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Book review: Highways and Byways: Discovering Catholic England by Nicholas Schofield

19 April 2024

Peter Stanford enjoys a priest’s meanderings

LIKE the amiable famous faces who fill our TV screens as they travel to every corner of the globe to save us the effort of doing it ourselves, Nicholas Schofield — parish priest, historian, and sometime columnist in the now defunct Catholic Times — is engaging company in this pleasurable trawl through lesser-known pre- and post-Reformation churches and chapels. Some of them are so lesser that they are on our doorstep without our ever realising it.

I have driven past the signpost in north Norfolk for the turning to Anmer Hall many a time, fleetingly imagining Kate and Wills there raising their family out of the limelight, but never once suspecting that this royal residence stands on the site of a family home that provided one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, Henry Walpole. Not having a clue is odder still, since my local Catholic parish up there is named after him.

There are plenty of such jolts and gems to be found as Schofield breathlessly criss-crosses the country. Who knew, to pick another, that the jack-in-the-box toy came from a 13th-century priest, John Schorne, Rector of North Marston, in Buckinghamshire, who, legend has it, managed to trap the devil in his boot? His feat (no pun intended) is said to have inspired the French diable en boîte, or “boxed devil”, better known as the familiar jack-in-the-box. It caused pilgrims to turn up at the church and inspired depictions of Schorne’s triumph in churches as far apart as Devon and Norfolk.

I have come across cupboard-altars in Spain (Antoni Gaudí designed one at the centre of his celebrated Palau Güell in Barcelona, but not in England, until Schofield revealed the shrine of our Lady at Ladyewell, near Preston, where the Towneley family in 1560, during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, had what looks from the outside to be a typical Tudor wardrobe converted into a pull-out altar. It then travelled Lancashire to be used in forbidden rituals in various recusant homes.

Schofield has the knack of walking a line between history and legend, and yet there are moments when our guide can be elusive. He is no fan of the personal pronoun, and, at times, his language can be slightly stiff and stuffy, as, when descending on the Cornish fishing village of St Mawes, developed around a holy well, he describes it as “one of the country’s most ‘hip’ places”, and then can’t quite rein in the old fogey in him from adding “whatever that means”. But get him on to the tangled history, myths, and pure invention that surround such sacred places, and he can be a timeless delight.

Peter Stanford is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster, and author of
If These Stones Could Talk: The history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through twenty buildings (Hodder, 2021).


Highways and Byways: Discovering Catholic England
Nicholas Schofield
Gracewing £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.39

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