Sideburn 43 lands next week, so finally I've made the time to write the background story to the cover shoot for the current issue - Sideburn 42. The idea for the shoot came about when I googled the name of a village we photographed our tribute to the 100-year-old Harley-Davidson piglet photo (read the story of that photoshoot here). Photos of a nearby abandoned church came up on the internet search. It was abandoned and looked incredible, too good not to use at some point. That point was the cover shoot of George Pickering's KTM 250 two-stroke Survivor framer. Why take a flat track bike into an 800-year-old church? Well, I've been editing this mag for nearly 13 years and don't want every feature to be shot at a racetrack.
George made some enquiries and heard the church was in ill-repair. I stayed positive, not really knowing what had happened to the building since the photos I saw were taken. George had nearly finished building his framer, so I went ahead and pencilled-in a provisional date with photographer Sam Christmas and George, then planned to visit the church on the way back from a rare 2020 practice day at Greenfield.
The church, St Botolph's, dates back to the 13th century, and sits on its own, perhaps one farmhouse within half a mile of it. The settlement that used to surround it had moved away over the centuries. I never found out what circumstances caused that change. It's surrounded and partially obscured by trees. The driveway to the church, from a single track road, was blocked by a locked metal gate. A wooden lychgate (from the Old English or Saxon lych for 'corpse'), a roofed gate, led to the graveyard. The gate was in fantastic condition, considering the church had been disused since 1973. The church, though redundant, is still looked after and the graveyard was somewhat overgrown in the outer reaches, but in pretty good shape. Centuries old gravestones stood higgledy-piggledy.
The church is missing its windows and doors, but the roof is intact, so the inside has survived remarkably well, and the church looked as good as it did in the photos I found online. We were on. The date was confirmed for a Friday in July and plans firmed up. George contacted his friend Katie, who had supplied the piglet for the 100-year-old photoshoot. Her uncle was one of the guardians of the church and gave us permission to shoot there.
Sam wanted to do the shoot late-afternoon, hoping the sun would be coming through the windows, so we met just before 4. I was on time, but the others were early. Sam had called me when I was en route to say there was another shoot going on in the church. I couldn't believe it. This church is about as in the middle of nowhere as you can get in England and there's a photoshoot, the very day we've chosen?
St Botolph's is so photogenic that it appeals to, at one end of the spectrum, couples who want engagement photos to announce their upcoming nuptials, and at the other, goth photographers who desire a spooky scene or horror backdrop. When I arrived I saw two new-age traveller types smoking weed in the graveyard and a photographer with assistant photographing a friendly, curvaceous fetish model in full PVC outfit. We had a key to the gate, so had the upper hand, but we weren't pushing anyone around. They were nearly finished, did a few more shots inside while we carried the generator and lights in, then they moved to the graveyard to shoot a few more.
Read certain crappy websites and they'll tell you this church is one of the most haunted in the UK. I believe I've smelt and heard ghosts on other occasions (I know, but really), and wasn't freaked out by St Botolph's, though it was a beautiful summer day. Apparently, 'Satanists' love the place and there were tea light candles and crow feathers on the floor when we arrived (I never asked if these were the fetish model's shoot, but I didn't think so).
I assumed the new age dope smokers were part of the group doing the fetish shoot, but they were entirely unrelated. The church is a real magnet.
While Sam got his lights set up I had a look around. Like any building that's been standing for 800 years there are sections that date from different eras, but this carving (above) looked very old. It was just laid on the floor. I don't have a religious bone in my body, but I love church architecture and I'm in awe of the craftsmanship. I wonder if the stonemason had any inkling of how long his work would survive.
Botolph was an abbot, later the/a saint of trade and travel. Boston, Lincolnshire was originally named after him, Botolphston, shortened to Boston. As the Lincolnshire town also gave its name to the Massachusetts city, Boston, MA is also a Botolph's Town, and a Boston, USA street and the President's house in the Boston College are also named after him.
Sam was nearly ready. The light was perfect, helped by a little bit of apparatus called a hazer that we'd rented to pump some vapour in the air.
George got changed into his 'armour'. The photographer was excited about evoking the mood of a painting from 1884...
The Vigil by John Pettie and another image of a knight in prayer...
It's an illustration by Victor Ambrus from the Tales of King Arthur by James Riordan
The light, the bike, the idea, the owner, the photographer, it all came together to make a memorable cover shoot, in a series of (if I do say so myself), memorable Sideburn covers.
George with the lychgate in the background.
While I didn't feel any paranormal activity in the church, I was lucky to catch this image of a ghostly cloud appearing as George started his bike.
Thanks to Katie and her uncle, George and Sam for making it happen.
Now, buy SIDEBURN 42 to read about the bike and see the finished photos.
If you like stuff that mixes the middle ages and flat track racing, read the back story of our St Mert artwork by Toria of Stay Outside Studio.