Peter Ross on the Secrets of a Fenland Church
Covering the length and breadth of Britain, Peter Ross' endlessly fascinating Steeple Chasing is a love letter to the architecture and cultural import of our churches, as well as the unforgettable figures who look after them. In this exclusive piece, Ross spotlights one particular church in Norfolk that holds a disturbing and little-known secret.
In Holy Trinity, Stow Bardolph, a few miles south of King’s Lynn, there is a side-chapel, and in that side-chapel there is a wonderful, terrible thing.
Enter the small church. You are likely to be the only visitor. No sign will tell you what you are about to see. It is as if they would rather you didn’t know. Pass up the nave and into the chancel and turn left through an arched doorway. Walk to the north-west corner and you will find a cabinet of dark wood. You will find that you are able to open it, and then you will find that you are opening it, and then it will be too late and there she will be: Sarah Hare.
Or rather, a wax effigy of Sarah Hare, a member of the local gentry who died on 9 April 1744 – poisoning her blood with the prick of a needle. She was fifty-five and resident in Essex at the time of her death. It was her wish that she should be memorialised here in this way.
‘I desire to have my face and hands made in wax,’ she declared in her will, ‘with a piece of crimson satin thrown like a garment in a picture, hair upon my head, and put in a case of mahogany with a glass before and fix’d up so near the place where my corps lyes as it can be . . .’
The waxwork is life-size and life-like, probably made from a life- or death-mask, and is in no way a flattering portrait. Beneath the red cloak, almost pressed against the glass, is a face: plump and over-ripe; ingrained dirt gives the impression that it is veined like cheese. The eyes are blue. Dark curls fall upon the forehead. The effigy has grown grubby and worn. The neck and décolletage are filthier than the face, and her hands are filthiest of all. Her left index finger is coming away at the knuckle. She wears a damask robe. She wears a neutral expression. She brings to mind Dorian Gray, Miss Havisham, the ending of Don’t Look Now. It would be the most natural thing in the world, the most dreadful thing in the world, if she smiled.
Where is Sarah Hare’s body? Buried beneath the flagstones, most likely, at the foot of the cabinet. One thinks of her lying there, a trapdoor spider feasting on the shock and revulsion of visitors. This is church as fairground booth, as freakshow. It is an odd kind of eternal life.
This place, a favourite of mine, was the acorn from which Steeple Chasing: Around Britain By Church grew. I was travelling for work a few years ago when a friend suggested that I should not leave Norfolk without paying a visit to the village of Stow Bardolph. There was something – someone – in the church there who I would regret not meeting while I had the chance. It was my first encounter with Sarah Hare, an experience characterised by shuddery delight and by the pleasant feeling, that other writers may recognise, of a key turning in a lock. Here, it was clear, was a book. It only remained to write it.
My feeling about churches is that they contain art and architectural wonders, and might be regarded as one great hoard scattered, like a handful of jewels, across these isles. A map of churches is a treasure map. Follow it and you may find yourself among ancient hogback gravestones in Glasgow, admiring Stanley Spencer’s war paintings in a chapel in Hampshire, or craning your neck to examine Sheela-na-Gigs in Herefordshire and wooden angels high on roof beams in East Anglia.
There is a shimmering unreality about Fenland churches, indeed about that whole part of England, drained and reclaimed. It feels like a place of transformation, a fairytale zone. Water becomes land, rivers become dykes, and so of course flesh becomes not dust but wax. Whenever I have gone to see Sarah Hare in Stow Bardolph, I have thought of W. G. Sebald’s words in The Emigrants – ‘And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.’ On the occasion of my most recent visit, there was an additional touch of the otherworldly: a white peacock ambled through the village and cried out as I passed on my way to church.
Holy Trinity is Norman with a mostly Victorian interior. The mausoleum side-chapel was built in 1624. Sarah Hare is just one of many members of the family buried within.
‘I’m rather fond of her, actually,’ said Lady Rose Hare, over tea and biscuits, when we met at her nearby home. ‘Reading bits and pieces about her life is like reading a Jane Austen novel. The person comes alive. I think she was a strong lady with strong opinions and a strong family feeling. She wanted to come back to Stow to be buried. I would have liked to have known her.’
Lady Rose was eighty-five when we met. ‘I’m her guardian,’ she said of the effigy.
‘What relation is Sarah Hare to you?’ I asked.
‘Well, I don’t quite know. She’s my husband’s ancestor. The Hare family have lived here since – oh golly – the 1500s, so there’s always been Hares about. And she’s one of them. But she’s amazing, isn’t she? She’s got her own clothes on. And the V&A told us that the wig is her own hair. She’s so precious, almost unique.’
To experience the full power of an encounter with the effigy, it is best to visit the church by oneself. As Sarah Hare is at once presence and absence, there is a shivery sensation of being both alone and not-alone.
‘Do you think that Sarah would be pleased,’ I asked, ‘that getting on for three hundred years after her death, she is still looking out through the glass with those bright blue eyes?’
‘I would have thought she’d be absolutely delighted,’ Lady Rose replied. ‘There she sits in splendour, just as she’s always been.'
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