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Richard Brackenbury

Hide and Squeak - Richard Brackenbury

Richard Brackenbury is a lawyer with a passion for heritage. He launched Brackenbury’s Britain in 2014, providing cultural and walking tours across the country. Here he shares his interest in churches and the mice of Robert Thompson.

If the Devil has always had the best tunes, God wins hands down on buildings. I love old churches. Always have. From the modest little parish church to the clustered columns of the Gothic cathedral, if time allows and it looks open, I’ll wander in. On such occasions my guide is the architectural bible, Pevsner’s Buildings of England, which has provided the excuse to travel up and down the country in search of everything from an Anglo- Saxon crypt to a crooked spire.

Robert 'Mouseman' Thompson

But churches are more than just architecture, they’re home to stories. One tale I love is the story of Robert “Mouseman” Thompson (1876 - 1955), a Yorkshire joiner who would carve a trademark mouse into chairs, pews and altar rails, whether asked to or not. Thompson was part of the 1920s revival of craftsmanship, inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris, John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, but I think he just wanted to interject a bit of fun into these solemn spaces, a distraction for the bowed heads praying for forgiveness.

I was recently with a group of walkers at Hubberholme in the glorious countryside of northern Wharfedale. We were visiting a tiny Norman church that hosts the ashes of JB Priestly, only to discover it had mice – of the wooden variety. Babworth Church in North Nottinghamshire was another on the list, this time due to the “Pilgrim Fathers” link. The church warden proudly showed the US guests their mice on the chancel and sanctuary. I hadn’t known they existed until that visit, but the guests seemed more interested in those 20th century mice than they did their founding fathers of 400 years ago. However, my real delight came a couple of weeks later with Southwell Minster.

Southwell Minster

As my local cathedral, I have visited Southwell countless times. For services, for concerts or just for a wander round, but a couple of months ago, I took my two grandsons aged four and two. Now, in defence of what might be thought as a cruel and inhumane punishment, the four year old has already shown a real interest in churches and so I wanted to show him a cathedral to really boost that enthusiasm.

We were met on the door by a pleasant, gowned lady armed with her list of things for youngsters to do. On it were mice, Thompson had been commissioned here in 1949. Again, it was the first I had heard of this link. Anyway, there are loads of them, but what a focus. For five minutes. And then it was back to noisily running up and down the North aisle again.

Happily, I decided to cheat and so asked a rather glum-looking man carrying chairs around where we could find more. His face lit up at seeing the two lads and animatedly started pointing out where the mice were. More than that, he removed the rope across the altar area and let them across. Seeing those two young lads on their hands and knees mouse hunting under the Bishop’s chair is a memory that will stick with me for a very long time.

Oak carving by Robert 'Mouseman' Thompson

So, if you really want to enhance your enjoyment of church visiting of course, get the books, read the history and learn to interpret the architecture but remember, there may well be mice. Indeed, if you look carefully through the comics in this series, you’ll find a mouse in each one. Robert Thompson may be dead, but his legend lives on.

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