The amazing Kilpeck church carvings

The amazing Kilpeck church carvings

Our way back home from the forest of Dean took us via Herefordshire and the village of Kilpeck, long ago Welsh, now a mile or two from the border.  What had drawn us here was the church and the exquisite Saxon-Norman carvings that adorn it – probably the finest surviving examples of their kind.  It was recently featured in an episode of Richard Taylor’s excellent BBC 4 series, Churches: How To Read Them, programmes that have made me, though an atheist,  appreciate churches as repositories of history and art.

This is how Simon Jenkins describes it in his 1000 Best Churches:

Kilpeck is widely regarded as England’s most perfect Norman church….Nothing appears to have been added or subtracted over the centuries, apart from the furnishings. This means that the carvings are in situ and in context. They cover the south and west doorways, the chancel arch and the corbel-table that runs round the entire church. Dating from the mid-12th century, they are masterpieces of the Herefordshire School, ranking with the fonts at Eardisley and Castle Frome. For their survival we must thank the durability of Old Red Sandstone, salvation of Herefordshire architecture, which seems impervious to weather.

The Kilpeck carvings demonstrate the vigour of the Saxon-Norman sculptural tradition. Themes and styles are drawn from the pilgrim routes across northern Europe, from Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Franks and Spaniards, the entire Northmen diaspora. The south doorway has a Tree of Life tympanum. Oriental warriors peer through the foliage in the shafts and the dragons in the jambs. No less intriguing, if less accomplished, are the grotesques of the corbel- table, best preserved round the apse. Some are abstract, some figurative, some mythical. Here is an explicit sheela-na-gig of a woman holding open her vagina, a pig upside down, a dog and rabbit, two doves, musicians, wrestlers and acrobats. All the life of a busy and bawdy Herefordshire village is depicted on its church, with no respect for decorum or piety.

This slide show of the carvings starts at the south door and works its way around the church, anticlockwise.

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The Herefordshire School were a group of master-masons working in modern Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the twelfth century A.D. Their distinctive carvings are found also at Eardisley, Shobdon and Castle Frome in Herefordshire, and Rock, Worcestershire. Their work depicts both religious and mystical images: Norman military figures, Saxon animals and Celtic abstract patterns combine in a bewildering synthesis, at least to the modern eye. At Kilpeck we can see images of a recognizably religious nature, alongside playful, occasionally bawdy pagan or Celtic imagery.

On the outer columns of the south door there are snakes; at the top of the right hand column is the Green Man.  Some of the figures on the inner arch over the door and amongst the corbels are taken from the The Bestiary, the medieval text in which real or imaginary animals were described and moral lessons drawn from their characteristics.  When they appeared carved in stone or wood they served as a visual language for the illiterate public, who would know the stories from preachers’ sermons, and would remember the moral teaching when they saw the beast depicted.

For example, here is the Mantichore, very fierce, with the body of a lion, a human head with three rows of sharp teeth like a shark, and the tail of a dragon or scorpion. It had the sting of a scorpion, delighted in eating human flesh and with the voice of a Sibyl, could seduce a man from the the virtuous life.

The corbel heads exhibit a wide variety of imagery – Celtic abstract designs, warnings against sin, horrors showing animal eating human, and the natural world of beast, bird and fish, amongst them a Disney-like dog and rabbit.  None of these figures have any religious significance today.

For an interesting essay on representations of the human head in architectural decoration, go here.

Most bewildering to devout Victorians must have been the Sheela-na-Gig, a depiction of an old woman squatting and pulling apart her vulva.  The origin and meaning of these figures is debated; some suggest that they were used to represent female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting,  others that the carvings are remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or Mother Goddess religion.  They are found in many English churches and are common in Ireland.  There is a tentative theory that the etymology derives from the Irish, Sighle na gCíoch, meaning ‘the old hag of the breasts’.

The first mention of a church on this site is in the Book of Llandaff, the oldest history of the Marches, which records that a church at Kilpeck was given to the diocese around 650.  But the raised form of the churchyard suggests that the site is very old indeed; there is speculation that megalithic stones may lie beneath the present church.

After the Conquest, Kilpeck was given by the Conqueror to his kinsman William fitz Norman who was the builder of the castle, first of timber then of stone, the remains of which lie buried beneath the large mound to the west of the churchyard.  It was William’s son Hugh, Keeper of the King’s Forests, who built this church around 1140.

The interior of the church is whitewashed and Norman in style. The apse contains a fine early example of rib-vaulting , with four mysterious heads (above) carved at the top intersection.  The font is Norman, made from a huge piece of stone probably from around Hay, but, oddly, not in the style of the Herefordshire School.  It  is so big it could be used as a bath.

A notice in the churchyard explains that just to the east is the six-acre site of the medieval village, established in the 8th century as a dry-moated and stockaded enclave in what was, at that   time, part of Wales.   This  original village   was an important centre judging from its size, though, remarkably, it has never been surveyed. It could have housed as many as 600 people.  Clear indications of the homesteads, and possibly their strips of land, are visible from aerial photographs. There may also be remains of a large Roman courtyard and of a Saxon church.  To the west are the remains of the Norman Keep and the extensive earthworks of the Castle, built in the 11th century by William fitz Norman, the first Lord of Kilpeck.   It contained both an inner and an extensive outer bailey and though little of it now remains – it was reported as being in ruins as early as 1520 – it was an important place in its heyday.  It was one of 40 castles in Herefordshire established to keep out the Welsh.

Morwenstow’s eccentric vicar

Before we left Cornwall we visited the Norman church at Morwenstow, situated on a wild and remote stretch of the north Cornwall coast, on the track of one of the lovable eccentrics that the English seem to treasure.

Simon Jenkins captures the atmosphere of this place in his England’s Thousand Best Churches guide:

…a no-man’s land of cliffs, windswept fields and isolated farms.  To the west lies only America.

Even today, as Jenkins writes, the place is infused with the spirit of one man, Robert Hawker, who wrote of his parish,

So stern and pitiless is this iron-bound coast that within the memory of one man upwards of 80 wrecks have been counted within a reach of 15 miles, with only here and there the rescue of a living man.

From 1834 to 1875 the vicar at Morwenstow was the eccentric, outstanding Oxford scholar and poet, Robert Hawker.  Hawker’s parishioners must have seemed to him as wild as the coastline: smugglers, wreckers and Dissenters.  He, by contrast, was very High Church, converting to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. But the locals recognised in him a deep compassion: he insisted on giving Christian burials to shipwrecked seamen washed up on the shores of the parish. Prior to this, the bodies of shipwrecked sailors were often either buried on the beach where they were found or left to the sea. In the church is the figurehead of the ship ‘The Caledonia’ which foundered in September 1842. The figurehead once marked the grave of nine of the ten-man crew (a replica stands there now). The single survivor, a French-speaking Guernsey sailor, wept at the burial service for his comrades and Hawker later wrote that the cry of the stranger was ‘the touch that makes the whole world kin’.

Nearby stands a granite cross marked ‘Unknown Yet Well Known’, marking the mass grave of 30 or more seafarers who Hawker insisted should be buried in the churchyard.  The epitaph on the tomb (above) is inscribed with the quotation, ‘They came in paths of storm, they found this quiet home in Christian ground’.

Much of the original Norman church survives – there are Norman beasts in the doorway (above) and the font is the oldest known Norman font (below), with a cable decoration around the waist.  Simon Jenkins describes the hollowed bowl as being like ‘an open hard-boiled egg’.  The church is dedicated to Saint  Morwenna, an early 6th century Cornish saint who had a cell at Morwenstow.  She was the sister of Saint Juliot, who had a cell and founded the church near Boscastle that we visited yesterday.  Hawker wrote:

Welcome, wild rock and lonely shore!
Where round my days dark seas shall roar,
And thy gray fane, Morwenna, stand
The beacon of the Eternal Land.

A path leads from the church down to the cliff edge where the National Trust’s smallest building, ‘Hawker’s Hut’ is built into the face of the cliff. Here, Hawker spent many hours in contemplation, looking out to sea towards the island of Lundy, writing poetry, and smoking his opium pipe. He entertained guests here, including Alfred Tennyson and Charles Kingsley (whether they joined him in a drag on the opium pipe is unknown).

Other eccentricities included dressing up as a mermaid and excommunicating his cat for mousing on Sundays. He dressed in a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman’s jersey, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a huge pig as a pet. He married twice, the first time a woman twice his age; then, after her death, a Polish woman a third his age.

The view from Hawker’s Hut

Inside Hawker’s Hut

Hawker’s Hut

Hawker built himself a remarkable Rectory (above) next to the church, with chimneys modelled on the towers of the churches in his life.

Hawker is also renowned as the author of  ‘The Song of the Western Men’, also known as ‘Trelawny’. He wrote the song in 1824, telling of events that took place in 1688, when James II, used the royal prerogative to suspend the operation of legislation directed against those who did not worship in accordance with the rites of the Church of England by issuing a Declaration of Indulgence towards Catholics and ordering it to be read in every church.  The song was inspired by the story of Jonathan Trelawny, one of  seven bishops who refused to read out the Indulgence and who  were  imprisoned in the Tower of London.  Hawker played around with the historical truth: the march on London described in the song only reached Bristol, before Trelawny was acquitted by a jury in London and released.

A good sword and a trusty hand!
A faithful heart and true!
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!

And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here’s men as good as you.
‘Trelawny he’s in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why

By the end of Hawker’s time as vicar the church was in a ruinous state of disrepair.  The wooden roof was rotten and let in streams of water.  The pillars were green with lichen and the side of the tower bulged.  Storms had torn out the glass in the windows.  Before his death, Hawker had tried, unsuccessfully, to raise enough money for repairs.

Later, back in the churchyard, I pondered the nature of this man, Oxford-educated and culturally far-removed from his parishioners, who came to this wild and isolated place and dedicated himself to the lives of the villagers and the souls of shipwrecked sailors.

There are only two buildings in the vicinity of the church – the Rectory and the 13th century Rectory Farm, which is now a tearoom where everything is homemade.  We sat in the garden enjoying the unexpected warm sunshine while a wedding party assembled at the church across the road.

Much Marcle: ancient yew and Green Man

On the way back from Dorset we stopped off at Much Marcle in Herefordshire to see the ancient yew tree in the churchyard.  It’s one of about 50 gargantuan yews found in British churchyards (ie, with a trunk more than 30 feet in circumference).  I’ve wanted to see it since Thomas Packenham featured it as one of his Meetings With Remarkable Trees.

The Much Marcle yew is certainly an impressive specimen. It is reckoned to be at least 1000 years old.  The interior has been fitted with a bench offering enough seating space for up to a dozen parishioners to take shelter under the huge canopy.  The Tree was measured in 2006, and found to be 30ft 11ins at 4 feet 6 inches from the ground. In his book, Thomas Pakenham describes how the tree was thought of by Christians as akin to the head of Janus in Roman mythology:

Life was the meaning of the tree that seemed itself immortal. Death was the meaning of the poisonous, scarlet berries and the tough pink wood, as springy as steel, used for spears, arrows and bows.

The church itself is 13th century and has six Green Man carvings, one of which is depicted with a sunwheel on a chain around the neck.  The musician Mike Harding has written a book about the Green Man in which he states:

His face stares down at us enigmatically from the corbels and capitals of churches across Europe.  He has been linked to Robin Hood, Pan, the Oak King and the Holly King.  He has been seen as a symbol of Life in Death and of Death in Life. He is echoed perhaps in the antics of Jack in the Green who goes before the May Day processions and he is evoked, too, in the leaps of the Morris dancers of England, the Burry Man of Edinburgh and the Leaf Men of Switzerland. Nobody knows his real significance and yet everybodywho sees him understands without knowing that he represents something very deep and very important. For such a blatantly Pagan image to have persisted in Christian churches all over Europe surely implies a tremendous power and significance.

In the church we found a wooden effigy, painted in vivid colours, and believed to be that of a country gentleman, probably Walter de Helyon who lived around 1357.

The figure is not wearing armour, but a knee-length red jerkin with a belt and a short sword. He has long brown hair, a beard and pointed shoes. His feet are resting on a bull. Walter de Helyon is believed to have lived at Hellens, the country house at Much Marcle.