Astbury Church

I grew up in England just outside the town of Congleton, Cheshire (the same Cheshire where Lewis Carroll wrote about the Cheshire cat). I attended primary school (elementary school, for my American readers) at a Church of England school in Astbury, a small village dominated by St. Mary's Church.

St. Mary's Church is a giant 13th century edifice and it is old. The earliest known church on the site was Norman though it is possible that before that a Saxon church existed there. Putting aside the rebuilding and refurbishment that has occurred since the 13th century, when you are inside that building, you are inside a building that has been in use for 700 years. It has even survived damage from horses stabled there during the English civil war (though some of its furniture and glass did not). It is old, so old that I find it hard to comprehend how much time that is.

I have many memories attached to the church, including harvest festivals, May Day celebrations, weddings, funerals, christenings, Sunday school, Easter, and Christmas, to name a few. I was a choir member for several years and an altar boy, I was even a shepherd or wise man in a nativity once. Joy and grief, life and death, faith and belief; my earliest memories of these things centre around that church and its grey stone walls.

Conveniently placed next to a pub as seems to be required of all areas of congregation for the English1, Astbury Church, as it is colloquially referred, is an imposing sight. From the A34, the church is accessed via either of two lanes that form the perimeter of Astbury's triangular village green, with its giant oak tree centerpiece and carpet of daffodils, grass, or snow, depending on the season. The ground falls away on all sides, and when viewed from the bottom of the green (and assuming you're not trying to look directly through the tree), the church stands against the sky, its weather-vane atop the steeple often silhouetted against clouds or an early morning sunrise, if you are lucky enough to see it.

When I went to visit my family earlier this year, I visited the church for the first time in quite a few years. With my parents, sister, nephew, and wife, we explored the church and its grounds, reminiscing about the occasions that had brought us there previously. If you ever get a chance, I highly recommend visiting this Cheshire landmark and touching 700 years of history. For now, you will have to settle for some of the photos I took; it is a beautiful building that has been considered by some to be one of the most beautiful churches in the country, and is just as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside (though my photosphere below is not great, it should give you a sense of what it is like inside).

To view more photos, go to my Google Photos album for St.Mary's Church.

  1. I presume the pub was there first and they just put the church next door for convenience 

Hell and Hot Chocolate

This was my entry in a short story contest held among the denizens of (affectionately known to the Mooreons that frequent it as The Boardello).  The challenge was to write a story with the title Hell and Hot Chocolate. I won a mug for this. I love that mug.

Hell and Hot Chocolate

by Jeff Yates

It was cold outside and the skies looked ominous, not that I knew what ominous meant at the time, I was only eight.  I probably would have said the skies looked scary back then or maybe, in an attempt to get the right word, called them odorous.  That would've been wrong though, they weren't odorous at all (at least not from this distance), just ominous.  Mum, fearing for the well-being of her children as mothers often do, made sure we wore extra layers before bracing the winter morning.  My sister wore hiking socks, leg warmers and boots with a pink puffer jacket, pink scarf, pink mittens, and a pink bobble hat; her cheeks glowing red against the biting wind.  I wore two pairs of socks, my wellies, jeans, a vest, a t-shirt, a white school shirt, a wool jumper with a rabbit on the front knitted by my Gran, a scarf of random colours knitted by my Gran, a wool duffle coat, and a flat cap that my parents had bought me for my birthday after my Dad got fed up of me stealing his.  We each carried a satchel containing sandwiches, crayons, paper, and a flask of milky hot chocolate.   My sister was like candy floss from the local fairground and I was like a better looking British equivalent of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.

It was Sunday morning and my Mum had just dropped me and my sister at the bottom of the church steps.  They were eroded from wind and rain, cracked by freeze and thaw, and harboured frost-covered plants between their old stone blocks.  Their edges were worn smooth from centuries of churchgoers traipsing their way to and from christening, matins, communion, wedding, evensong and funeral services, Easter, harvest and Christmas celebrations, and Sunday School.  That was where we were heading, Sunday School.  Every Sunday morning after the communion service we would go to Sunday school where various volunteers under the guidance of the rector would impart to us the wisdom of the Bible whilst we made Easter cards or painted one of the Disciples.  Usually, we would have been at the service too but this morning my Mum had struggled to wake me and my Dad: me because I was lazy, my Dad because he was hung-over.  So, there we were, at the bottom of the church steps waving to our Mum as the last of the congregation left the church and Mum drove away.

My sister grabbed my arm and dragged me up the icy steps, "Come on, you mong.  Stop staring at the sky, we'll be late!"  She was ten and with her maturity came her sass.  She was a proper well-spoken little madam and I looked up to her even though we were starting to grow apart; me refusing to mature beyond my years and her racing for the finish line of retirement.  I was sure that within a year, she would be married with kids and I would still be pulling the legs off spiders and putting frogs in her bed (though no Nostradamus, some of my predictions did come true, much to my sister's irritation).

*   *   *

“Today, we are going to talk about Heaven and Hell.  Who can tell me what Heaven is?”

Miss Dickle was about eighteen or nineteen.  She was a member of the youth fellowship and she was hung up on God.  I think it had something to do with the bullying she got, or the boys thinking she was a dyke (I didn’t know what that meant, but they didn’t say it like it was a good thing so I guessed it was bad which my Mum confirmed when I called her one), or a bit of both, but whatever it was, my Dad had said she was bothering God for the wrong reasons.  I could not see any signs that God was bothered by her at all, but then I could not see any signs of God full-stop—other than the ones that hopeful believers had built, installed, or written on his behalf—so what did I know?

Bobby Jenkins raised his hand, “My Mum says that sitting on the washing machine during a full-spin cycle is heaven.”

“Yes, thank you, Bobby.  That isn’t quite what I was looking for.  Anyone else?” said Miss Dickle, making a note and slipping it into her pocket while Bobby shrugged like he had given it his best shot, “No?  Well, Heaven is where God lives.”

“But I thought this was God’s house?” said Angela Joyce.  The twenty-strong group of eight year old children nodded in agreement.

“Yes, it is, but God is everywhere.”  Miss Dickle was used to thinking fast.

“So Heaven is everywhere?” said Angela.

“No.  Heaven is where we go when we die, but only if we’ve been good.  Now, who can tell me what Hell is?”

Julie Brent raised her hand, pushing it as high as she could, using her other arm to prevent the first from falling off before she got to answer.

“Yes, Julie.”

“Hell is a really hot place with fire and lava and the Devil where people go when they’re naughty.”

Julie Brent was a know-it-all and she knew it.  I hated her.

“That’s very good, Julie.  To be exact, Hell is the eternal punishment for those who do not believe in Jesus Christ like we do.  The Devil, who is sometimes called Satan or Lucifer, used to be an angel in Heaven but he tried to fight God and was sent to Hell with a third of the angels who are now demons.  Hell is filled with the souls of the damned and if you do something naughty and you don’t say sorry, that’s where you end up.  The Devil roams the Earth looking for souls to devour, separating them from the spiritual light of God and condemning them to eternal damnation.  Temptation is often used by the Devil to lure the weak away from Jesus Christ and God.  So, when you are tempted to do something that you know you shouldn’t, remember what might happen to you.”

We all sat there in silence, too scared to look anywhere but straight at Miss Dickle, whose face looked deadly serious.  I was pretty sure that none of us fully understood everything she just said, but what we did understand was more than enough to petrify us.  I was horrified, even more so when Bobby shit himself and burst into tears; he was sat right next to my flask.

*   *   *

Mum came to collect us at 11:30.  There we were, standing in the slush at the bottom of the Church steps.  My sister was holding the advent candle she had made and grinning from ear to ear as if it was the best thing ever.  I was holding my flask of hot chocolate at arm’s length, unable to believe that Miss Dickle had washed if all off like she insisted.

On the drive home, my sister happily regaled the little bits of gossip she had overheard during her advent candle manufacturing class while I tried not to think about the implications of my “how to scare the shit out of at least one kid” class.   It wasn’t until we got home that Mum took me aside to ask why I appeared so upset (seems I had been sniffling a little on the way home).  So, I told her what happened, word for word, or at least as well as I could remember and when I was finished, she gave me a hug.

“So, you’re worried that you might go to Hell?”

“No,” I said.


“Well, I was, but then Bobby pooed on my hot choc’lit.”

“And that stopped you worrying?”

“Well, you always say it might be tempting to drink it before Miss Dickle finished talking but I shouldn’t.  But today I was going to, then Bobby pooed on it.  And now he’s going to Hell.”

“I don’t think that’s very nice, honey.  You can’t send someone to Hell just for pooing their pants.”

“But he didn’t say sorry and Miss Dickle said that if you don’t say sorry after you’ve done something naughty, you go to Hell.”

“Well, I don’t think Miss Dickle explained that very well.  How about I make you a fresh mug of hot chocolate and we’ll talk about this after dinner?”

“Ok,” I smiled and ran off to watch Bugs Bunny with my Dad.

*   *   *

It wasn’t until the following weekend when I returned to Sunday School, that I discovered Bobby had bigger things to worry about than Hell.  After all, why worry about where you’ll end up when you’re dead when you have to spend the rest of your life being called Bobby Poopants, Poobum Bobby, and Bobby Bobby Bumboy (although that last one didn’t really become popular until he came out during high school).  He never lived down the embarrassment of defecating to the point that it oozed from his shorts and I never ever used that flask again.  Angela Joyce became a hard-hitting journalist, probing politicians and celebrities with her unique style of questioning. Julie Brent got ordained and continued to have an answer for everything.  Miss Dickle got a theology degree and after many years as a missionary, she embraced her sexuality and moved in with Julie Brent.

As for me, well, that’s another story altogether.