I teach on the exciting and interdisciplinary MA Archaeology of Death and Memory, delivering a module with 3 half-day and 1 full-day field trip exploring different dimensions of the archaeology and heritage of the British landscape. Our first field trip was aimed at exploring the church and churchyard as a ‘landscape of memory’, both in terms of commemorative and funerary monuments in the churchyard as well as the monuments and plaques inside the church. Moreover, the mnemonics of fabric and fittings within and outside the church. Other aspects of the churchyard environment too might have mnemonic significance, including trees and other plantings, churchyard walls and paths. We even discussed the significance of the placing and contents of the rubbish bins and, of course, the paths! To give a sense of the variability of long-term shifts in these environments, I wanted to visit multiple churches.
I was over-optimistic and envisioned maybe getting to see 4, 5 or 6 churches in half a day. However, this simply wasn’t possible unless we missed key dimensions of each one, so instead we finished after 3: Backford, Frodsham and Kingsley. I selected these to be different from churches I had visited on previous trips with students, such as these here and here. Moreover, I wanted to ensure they were churches and churchyards with different scales, topographies and histories. At one level, almost any west Cheshire or north-east Welsh church and churchyard would have a complex story to tell, but the three in question worked very well in drawing out themes in the evolving history of memory materialised in the church and its churchyard.
So what did we discuss at our first church and churchyard: St Oswald’s, Backford, just outside Chester? This is a Grade II listed building with a 14th-century chancel (although Pevsner says 13th century) and a 15th-century tower (which Pevsner puts at 1500, so early 16th-century?) and a rebuilt early 18th-century nave.
The churchyard is ‘nothing special’ on the face of it. Yet even a brief exploration allows us to discuss some important dimensions of changing forms and ornamentation in funerary monuments from the early 19th century through the later 19th century. What we regard as a ‘familiar’ and traditional English churchyard is very much the product of a host of social, economic, religious and ideological factors in which middle class and working class people began to regularly raise enduring grave memorials, forging new relationships with the grave. Earlier grave markers have been swept away, although there is one possible example beside the church that could be 17th or 18th century (please correct me church monument boffins!)
The shift into the early and then mid- and late-20th century cannot be clearer in terms of the height and form of the monuments. We discussed the 20th-century gravestones – their modest height and less evocative and presuming designs, but how these spread eastwards of the church into a first extension.
I then addressed the fresh arrangement of the late 20th/early 21st-century second extension. Rather than being populated from west to east, the central area has been left clear, with new graves added in rows along both the western edge adjacent to existing graves, and the far-eastern side. This creates a ‘lawn’ in between’. These multiple extension of the churchyard, at least twice, give us a ‘horizontal stratigraphy’ of an evolving landscape of memory, but in stages, rather than an incremental west to east spread.
Unsurprisingly given my research interests, I was particularly fascinated by how the cremated dead were integrated via cremation memorials along the historic churchyard boundary wall, both facing west towards the church and east away from it into the extension. This is a trend I’ve noticed elsewhere. We also discussed the rather odd choices regarding how to arrange cremation memorials as a ‘frontage’ to inhumation burial plots.
Further dimensions to the churchyard were noted, including the paths, the exclusive north-side 19th-century churchyard entrance to provide a separate high-status access from the neighbouring Backford Hall, the commemorative drainpipe and the new toilet block.
In addition to an 18th-century sundial, a new commemorative feature of the churchyard is a metal bench placed beside the south porch and presumably commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War. Its back-rest bears the silhouette of soldiers and a huge triffid-like poppy: the trend towards poppy gigantism I’ve noted before on this blog. Like the silhouettes of soldiers these benches are now a national ‘brand’ of 21st-century remembrance of 20th-century wars, appended to war memorials and church spaces. In Backford’s case, the war memorial is indoors, so this is the only outdoor memorial feature.
Inside the church, we discussed the absence of floor memorials and how the mural monuments were positioned only in the nave’s aisles and the chancel, spanning from the 17th century to the 20th century. Notably, there were no brasses.
The oldest memorial features are a series of heraldic tablets – 6 in total – the oldest dating to 1624.
There is also a 1636 church chest.
For the succeeding century, there are only a pair of 18th-century vicar’s memorials. These are both within the chancel and they take very different forms. One is modest in size and simply alerts the reader to the presence ‘underneath’ of the body. The second is later and far more grandiose, a proper clerical monument of the end of the century, taking the form of an obelisk.
Most of the memorials were 19th century, however, including one stating that the pulpit and font, not just the memorial adjacent to them, are dedicated to the memory of the vicar of Backford.
After this 19th-century flourish, as with many churches, it is striking how few 20th-century memorials try to ‘compete’ or ‘supplant’ their predecessors. Indeed, at Backford, only a couple of memorial plaques and tablets related to the 20th century revealing stricter control on memorial expression.
The most recent memorial dimension was to the Millennium and in the form of a window and I didn’t spot any early 21st-century memorials.
War themes include the composite war memorial framed by a pair of British Legion flags; a window and two memorial plaques: one for each world war. Also in the church is a memorial to Major Feilden who died in the Boar War.
Put all this together, St Oswald’s church and churchyard operate as a complex landscape of memory, with the 19th century particularly prominent both inside and out. Almost every church and churchyard might tell a version of a similar story, but they do so with different intensities, complex spatio-temporal variabilities, and contrasting materialities.