Garton-on-the-Wolds A colourful history

PUBLISHED: 10:07 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 19:58 13 June 2016

St Michael and All Angels Church

St Michael and All Angels Church

Jo Haywood spends time in a rural East Yorkshire village with a unique draw

Main StreetMain Street

Never judge a book by its cover and never judge a village by its high street. At first glance, Garton-on-the-Wolds looks like any other rural East Yorkshire backwater. But take a closer look and you will find a colourful surprise beneath its neat but otherwise uninspiring wrapping.

St Michael’s and All Angels Church, tucked down a lane opposite the school, is an absolute treasure. Dating back to Norman times (around 1132 seems to be the consensus), its walls and ceilings are a colourful testament to religious art, with every conceivable surface covered with biblical murals from The Creation to The Last Judgment.

Not a single nook, cranny or corner is left undecorated, from the tiled base to the arched roof. I was lucky enough to see the ornate frescoes at the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi a few years ago – shortly after an earthquake threatened to wipe them out – and can honestly say that Garton’s illustrations are a worthy echo of their Italian counterparts.

The paintings, which overshadow the church’s stained glass windows, relegating the usual stars of the show to second on the bill, were restored in phases between 1986 and 1991 by a team which is funded by The Pevsner Memorial Trust.

Carved stonework at St Michael and All Angels ChurchCarved stonework at St Michael and All Angels Church

The vast murals were originally commissioned to mimic 13th century frescoes by Sir Tatton Sykes, fifth baronet of Sledmere, who embarked on a lavish programme of decoration in 1872. The paintings were carried out by Clayton & Bell and were completed by 1876 at a substantial cost of £3,056.

In the years since, they have become rather chipped, faded and blurred by time, which led Sir Nikolaus Pevsner to write in 1972 in his series The Buildings of England: ‘It is essential that they be preserved.’

The illustrations, which are now as colourful and vivid as when they were first painted, thanks to the Pevsner money, form an elaborate, largely integrated cycle of subjects from the Old and New Testament. To follow the story in sequence, look first at the side walls of the nave, north then south, before turning to the east nave, the chancel and then finally the west wall of the nave.

The church and greater Garton sit on an incline, flanking the A166 with a smattering of houses at either side, punctuated by a pub, pond, village green and an equine supplies store. About 200 people live in the village, making good use of the two buses a day (three on Tuesdays and Thursdays) that take them to the shops and markets of the nearby town of Driffield.

Garton’s scenic village pondGarton’s scenic village pond

In days gone by, the village was home to wheelwrights, builders, grocers, tailors, bootmakers and numerous farmers. Now, like many of its rural neighbours, it is largely residential. With one notable exception.

There has been a forge in Garton since 1803 and the eighth generation of blacksmiths still have a healthy number of irons in the fire today. Horse shoes are generally manufactured abroad now and fitted by farriers, but blacksmiths like John Crossland, who owns Garton Heritage Forge, remain busy producing ornamental and architectural metalwork.
‘Basically, we do all the arty, twirly stuff,’ he said.

Most of their work is for private homeowners inspired by the plethora of home makeover programmes on the TV – ‘Grand Designs goes out on Sunday night and by Monday morning I’m quoting for five staircases’ – but John and his team also provide metalwork for the likes of Lord Halifax, York Minster, St Mary’s in Beverley, the National Trust and English Heritage. ‘We approach every commission with a blank piece of paper,’ he said. ‘The only constraint is the customer’s imagination and the size of their wallet.’

Work in the forge has barely changed in the 206 years since it first opened for business in Garton. Blacksmiths, it seems, are one of the few craftsmen who haven’t had to join the endless march of technology.

Village footpath from the churchyard to Pump LaneVillage footpath from the churchyard to Pump Lane

‘It’s fire, metal and an anvil,’ said John. ‘Always has been and always will be. It is not high-tech in any way, shape or form, and there is not a computer anywhere in sight.’

This means, however, that it can be difficult to find the next generation of blacksmiths, as young people naturally drift towards more technological jobs and away from traditional crafts.
But John is confident he will eventually find the ninth generation to run Garton’s forge.

‘There are people out there that want to learn,’ he said. ‘I’ve had three inquiries in the last five years about taking on an apprentice, but it’s about finding the right person; the one you can pass on your skills and your trust to. They’re out there and they’ll find their way here eventually.’

For further information about Garton-on-the-Wolds and St Michael’s Church, visit Details of Garton Heritage Forge can be found at or by phoning 01377 241723.

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