Wembley’s parish church dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist dates from 1846 when Wembley became a separate parish, no longer under the jurisdiction of St Mary’s Harrow. (See my post on that at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/allegra-con-spirito/). It’s just a little further on from Barham Park (described in my previous post) and can be spotted by its attractive lych-gate.
Lych derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for corpse and it was here that bodies due for burial would be placed at a time when coffins had not yet been introduced and the corpse was instead wrapped in a shroud. A Lych-gate is a characteristic feature of English churches and the oldest of them, at Saint George’s church in Beckenham London, dates from the thirteenth century.
It must be remembered that, unlike Italy, the traditional English church has its grave-yard surrounding it so a Lych-gate is an important reminder, not only of the distinction between the secular outside world and the inner sacred one, but also between life and death. Indeed, ‘God’s acre’ is sometimes applied to the English graveyard.
Italian churches would once have had graveyards surrounding them. For example, at our local church at San Gemignano there are traces of such a graveyard. However, fear of epidemics, especially cholera, in the nineteenth century prompted the exhumation of bodies from their graves and their transferral to purpose-built cemeteries at a safe distance from the village to avoid infection.
In England public cemeteries were, of course, built from the nineteenth century onwards and sometimes, as at Goodwood, served by their own personal railway lines to transport the coffins. Fortunately, however, the old country churchyard so beloved of such poets as Thomas Gray were largely left alone for the present day visitors to meditate on the transience of their existence on this planet
The fact that the occupants of tombs in England are not regularly re-exhumed as in Italy means that one can come across old graves with beautifully inscribed epitaphs on them.
In short, if there’s anything I miss in Italy it’s the Lych-gate and the country church yard.
To return to Wembley’s parish church. Despite the fact that it’s five minutes away from the multicultural hubbub of Wembley High street the church still conserves a rural feel about it. Built with the sponsorship of the Copland sisters it was designed by no less great an architect than Sir George Gilbert Scott, the builder of such icons of Victorian building as Saint Pancras Railway Station’s Grand Hotel and the Albert Memorial in Kensington gardens.
Saint John’s is without doubt a modest church. Built of flint with stone dressings it originally consisted of just a nave with a chancel, a north-east chapel and a wooden bell turret. Later, a north and south aisles were added. More recently a parish hall was build, certainly modern in aspect but respecting the old flint exterior of the church in its details.
The churchyard has some quite moving monuments. Unfortunately, due to moss and erosion it’s not always easy to distinguish their inscriptions.
Undoubtedly, the Fondazione Montaigne have done well to launch a restoration of the protestant cemetery at Bagni di Lucca and to uncover many new finds among them. However, I do miss the melancholic dilapidation so characteristic of many English churchyards and well represented here in Wembley’s parish church.
We also came across perhaps the most poignant part of the churchyard: the war memorial with well-kept headstone of the young men (mostly teenagers with a ship’s boy just sixteen years old) who lost their lives in the bloodiest war western ‘civilization’ has endured. (Which reminds me that the worse massacre of that war is this year one hundred years old – I refer to the battle of the Somme.in which over one million soldiers died.)