Slow Journey County: Shropshire
Slow Journey Destination: Langley Chapel, near Acton Burnell
Slow Journey Distance Travelled: About 5 metres: the length of the chapel.
Slipping into the silence of a rural church to discover the secrets hidden within and steal a moment’s peaceful contemplation …
Will it? Or won’t it? Every time, there’s a frisson of emotion as I twist the metal door handle and push. These days, all too often, nothing happens. Nothing gives. Literally. Once in a while, though, they do, and I fall several centuries into a simpler world, but one of adventure and exploration.
One such recent occasion was Langley Chapel, in Shropshire. I was ambling along a leafy lane, on a warm October day, when I spotted it, squatting in the middle – yes, the middle – of a recently harvested cornfield. Long since abandoned by worshippers, even the remnants of the village it once served had disappeared. Wandering around to its south wall, my heart leapt when I saw the key in the lock – a proper key – eight inches long and a solid weight. A twist, a push, and the door creaked inwards. This is the moment when you realise you’re about to experience that child-like feeling of exploration. These moments aren’t a public guided tour around a stately home – they’re an intimate journey of discovery. Langley Chapel revealed itself to be one of the best 17th century Puritan church interiors, complete with fixtures and fittings, to be found anywhere in the country.
Sitting in one of the rough-hewn wooden pews, the serenity of the place was overwhelming. The white stone walls reflected the light from the large, but basic, arched east window. There’s no stained glass interest here. These worshippers only needed plain light for their quiet contemplation. My fingers traced a series of deep grooves in the pew in front, now full with history and dust. Craning my neck, I saw a heavenly void bisected by crude wooden joists and beams. Squinting carefully, I could make out a carved date: 1601. Just below the roofline, simple carvings decorated the top of the south wall: a five-petalled English rose alternating with a fleur-de-lys.
Whilst isolated rural churches like these are religious buildings, to passers-by who manage to discover one, they’re an opportunity of escapism. There’s no electricity, only natural light pours through the windows. There are no distractions. It was quiet, save for the skylark, whose tuneful autumnal song drifted merrily through the open door. The Puritanical plainness of this simple building offered the perfect setting for quiet contemplation. Sitting here, with my eyes closed, it was as though the thick oak door to this building had trapped a bygone era within its walls. What chance do we get to sit and simply reflect, these days?
I remember thinking back to my desk at home, where everything is connected. If I take a photo on my smartphone it appears on all of my other devices within seconds. But here, in the middle of a corn-stubble field I was only connected with the past, and nature. These buildings help us to reflect upon a quieter way of life. When instead of trying to control life, we worked with it. Perhaps, ironically, it’s our forgetfulness that has saved these magnificent rural buildings, isolated in farmers’ fields. It was a collective memory-loss that saved Langley Chapel. The locals simply moved away from their hard agricultural life, for better paid work at the start of the Industrial Revolution, in Ironbridge Gorge, ten miles away, and forgot.
Too often, churches are locked to protect religious treasures, yet one of the most valuable treasures they offer is intangible. When you stumble across a hidden gem, like this, the simple pleasure of child-like wondrous exploration is unlocked within us. Until we step through that door, there is a mystery of what we will uncover and what our senses will experience. A closed door reawakens our imaginations. An unlocked door enables that imagination to flourish. Nothing beats that classic joy of discovery as our fingers curl themselves around the door handle and twist with unknown expectation. Will it? Or won’t it?
(c) Simon Whaley