Man on a Mission – Cameron Newham
For Dalesman this month, I met a man who has set himself the daunting mission of photographing all of England’s thousands of rural parish churches. Doing it in his spare time away from the ‘day job’ in IT, he estimates it will take him 25 years to complete the project.
Cameron Newham has now been at it for 17 years, and, as might be expected, he’s had some adventures along the way.
He takes his photography seriously, using a tripod and extra lights to get crisp pictures of all the artworks and memorials inside each church. He says, “I have a way of doing things, so the photos are comparable; they’re all done in a consistent way, developed from experience. I take 50 to 60 pictures of each church – a bigger church might have hundreds of pictures.”
He adds, “In summer, the best time to see architecture is around 5 or 6 am when the sun’s up but no-one’s around.”
Some Churches are locked, and Cameron records these on a website. However, he says, “Around 60% of churches are open. Of the 40% that are locked, about half have a key holder listed, or some means for visitors to gain access. So only about 20% of rural churches are locked with no access for visitors. If it’s locked, I’ll look for a notice with the phone number of a keyholder, and ring up. If there’s no notice, I’ll knock on doors to find out who has the key. In the vast majority of cases, they come out within half an hour.”
In the course of his work, he’s met many people. Most, he says, are a little wary at first but, he says, “Once they understand what I’m doing, they’re really interested, and will talk about their Church for ages.”
He’s also had some spookier experiences. “Once I met somebody at a church who pointed out his own grave. He said he’d been married twice – once 140 years ago. Then he pointed to a grave and said ‘that’s the grave of me and my wife’, and I realised I was talking to someone who claimed to be living a second life.”
“I’ve only had one ghostly experience in a church. It was strange because I don’t believe in ghosts. It was at Bucklebury in Berkshire. I was inside the church, taking photos in the chancel. An elderly couple came in through the door into the Nave. I shouted out hello, but there was no answer. The man wandered about half way up the chancel, peering at me. I shouted hello again, wondering if perhaps he was deaf. He ignored me, and went into the north chancel. There were box pews throughout the connecting aisle, and on a table a visitor’s book. I always sign the visitor’s books, so I did so.”
“I decided I was not going to let these rude people get away with it, so I stayed by the book, waiting for them to come back. Nobody came. A pillar obscured the view, and when I stepped back to look again, there was no one there. There was a door at the end, into the Vestry. I rushed outside and looked, but there was no one there. I looked through the window into the vestry; there was no one in there. I came back and tried the vestry door, but there was a Yale lock on it and it was locked. I was astounded – they were an elderly couple and slow moving. They couldn’t have gone by me because I was WAITING for them, looking: I’d have seen them. They couldn’t have gone anywhere, but they vanished. I’ve been perplexed to this day. I’ve been back, and can’t figure out where they went to. It was odd.”
Cameron’s had a number of mishaps: “I’ve been hit on the head by an owl, in a ruined church. Then there was the time I almost drowned in a bog. It was in Cornwall, where there are lots of holy wells. There was a holy well with a 15th century cover in a field, miles from the road, so I walked through fields to get there – into a muddy morass. I was up to my knees in mud, and my efforts to get out were working me deeper into the mud. I was seriously worried I’d drown in mud – I wasn’t laughing at the time. There was no mobile phone signal, and I was alone, several hundred metres from the road.”
Luckily for Cameron, there were trees around, and he was able to grab a branch and extricate himself. It’s not his only near miss, though, he adds, “I nearly broke my leg in a churchyard in Devon. Churchyards are dangerous places to walk round because they have traps such as broken headstones in long grass. In this case, a burrowing animal had made a deep hole.”
“Once I was walking along a wall with a 9 foot drop to the road below, taking pictures of a church.” Looking through his camera, he didn’t notice a wire ring under his feet, and tripped and fell. “Luckily,” he says, “I fell into the graveyard side. The other side had a 9 foot drop and could have killed me.”
Working alone, and facing so many risks, Cameron has made a will, directing the fate of his photographs, as he hopes that they will one day be available to the public.
His hopes for the availability of the churches themselves in the future are less rosy. He feels that, with declining congregations, the present system for maintaining churches is unsustainable, and that without change, we face losing many of our parish churches. He says, “It’s no use having all the historic fittings, and being unused. You can only keep that for a short time. I’d rather see them being used, so they need to free up a bit. It’s a fine line between maintaining heritage and having something that people can use.”
They won’t last forever anyway. Will they be around in 1000 years’ time? Will they be relevant in 1000 years?
Whatever happens, Cameron hopes his photographs will remain as a record of past glories.