My county, Norfolk, has the largest number of round tower churches in the country – 126. They were probably built round because of the lack of stone to make square or oblong blocks to create corners. Anyway, the fact is, they are what they are.
All Saints, Hemblington is a perfect example. It sits in splendid isolation in open yet rolling countryside, with a small copse opposite and a fancy network of hedgerows to the east.
The church is around 800 years old and the only constant in a landscape that has changed considerably since it was built. The field boundaries and the nature of agriculture have changed. The road beside it would have been a track once but is now metalled. The church fabric has weathered and slowly begun to melt through the battering of countless seasons and the greedy intrusion of gently acidic rainwater. It is a slow process and it will still be here in another 800 years. The church is a most welcoming oasis of calm and tranquility. On the north wall is a tattoo from centuries past. A medieval painting of St Christopher. Unlike the twenty or so others in the county this one also shows scenes from his life, rather like a comic strip from the 13th century.
For centuries people have slept beneath the ground surrounding the church, and some resting places are marked by headstones, some plain and some elaborate in their decoration.
The churchyard is a haven for wildlife in the agricultural Empty Quarter of the surrounding monoculture.
Those stones and the fabric of the church, as well as the trees growing in the graveyard are home to organisms whose provenance reaches back unimaginable periods of time in the Earth’s history.
These benign creatures, lichens, first appear in the fossil record some 420 million years ago and they have not changed significantly in that time. Lichens are ubiquitous. In fact, there are more than 1700 species in Britain and 18,000 species worldwide. They are fascinating and attractive but not showy in the way a butterfly or a bird is. They are humble. They are, rather than do. Look on any tombstone, wall or tree and they will be there. White, grey, yellow, green, orange and pink; many appear almost two dimensional. Their hosts wear them like gymkhana rosettes or dust or the scabs of healing wounds. They appear to be as unchanging as the sun. They are hardy, but most grow extremely slowly. Think .5 millimetres per annum. They are more considered than Tolkein’s Ents as they slowly expand to coat that on which they exist. They are crustose, foliose, fructicose and leprose and they are remarkable.
They are remarkable because what we see, whatever the form, is not a single organism but two. In a perfect example of two very different organisms living in close physical association, which benefits both, lichens are in fact a body consisting of a fungus which have algae at their heart, like non-destructive black holes.
The fungus collects water and, rather like a suit of armour, provides shelter for the alga, which, containing chlorophyll, photosynthesizes and provide carbohydrates for itself and its host. These organisms can withstand extremes of moisture and temperature. If it becomes dry the lichen enters a long sleep. In the right conditions they can live for centuries. A species found in the Arctic was at least 9,000 years old.
Lichens are the past, present and future of our planet. They are barometers of how we treat it. They are particularly effective at indicating levels of air pollution, such as from sulphur dioxide. They can also allow us to measure toxic elemental pollution and even radioactive metals. Quite simply, pollution will kill them and when the numbers of lichen species falls drastically then we know we are in trouble ourselves.
I spent an hour photographing in a soft golden light as the low winter sun poured its oblique shafts over the churchyard, even raising shadows on such flat structures. The closer I looked the more I was captivated by the beauty of their intricate patterns. I have overlooked them in the past but will never do so again.
They were here before man was a twinkle in creation’s eye and they will be here when we are a postscript in the history of the planet. They are the meek that will inherit the Earth.