There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Three More Favourite Churches: Lao Cai, Estômbar and Tong

Unlike Lynne, I am not a believer, but I am interested in religion and I do like churches. I like the architecture, I like the history they contain and the sense of community they embody. Building a church is somebody’s attempt at the sublime, sometimes for the greater glory of god, sometimes for the greater glory of themselves. Here I am appreciating their efforts not judging their motivation.

1)      The Church of Giang Ta Chai, Lao Cai Province, Vietnam

The French ruled Indo-China for over a hundred years before independence in 1954 so it is unsurprising that there are many Vietnamese Christians – more specifically Catholics. Most Christians live in the urban centres; there are few churches in the countryside and even fewer in the ethnic minority villages of the northern highlands.

The Church of Giang Ta Chi
Lao Cai Province, Vietnam

However, whilst trekking through the Muong Hao Valley we passed this church in Giang Ta Chai, a village of the Hmong ethnic group. Twenty families here are Christians and although I can hardly describe this church as ‘somebody’s attempt at the sublime,’ it has a rustic charm. The photograph was taken in late March this year, but the banner translates as The Church of Giang Ta Chai, Happy Christmas.

2)      Igreja Matriz, Estômbar, Algarve, Portugal

Sitting on a low hill between the main N125 and the road to the ‘Slide and Splash’ water park, Estômbar has somehow remained aloof from the development that has gone all around. Although it is now largely a dormitory village for the nearby city of Portimão, the tides of tourism have washed round the village not over it.

Igreja Matriz

Rows of whitewashed houses descend the hill from the central square which is dominated by the gleaming bulk of the Igreja Matriz. The great earthquake and tsunami of 1755 left coastal Portugal with very few old buildings and the current church was largely constructed in the late eighteenth century, a time of great prosperity in Portugal. The doorway, though, has survived from the earlier church and is in the Manueline style, peculiar to late 15th and early 16th century Portugal and exemplified by the Torre de Belem and the Jeronimo Monastry in Lisbon.

And much closer to home……

3)      St Bartholomew’s, Tong, Shropshire

Built over an earlier Norman church in 1406 and remodelled in 1510, St Bartholomew’s is not an architectural masterpiece, though the octagonal tower is unusual. Much more interesting is the story attached to the church.

St Bartholomew's
Tong, Shropshire

Charles Dickens knew Tong well; his grandmother had been housekeeper at Tong Castle (the site now lies beneath the M54). The death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop was set in Tong and she was buried in a fictionalised version of St Bartholomew’s. The enormous popularity of the book and Dickens' lecture tours in America, led to a spate of Americans coming to England to visit scenes featured in the book. Seeing an opportunity George Boden  (or Bowden), the parish clerk, forged an entry in the parish register of burials, had a gravestone carved and charged visitors to see the grave of Little Nell. It did not seem to worry the visitors – and it certainly never worried George – that they were paying money to see the ‘real’ grave of a fictional character.

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