It is during these crisp and misty morning that I find myself winding through the commute, distracted by interruptions on the horizon. These are spires – or towers – and plenty of them, poking above patches of spindled trees and bare farmland. Some take advantage of the gentle hills and command the landscape below. Others surprise, tucked behind pockets of houses and down narrow lanes. Either way, there they are, where they’ve stood for centuries.
One particularly unassuming church lies within the community of Stow Longa, with no spire to speak of, and virtually impossible to stumble upon. The name of the village derives from the Old English words stōw, meaning holy place and lang, long. One might infer that the name suggests an ancient holy site of some significance, although there is little evidence of it today. Rather appropriately, the only ancient feature present – as in many small villages – is the church. It is nestled down a small rutted lane, from which a – perhaps ancient – hollow way meanders towards a gentle hill. We happened upon this church only last weekend, when it was perhaps the spring like day that encouraged us to take a small detour, looking to familiarise ourselves with the villages surrounding our own.
The setting itself would have been rather a magical once, the church resting on a small mound, overlooking the undulating farmland beyond. It perhaps is today, although it appears a relic to the former seclusion it once enjoyed. Now overlooked by a seventies vicarage and encroached upon by some generous new-builds, it stands nobly defiant against the centuries which followed its construction.
The church almost certainly has eleventh-century origins, perhaps built under the reign of King Cnut. It also possesses one significant and rather well-known attribute: the mermaid stone. This is a 12th century tympanum carved with a mermaid (or siren) who is flanked by two beasts. This stone sits above the priest’s door, where it was relocated when the church was largely rebuilt in the 13th century. The mermaid sits with her hand raised in an orant pose, yet is symbolic of temptation. This figure is flanked by two beasts, one grotesque to represent hell, and the more benign creature representing Christ. Today this church remains a testament to great craftsmanship and the human desire to preserve history. Its displays the skill of many hands and reflects the rich tapestry of architectural history.