The Dance of Death, Newark-on-Trent

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The Independent Online
Most English towns grew out of two important institutions, the parish church and the market - God and Mammon lived quite happily side by side. Today, the arrival of the motor car and the out-of-town shopping centre means that this symmetry has often been lost.

But not in Newark-on-Trent, the kind of market town which gives market towns a good name. Here the energetic business of getting and spending is still overshadowed by a church whose spire points elegantly to the sky and, perhaps, reminds stallholders about to pull a fast one that they will answer for their sins in the heavenly Office of Fair Trading.

For this is the church of St Mary Magdalene, one of a trio of ecclesiastical masterpieces offering the best possible advertisement for the East Coast railway line. Journeying north from London, the traveller can bask in the successive glories of Peterborough Cathedral, St Wulfram in Grantham, St Mary Magdalene plus any number of smaller gems dotted throughout the flat landscape.

For centuries Newark was an important staging-post on the Great North Road, and its cobbled Market Place still boasts former coaching inns and enticing passageways. The River Trent runs nearby, watched over by the ruins of Newark Castle - once the "Key to the North" - which was captured by Cromwell's men after a fierce siege during the Civil War and then promptly demolished.

King John had died here at the castle in 1216, after an excess of unripe peaches washed down by new ale. Appropriately, the Coffee Palace opposite the castle ruins was built by Viscountess Ossington in 1882 in order to encourage the consumption of soft drinks rather than gin or beer. The present occupants are not so strict.

But it is the church of St Mary Magdalene that continually grabs one's attention. Its tower and spire span the centuries: mostly medieval, the Victorians couldn't resist adding the clock and the golden weathercock.

The interior is more grand than that of several cathedrals. Massive and stately, this building is awesome in its sense of power. But nothing brings home more effectively the mortality of us fragile human beings than the 16th-century painted panels close to the High Altar. On the right, a handsome young man who no doubt delights in wine, women and song is apparently in the peak of condition.

Alongside him, however, a skeleton carrying a rather attractive carnation points to the grave and reminds the young stud that, no matter how pleasurable his time here on earth, he too will wither and die.

I like to think that the anonymous artist had King John in mind when crafting his work. In other words, stay off the peaches and ale.

`The Dance of Death' is on the south side of the High Altar in St Mary Magdalene, Newark- on-Trent