Custom survived: Selston Tower Service

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Search in a book of calendar customs for the tower service at Selston and I doubt you’ll find it, but it has a long history, certainly over 100 years and has a perplexing origin as a many others.

A Tower of Strength

What possessed the then vicar, a Reverend Charles Harrison to start the sermon is unknown. It is thought that he did so to attract local travellers, who camped on Selston Green and would visit the grave of Boswell, the King of the Gypsies, often with their new born babies. He may have done it to commemorate its restoration in 1904/5 and the date was thought to coincide with their Wakes week, although this would suggest another date as such weeks were often developed from the patronal festival.

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Tower records

From the top of the tower one can see over twenty church and right across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and even into Leicestershire. So it is not surprising that the sermon has attracted many visitors. I was informed by Mr Tew, the present church warden that one year an estimated congregation of 1000 attended, although they must have spilled over the churchyard wall and into the street!  Now it is has become traditional to invite a guest preacher to preach from the tower.

Stairway to heaven

Of course part of the uniqueness of this sermon was that it was conducted from the tower and so it joins a small group of better known tower sermons and services. As I thought it be fascinating to see both sides of the event, I contacted the church enquiring whether I would be able to view the sermon from the tower itself and fortunately they agreed. I could see why they did not encourage visitors as I clambered up the very worn and weathered 70 steps. Then across the rickety metal frame over the bells and squeezing up the ladder and through the trap door and onto the hot metal roof. It took a while to orientate myself and I had to be careful not to lean on the parapets too hard or lean back thinking there was one – it was a long way down! In the early days the quire also mounted the roof, now they are safely on ground level under a shelter. Now there is only the curate, their guest, a traditional feature of the sermon and the church warden.

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Despite the precarious nature of the event, no accident has ever been recorded…except for one incumbent who never made it almost. When thirty years ago, the Rev Vic Simmons, was about to read his final tower sermon set his foot alight with weed killer (accidentally). He was determined to do it stating:

“It was the highlight of the church year. I didn’t want to miss it.”

So a chair was carried up and no doubt he made a slow and rather tender climb to the top.

The 100th anniversary in 2007 saw the presence of the Rt Rev Anthony Porter, Bishop of Sherwood. When I visited it was the extremely jovial figure of the Rev. Liz Murray having a local association with the church but was currently the curate of nearby Eastwood, Brinsley and Underwood joined the equally charming Revd Pauline Key. They  made such a natural ‘pious’ pair that it surprises me that the Church of England fought against women clergy for so long…so natural did these two fit in the role.

With some well known and uplifting choices for hymns as well an obvious punning song with the chorus ‘my strong tower’. Now of course the sermon has amplification, one could not imagine, how difficult it would have been to hear it before its use for it was difficult to hear the choir beneath without it…presumably earlier vicars had big voices.

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Mr Tew doubted that the tower service was enacted every year since, but I had the fortune to speak to a 90 year old parishioner who remembered being taken ‘babe in arms’ to the service and regularly attended from her infant years. I asked her whether she had climbed to the top…No, and I don’t think many had making me realise how honoured that they allowed me to join in on such a venerable custom.

Clearly the curate and their regular guest got a buzz…dare I say a ‘high’ from the experience and enjoyed it enormously. Indeed, I felt it was all in all a rather jolly and joyous experience.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

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