Upon Sidwella’s Day

St Sidwella could do more for Exeter than she (probably) ever dreamed of.  

St Sidwell’s Church on Exeter’s Sidwell Street commemorates the late St Sidwella, believed to have been alive in the 6th century.  Sidwella (whose name derives from all manner of genealogical speculation) is said to have been a modest, chaste, virginal, devout, and courageous local lass.  At least she was until a couple of farmworkers killed her off with a scythe.  The truth of all this is far from certain, since the story appears to have been sexed up by Bishop Grandisson in the 14th century, to introduce a wicked stepmother who paid the farmworkers to do the deed and the miraculous creation of a water spring where she fell.  For all we really know she was just a very naughty girl who hung out with the wrong sort of people. [1]

We have no information on Sidwella’s tastes in architecture and we cannot begin to imagine on what she would have thought of today’s Sidwell Street, including the dismal 1957-58 version of St Sidwell’s Church, designed by the same firm that gave us the nearby supermarket building and which could be mistaken for a modestly sized power station.  She might, however, have concluded that the 21st century was not beyond redemption if she visited today and discovered what goes on within the former church’s walls [2].

The building is now divided into three parts: a small chapel at the west end, social housing on the two upper floors, and the Community Centre offering a café and meeting rooms.  The Centre is run by an independent charity seeking to promote social inclusion.  It does so by bringing people together, whether as customers for the café’s locally produced food or as participants in the many training opportunities – including cooking – and users of facilities for groups.  The Centre also manages a vegetable garden in the church grounds.  Their website sells the Centre far better than I can, and it’s well worth a look.

The chapel is used for services once a week by a small but faithful congregation.  Its centrepiece is a stunning stained glass window by the Bideford artist James Paterson installed in 1958, juxtaposing the murder of a grim-looking Sidwella with the 1942 bombing of the previous 19th century church on the site.  A far more flattering image of the saint – shown at the end of this post – was found in a pane from the 19th century church, lost after the bombing and only recently rediscovered and restored following a Crowdfunding appeal.

On August 1st this year the Community Centre organised a small celebration of St Sidwella’s Day, following on one the previous year on August 2nd – so no definite Sidwella Day yet.  It was a really pleasant summer evening: musicians, one a fiddler (instant plus point for me); a barbecue; a live story-teller about St Sid herself; and a tour of the building.  And chat and networking.

Compared to some of the city’s other festivals such as RespectPride and all the foodie stuff, it was a small affair, and none the worse for it.  But given the urge of the city council, the tourism industry and the wider business community to make Exeter the go-to destination of the peninsula, couldn’t we make a bit more of St Sidwella?  And why is she a figure that could command wide community support?

Her great advantage as a symbol is that so little is known about her that she could be deployed to almost any purpose.  An annual St Sidwella’s festival need not be linked to the politics of identity (as Respect and Pride are) nor to consumerism (the foodie and craft market ones).  Her religious trappings are minimal, at least today: she is not a “saint” in the sense of having been canonised, but rather a local “martyr” recognised by the local bishop, a practice which became so uncontrolled that in the 16th century the Catholic Church centralised authority for canonisations in Rome [3].  Instead, she could be seen variously as a symbol for civil society (the transfer of most of the church building to the community centre), for the natural environment (the well spring water), and through her secularisation a symbol that should not offend people of other faiths.

So why not an annual St Sidwella – or even plain Sidwella – festival that points a way towards a greener – the only sustainable – future?  It need not take the same form each year but rotate or innovate different activities.  For example, we could close key city centre streets to traffic for the day and use the space freed up for all manner of diversions.  Community entertainments, or for local groups to show off their work.  Or we could arrange open-air talks, public meetings and debates, practices that have largely disappeared into indoor meetings attended by a limited social spectrum.  Musical events – not the expensive Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert visits – but people playing their own instruments, in groups or solo, with local choirs who aren’t deemed “good enough” for cathedral concerts, or who don’t want to sing there.  Water sports on the river and canal.  The list goes on.  A key point is that everything should be free to spectators, unlike the foodie events where you pay several quid just to get past the front gate, or even Respect which introduced a £2 entry charge this year.

It needn’t stop at an annual festival.  Just as Crediton has milked St Boniface for all they think he’s worth – despite the fact that he did a bunk from Crediton to Germany as soon as he could – so Exeter could do more to promote Sidwella as a colourful part of the city heritage.  After all, we are soon to be blessed with a leisure centre called St Sidwell’s Point.  One of the Devon County Council electoral divisions in the city is now St Sidwell’s & St James.  She could even strike a blow for gender equality on the public transport system:  the three sainted railway stations are named after blokes: St David’s, St James and St Thomas, so let’s rename Exeter Central as Exeter St Sidwella’s.  She beats Exeter Live Better as a brand any day.

Sidwella could, above all, become the patron of Exeter’s movement for sustainable living.

DSC_0105 (2)

NOTES:

[1]  For those who want to know more about the Sidwella story, Hazel Harvey’s The Story of Exeter (The History Press, 2015) provides an easy overview at the beginning of Chapter 2.  I’m indebted to Hazel – the current President of the Exeter Civic Society – for the Bishop Grandisson reference, though the language in this post is my own.  More detail for those who are hooked is found in Nicholas Orme’s edition of Nicholas Roscarrock’s ‘Lives of the Saints’: Cornwall and Devon, published as volume 35 of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s publications http://www.devonandcornwallrecordsociety.co.uk/p/publications.html .

[2]  More about the church itself is at http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/DEV/Exeter/StSidwell

[3]  See http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100422710

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