THE CHURCH TREASURY OF HISTORY, CUSTOM, FOLK-LORE, ETC.
BY THE REV. W. B. RUSSELL CALEY, M.A., F.R.H.S.
WHEN the parish church had been built, either by the munificence of some landowner, or through the laudable wish of a neighbouring monastic establishment to provide for the spiritual necessities of the country population, the first question that arose was “How to get to it?” If it was not by a road this was no easy problem to solve. Often must the villagers in winter have looked across at their church and seen “a morass” between them and it, or else a wild and rugged common. Now it is the birthright of every Englishman to be able to get to his parish church, so “a way” to it was a necessity, unless the said church was in the midst of the village, or abutting on the high road. From this manifest need arose “Church Walks,” or as we find them in towns, “Church Alleys” (probably in days long ago — brier-hung lanes — gay with many-coloured flowers, before the town absorbed the country). The landowner having built the 270 church near his own dwelling, in most cases, would grant the people leave to cross his land to come to church, or they would take “French leave,” generally, as a matter of course, choosing the direct line from the village to the church. Then underwood must be cut away, and holes filled up, and mounds levelled, till a regular track was made; this, in time, became a recognized “right of way,” or the “Church Walk.” But human nature is not soon satisfied. It must have been unpleasant to run the gauntlet of stray cattle, etc., on the way to church, an unruly horse, or a vicious bull must have been a severe trial to the faith and courage of some would-be worshippers, so the churchwardens, prompted by the vestry, would consider the advisability of putting up fences, and the weaker members of the community rejoiced. Yet, although the hedges afforded protection from wandering quadrupeds, and gave shelter from wintry blasts, they did not protect from the noon-day sun. Trees must be planted; the leafy shelter made church-going a pleasure, and young lovers delighted in the welcome shade on moonlight nights.
The Church Walk became the pride of the village. The pleasant avenue, with the old grey 271 church standing in its framework of green at the end, was the greatest charm of the place. Old folks ambled there, young folk sauntered there, children romped there. The more serious minded of the parish would not be satisfied with this. Why not place before the eyes of those who used this “Walk,” object lessons in morality? This surely was the place for the parish stocks. So “the Stocks” stood there, and persons going to 272 the House of God saw many sad instances of the sorrow and sin that results from breaking His commandments, while the unfortunates in the stocks, being the subject of the pity or scorn of the parish, learnt that the way of transgressors is hard.
IN THE PARISH STOCKS, BY ALFRED CROWQUILL.
These “Church Walks” were seldom, or never, used for wheeled traffic, by ancient custom they were only Bridle-paths, or foot-paths, and in later years gates have usually been placed at the end, or ends, to prevent an infringement of this wise regulation; neither was any owner, or tenant of adjoining land, allowed to break through the hedges and erect gates. The churchwardens maintained the “Walk” in repair at the cost of the church lands (if there were any), or church rates. But all these things are passing away with other “Bygones.” Church rates vanished, and with them church revenues got so low that the “wardens” were glad to let the keeping up drop into the hands of the Parish Surveyor and the rates. Private interest prevailed over the public weal, and on the “give and take” principle, some persons were allowed to make gates and cart up the Walk on to their lands; while the grand old trees that had sheltered so many 274 generations of parishioners, being considered too shady for the neighbouring soil, have been cut down. Thus the old Church Walks of our land are gradually, but surely, losing their distinctive features, and will soon, under the dominion and intrigues of Parish Councils, become only a memory of the past.
Shakespeare possibly alluded to such “Walks” when he said, “The way is plain as way to parish church,” for in his days these ways would be almost in their prime. Nothing perhaps in all the various charms of English rural scenery is more attractive than the shady lane bordered by aged elms that leads to the ancient village church, embowered amidst its quiet trees, yet soon the traveller will enjoy their sight no more, and no longer will young lovers say: —
“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.”
But in many places the Church Walk goes not only up to the church, but by it, affording a right of way through the churchyard, and in this way bringing home to many thoughtful minds the quaint and curious lessons engraved on the old tombstones that border the path. But in one parish in the South of England, that I know, the Walk goes right through the Church, thus enabling 274 parishioners to walk through their parish church at all times of the day (I think the doors are closed at sunset) and probably many have been glad to rest there in quiet for a few moments and think, and let us hope sometimes pray!
Strangely enough antiquaries seem never to have paid much attention to these old “Church Walks,” yet they are a distinct feature of our church and its history. Many an old rate book would probably give items of interest concerning them, as showing how they were maintained and at what expense; but they are fast being transformed into roads or thoroughfares, and unless the devastating hand is stayed, one of the prettiest features of English rural life will soon be only a reminiscence.