
We have completed major repairs to the roof and re-tiling of areas of the floor, and repaired two windows that were seriously dilapidated. Among minor items, we are repairing a seventeenth century chair that was falling apart.
Next on the horizon are at least two exciting projects: One of the gems of St George’s is our William Vincent organ (1862), and we hope to be able to restore its original ‘High Victorian’ decoration with the help of a specialist conservator. Also, our 13th century tower houses a rare peal of six bells (one dating from 1400) and the second of our projects is to have them re-hung, with the object of making them easier to ring (with no loss of quality of sound), particularly for younger recruits to our bell-ringing team.
Possible further projects include the replacement of the tower’s pyramid roof (currently finished in asbestos, though of a relatively innocuous variety) with a new, tiled structure of the same profile, and the conversion of the mower shed to house a WC; those ‘in extremis’ have currently to resort either to the pub or to the Parish Hall, both a little distance away.
Apart from these there is, as always, a long list of minor repairs.
What sort of a grant did you receive from HHCT and where did the idea come from?
I have been shameless in approaching the HHCT for assistance over several years, and there have been few projects to which the Trust has not contributed in some measure. They gave us £5,800 towards the roof repairs and, most recently, contributed £2,000 and £1,750 to successive window repairs. Woolhope PCC is immensely grateful for this unfailing support.
Aside from this church, what’s your favourite building in the county and why?
That’s a difficult question, because we are spoilt for choice. I think I will plump for Dore Abbey.
The ambulatory, going its “splendid, sumptuous way” as Pevsner describes it, is exquisite enough but within it, like a jewel within a jewel, is that perfect Laudian chancel: two completely different but totally compatible expressions, dating from half a millennium apart, of ‘the beauty of holiness’. An aesthetic ‘double whammy’!
I have a particular musical memory of Dore Abbey to underline my choice. I remember once sitting in the transept watching the evening light move gradually down the wall as Maria-João Pires played Schubert’s ghostly last piano sonata, the D960. The combination was utterly unforgettable.
If the church could feature in a film of your choice, what sort of film would it be?
I am tempted to suggest a biopic of Lady Godiva; it was her sister Wulviva who gave the village its name, and both sisters are commemorated in a striking ‘Arts & Crafts’ window in the North Aisle. I am sure Hollywood, given its current proclivities, would leap at the opportunity! Alternatively, ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ is on circuit as I write and although Woolhope isn’t Dorset, it would lend itself to a Hardy setting, with a number of churchyard monuments from the period.
Why do you think our historic church buildings are important in the modern world?
I sit firmly with the Prince of Wales in his views on contemporary architecture. Our churches have stood the test of time, combining resilience and beauty; how many modern buildings will survive, let alone give pleasure, for two millennia?
I also believe that churches provide a wonderfully accessible, three dimensional guide to the nation’s history for those prepared to look for it and read the signs; be it the 13th century lady in a ‘crespine’ headdress looking down from the wall, the bell which rang out for Agincourt, or the intriguing date 1678 carved on the altar rail or the war memorial to Woolhopians who fought at Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele. Each succeeding generation seems more woefully ignorant of our origins than its predecessor, but the solution is ready to hand.
When you’re not being interviewed for HHCT, what do you do to relax?
I enjoy fishing on the Monnow in summer, walking the hills in winter, and listening to good music all year round.
In the delicate beauty of a finial, the awesome engineering of a keystone, or the simple symmetry of a quatrefoil, we can find quiet amid the turmoil of our daily lives. What aspect of the church property brings you the most peace or pleasure?
In recent weeks, looking through the clear glass of our newly restored window to the flowering cherry beyond, and seeing it move in the wind, has given particular pleasure. With the sunlight flooding in and ‘Immortal invisible……’ in full flow one can feel that all is right with the world. It isn’t, of course, but one is strengthened to tackle it’s challenges anew.
Of course, Bill. Thank you for taking the time to speak to HHCT. You can step out of the pulpit now.
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