Saturday, 22 August 2015

Marden, Wiltshire

Marden lies outside the enormous prehistoric Marden henge, but even though I knew it was there, I still had problems pointing it out to B as we drove into the village. It must have been a hugely important place in the Neolithic, surely no less than our more famous sites of Stonehenge, Avebury and Durrington Walls. It was built about 4500 years ago. So our church carvings at only 900 or thereabouts are positively spring chickeny in comparison. It's quite a thought.

Marden church (St Michael and All Angels) is a total gem though for the Norman carving enthusiast. The south doorway by which you enter is ridiculously ornate. There are zigzags, beading, steppy patterns and lots of flower motifs. It was rather overwhelming for the artist especially at the end of a day's drawing. You wouldn't credit how tiring driving around looking at carved stones and eating snacks can be. So I went inside to check out the surprises inside.

It seems that Marden has the most amazing chancel arch - so solid and wide, with chevrony zig-zags pointing in all directions. It's a little wonky (as you'd hope) and kind of flattened over the top. What made it really interesting was that the zigzagginess went under the arch and around the back. Which seemed very upmarket. It reminded me of a similar feature at the bemuralled church at Kempley St Mary.


Even the feet of the columns had a bit of decoration.

So thoroughly overwhelmed by all this I sat down to draw a little of the arch, the impost blocks from which it springs (if that's the right terminology).  There are little flowery motifs here as well.


It's so hard to know what to focus on when there's so much. It makes me feel very tired. I want to engage with it, and drawing the sketch above did make me feel like I had. And of course the arch will with luck be there for a jolly long time yet, if I want to go back and visit it. I know a lot of the enjoyment and benefit is about just finding these places and experiencing them. But I enjoy stopping and observing and interacting by drawing, and sometimes I feel I don't do justice to the location somehow, if that's not happened. It's hard to explain. Hmm.

Alton Priors, Wiltshire

Having probably ensured a lifetime free of vampires by eating the garliciest garlic bread ever at the Barge Inn, we drove to the churches close by at Alton Barnes and Alton Priors. I'm getting so picky that I wasn't that impressed by Alton Barnes. It was ludicrously cute really, as you can see by this Geograph photo by Kevin Farmer. But its alleged Saxon origins weren't that obvious to me. The two churches are very close, but there were quadrupeds (as Mr Pevsner would say) in the fields between and were feeling cowardly and drove round (it would have been much nicer to walk over the fields though).

Alton Priors is completely different. It's more isolated, like an island in the middle of a field. You have to climb over a stile to get into its enclosure. There's the most enormous yew tree (or rather, two enormous yew trees) to the south side of the building. I did my usual hopeful 'close your eyes and walk through the portal' thing, walking through the gap between the trunks, but remained in the 21st century. Ah well.

The church is much larger than Alton Barnes, and its emptiness seemed to give it a more interesting atmosphere. It's looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust. There are some interestingly carved Jacobean pews in the chancel. But I liked the ancient 'imposts' of the chancel arch with their dotted blob motif - definitely Norman (and an early kind of design? - it's so simple, it's reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon things we've seen?).

I knew there were supposed to be large sarsen stones under the church floor. The 'trap doors' didn't have their handles though. I wonder if the CCT is fed up of people looking? I wonder why were the trap doors ever built? I suppose someone thought the stones were curious enough to be worth looking at (the floor and doors are quite new looking).

What with the stones and the massive yews it's no wonder people speculate this place is a bit special, with its hint of holiness beyond Christianity. And now I come to read more on the internet - it seems I've missed out seeing another excellent thing at the site. There are two spring-fed pools with bubbles coming up - the source of the Avon. We'll have to return. Bob Trubshaw talks about it on the 'In Search of Holy Wells and Healing Springs' blog.

Stanton St Bernard, Wiltshire

This is the font at Stanton St Bernard. It's not St Bernard's church though, it's All Saints. Which is slightly peculiar. I can't find why the village is St Bernard's. And we saw no St Bernards dogs either.

The church looks disappointingly sterile from the outside, rebuilt by a Victorian vicar. Were these churches really all falling down as badly as they always make out? Or was it some kind of job creation scheme / backhander for the local builders. Who knows.

Inside, most people's eyes will be drawn to the huge mural that covers the end of the nave, with Jesus sitting over the chancel arch. It's very unusual, very Art Nouveau. You can read a bit about it in the Trilithon magazine. It was painted by Maude Berry in around 1900.

But we were more taken by the font and its superb pleats. We're learning that sometimes Mr Pevsner didn't seem to be paying much attention to our beloved fonts. In this case he said "Circular, Norman, with a top band of flat zigzag and a wider band below which seem [sic] to be C19." Mr Pevsner, no no NO. The whole thing is beautifully proportioned and balanced - if you imagine it with the pleaty area unpleated, and just part of the straight bowl, it wouldn't look right. But more convincingly - the clinching thing as far as B and I were concerned - the pleats are the usual delightfully off-kilter style that we know from so many other Norman examples. Why would have a Victorian person have messed with the font, and then cut it wonky? It seems very Norman to us.

The pleats were not easy to draw - a classic example of how Knowing what you're looking at means you can't See. You may think we're crackers but I think I can truthfully say we both felt rather fond of this font by the time we'd sat there staring and struggling for so long. It's an interesting variation of a lovely simple zigzaggy design.

All Cannings, Wiltshire

Like Bishops Cannings, All Cannings is village that lies in the gap between the Downs to the north and the Salisbury Plain to the south - the Pewsey Vale. The Kennet and Avon canal and the young River Avon weave about between them all.

The tower at the All Saints church is in the building's centre - a feature that B and I have come to associate with Ancientness and the oft-fulfilled promise of carvings and weirdness. We found not only a couple of superbly trumpety Norman capitals, but a couple of enigmatic faces.

I did enjoy sitting there drawing this magnificently chunky capital. The weird shapes on the right are not a product of my dodgy artistic skills but were genuinely like that. The church had a nice atmosphere, one of those places where time feels quite heavy and you can almost imagine the long hours and years and centuries the carvings have sat there, usually in silence, with the light of the sun moving around the walls.


B drew the other capital - even more chunky and less fiddly, but as with all these things it always becomes more difficult when you actually start observing and drawing. What you think it looks like isn't really what's there at all, and you have to fight that boring, lazy, impatient and ever critical bit of your brain that won't let the other bits get on and draw.

I enjoyed looking for the colours in the stone - purples, blues, browns, pinks, yellows. It often makes me think that I'd like to bring some acrylics with me and just paint rather than do the ink + wash thing. But can you imagine the mess I'd make. And I'm sure it'd take me even longer. I always try to relax and take as long as I need, give the sculptures the attention they deserve. But one can't help having the Itinerary somewhere in the back of one's mind. Only because there are always new and exciting things to be seen, and only limited time in which to see them.

You can see this face in the background of the photo above, on the wall near the organ. I don't know how old it is, but I liked it because it has simple bold lines like the Norman carving, and the diamondish eyes are also reminiscent of Norman sculptures we've seen. It has a very patient air.

We didn't notice the carving below until we were about to leave - Mr Pevsner didn't spot it and no wonder, because it's up high and round a corner (actually somewhere up above my carved capital). Sometimes we really get the impression he zoomed about and sometimes was thinking more about his tea. I mean I don't blame him or anything, I can't begin to imagine how he sustained his enthusiasm and energy levels for the massive undertaking. His books are an outrageous achievement. I can hardly think less of him because sometimes he skims over magnificent Norman fonts and misses the odd bit of peculiar sculpture. He must have been totally knackered half the time, judging by the way I feel at the end of the day, and that's after only a handful of locations.

So what can this carving be? It was hard to see as it was high up. Having seen the Minute Face at Maperton, I'm inclined to see a bit of similarity with this face. But what's going on with the attached body? I wonder if there's something wave-like and watery going on towards the bottom. The figure certainly has a hand in a sleeve. But the other 'hand' seems to be too large and carved without fingers? which made me wonder if it were something else. And the head doesn't have any hair... so then I thought 'baby... water... Moses in the bulrushes...' but on reflection I think that's probably quite silly.

I'm wondering if I should start taking a ladder round with us.

I found this anonymous document which I think is the same thing I read in the church. It says:
"A relic of an earlier structure exists in the form of a curious stone carving on the south face of the Southwest tower pier. It appears to be the figure of a man entwined by a serpent or snake. It would, therefore, have probably formed one of a pair of allegorical carvings of Adam and Eve. Its date and origins are, however, unknown."

I have to disagree though, because I don't think it appears to be the figure of a man entwined by a serpent at all, largely because we couldn't see any serpent. If you want to call that twirly bit a serpent, it's going to have to be a two-headed one, and one without eyes or a tongue or anything else serpenty. Plus as far as I know, Adam isn't usually depicted wearing sleeves, because in the garden of Eden, he didn't have to wear anything at all. So I'm monumentally unconvinced by the idea.
 Update: Stiffleaf has a better photo here. It could be a dragon. It's not a snake as they don't have ears. Maybe he's got a bag of something in his hand. Maybe it's not a him at all but all that stuff at the top is hair. So I'm none the wiser but it's interesting to see it more clearly.

Bishops Cannings, Wiltshire

One thing I love about this hobby... past-time... adventure round Wiltshire... strange obsession... is the strangeness, curiousness and sheer superbness of some of the things we find, which never ceases to amuse and thrill me. I know. You think I'm over-egging it. But how else can you be expected to react to something as crazy as the painting below. Are you just going to say 'Pff. Whatever. I've seen dozens of those. When are we getting to McDonalds?' No, you are obliged to pull a wtf face and squeal 'OMG'. Or something along those lines at least.

This is the back of what's been described as a wooden carrel - that is, a desk for studying at. It's kind of desk-like. It's not clear how old it is, but I wonder what could be gleaned from the style and spelling of the Latin, and the ruffley nature of the sleeve?

The writing is rather hard to decipher (even if my Latin were better), but I've found a transcription here in the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine for 1860:

The author (a venerable archdeacon) sniffs at a previous writer who 'both incompletely and incorrectly transcribed' the inscription. But curiously, he himself says something inaccurate - that the two lowest labels 'proceed from the mouths of a white cock and a black cock respectively'. But there's no black bird at all, just a white one - well, a grey one really. I mean take a look for yourself, you can zoom right in to see. (Someone drew two on this depiction from 1910 - were they putting it in purely because the archdeacon had said there were two? I mean that's bizarre - believe in your own eyes, surely? Or did they never see it with their own eyes, but thought they'd better put two birds in? It's very strange.)

And another thing, it's evidently not a cock - it's profoundly pigeony. B and I debated and agreed its pigeonyness there and then in front of it. Cockerels have spurs on their feet and combs and wattles on their head. This bird has neither. I mean get a grip, it's very basic ornithology really, we don't need to call Bill Oddie or anything.

Anyway, this is what The Hand tells you, according to the board in the church. It says 'Hand of Meditation' on the cuff, and 'What thou oughtest to think upon' on the palm.

To be honest I don't like being told what to think (I'm annoying like that) and to begin with I thought the hand was going to be religious and proscriptive and annoying.
Since on the thumb it says: Thou knowest not how much / Thou knowest not how often / Thou hast offended God

But we read on:

On the index finger: Thy end is bitter / Thy life is short / Thou has come into the world / With sin

The middle finger: Thou shalt carry nothing with thee but what thou has done / Thy life thou canst not lengthen / Thy death thou canst not escape / Thou shalt die

The ring finger: Thou knowest not whither thou shalt go / Thou knowest not how thalt shall die / Thou knowest not where thou shalt die / The hour of death is uncertain

The little finger says: Thou shalt quickly be forgotten by thy friends / Thy heir will seldom do anything for thee / He to whom thou leaveth thy goods will seldom do anything for thee /  Thy end is miserable

And to be honest there's no arguing with any of that (apart from the coming into the world with sin bit)  - so although it was a rather depressing read, it seemed quite pragmatic and fair enough.

The pigeon (or, I might allow, it could be a dove) says: Remember thy latter end and thou shalt not sin thereafter.

And next to it: Thou shalt not be a happy man if abundance of wealth flows to thee.  (B and I thought we might like a go at this just to make sure). Thou shalt not always be here; be mindful that thou shalt die. Wealth shall vanish; what thou has here, another shalt have. Thy body shall rot; what thou doest shall remain with thee.

Which again, is only common sense really. So I hope that's cheered everyone up now.

P.S. I was looking at 'Early Christian Symbolism in Great Britain and Ireland before the 13th Century', and it happened to mention how a dove is a symbol of 'the departed soul' - which would make perfect sense considering what our dove was saying. Dove it is then.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Blackford, Somerset

At St Michael's in Blackford, these two deliciously spirally columns frame the doorway. One has spiral chevrons, the other is twirled by a single line. Naturally they're both carved a bit wonkily, which makes them all the nicer. And naturally they're of Norman date, so among the oldest parts of the church.

You can see a photo of the doorway on the CRSBI website. The columns both 'disappear into the floor' without a foot; and the CRSBI call them 'en delit' which apparently means they're not carved from the same block as stands behind them. But whatever, I think they're very slim and elegant and the spirals are lovely. I like the way the Norman carvers were perfectly happy to have a different design on either side of the doorway. I don't think you'd get that kind of asymmetry in any other era. They clearly match and are of the same ilk, but they're different. It's good.

Here's a little sketch of the font, which is superbly squat and short - tub shaped with only a little bit of moulding around the top to decorate it. It's rather symmetrical and very pleasing in its simplicity.

Maperton, Somerset

Maperton felt like it was a long way down winding roads in the Somerset countryside. The church is next to a massive and grand manor house, and you have to stride up a dank little lane at the side of it. The church itself is pretty Victorian and a bit sterile, but it's got a couple of things that more than make up for that.

The first is in the porch - it's a carved Anglo-Saxon stone. The design is pretty freeform though not entirely unsymmetrical. It had some of that 'line-down-the-centre' going on that truly smacks of Saxon-ness. Its weird shape maybe suggests it was an arm of a cross. But who knows. It's not like it's the shape it seems in the drawing - the shape is set into a rectangular bit of stone. You can see a photo on 'Somerset Heritage' which shows what I mean. Also, I liked to imagine there was a Bitey Creature in the bottom right corner. But I think that may have been overimagination caused by a faintly eye-like dint.

And here is something we weren't expecting, which was just superb and one of those lovely and strange extras which make our visits especially rewarding. It was billed in the church blurb as "a minute face" and it was set into the interior of the tower. It was full of character and had an ancient and curious air. You can see a photo on the CRSBI website. Naturally I don't want to denigrate their Serious Objectivity but their description misses the numinosity of the carving. I liked the Minute Face a lot.

The CRSBI also have a picture of the font at Maperton, which they have down as romanesque, but I'm not hugely excited by it. Octagonal and plain doesn't shout Norman era at me, though the base looks pretty convincing. Hark at me eh.

Milborne Port, Somerset

B and I have resumed our adventures, but owing to endless hold-ups with internet access at my house, it makes me wonder whether I'll be able to record everything before it disappears from my head. We often have conversations that run -

- Ooh look at that, that's rather like the column at.. now where was it.. you know, that church with the doorway, was it somewhere near X??
- You mean the one with the trees?
- No no no, but yes it did have trees, but the one where we walked up that path. Did it begin with D??

These lovely "affronted animals" (meaning facing each other, rather than being offended) were on the tympanum at St John's church in Milborne Port. They're pretty cute (you can see the original on this link). The surrounding design reminded me very much of the one around Samson and the lion at Highworth.

The church is big and has remnants of Anglo-Saxon-ness - a massive central tower with much fiddly leaf-inspired carvings on the capitals. Unfortunately they were very high up and we couldn't see them properly. They weren't the bold simple style you might expect. We needed a ladder really.

There was also a Norman font, but it seemed to have been hacked about mercilessly. It had arches on the sides but they looked strange - I thought it must originally have been a square font made octagonal by the cutting off of the corners. The base was offensive to the eye. I'm getting far too fussy these days but that's what happens when you expose yourself to all the best examples.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Sutton Veny, Wiltshire

It seems interesting (to me at least) that this ruined church is pretty much in the same line as a number of prehistoric barrows parallel to the lovely River Wylye. Why did the prehistoric barrow builders think this a good spot, I wonder. Did the builders of the church follow in their footsteps deliberately? It wasn't such a great spot for a building though, as it was too damp for the foundations - apparently why the church was eventually abandoned and rebuilt elsewhere. Although that was in the 19th century and you'd think it'd have fallen down long before if things were so bad. I fear the all-too-familiar smell of the over enthusiastic victorian meddler.

There's an ancient yew tree as well, but I didn't notice it at the time, despite its 15 foot circumference. The graph on this page suggests that would make it a paltry :) 650 years old, not old enough for the connoisseur of Romanesque sculpture of course.

The church was obviously quite big. The only Norman bit of the building is the arch in the picture above. It looks quite strange because the arch and lintel are intact, but the tympanum has fallen out. The capitals remain hanging there without their pillars, rather like at Coulston. The carving on the capitals is very eroded.

This wasn't the most atmospheric of spots, mostly because the churchyard had been mowed to within an inch of its life. So it felt more sterile than spooky, not really what you'd expect from a ruin. It did have some curious gravestones made of metal though, which have got to be quite unusual you'd think. The substrate was not deterring the lichens, who had still made their home on it, so it wasn't immediately obvious what the marker was made of. I rapped with my knuckles cautiously, feeling like I was knocking on a door. To be fair I think we were both quite tired by then and the sun had been beating down on my head for a while.

Boyton, Wiltshire

After the knight at Castle Combe, so early on in our forays, no carved knight has really come up to scratch. They can't compete the amazing depiction of his chain mail. Who'd have thought the first example we saw would turn out to be so good. So the knight in Boyton church - despite being in really good condition - didn't impress us as much as it should.

But I was most taken with the animal at his feet. As usual you can find descriptions in books that clearly don't match with the evidence of your own eyes. For example this one which calls the animal a lion. It's not a lion - do lions have tails like that? They do not. Do they have ears like that? Little short legs? Splayed feet? Etc? Nope. It's an otter and even someone with the most passing interest in wildlife would have to agree. So if it is an otter I'd imagine that's quite unusual. And who wouldn't want to rest their feet on an otter for eternity, I ask you that.

Here's the font which is very plain, but I think you'll agree, pleasing enough in its proportions; I bet it's a Norman model. I'd happily go for a fatter base. But now I'm just being absurdly picky.

East Knoyle, Wiltshire

I'm not sure what put me on the trail to East Knoyle. For once it wasn't Mr Pevsner. And so we should have been wary. There's certainly the remnants of some very believable and respectable Saxon arches at the back of the church. You can see they're like the shapes in the building at Bradford on Avon.

But we were keen to see some kind of Saxon cross stone that was widely rumoured to be in the graveyard. But when we got there there was this:

It's wonky and there's not a trace of carving on it at all. And then when you look at the back of it it looks like this:  

That is, very weirdly and very neatly stepped.

B and I were wholly and entirely unconvinced that this was anything to do with a Saxon anything. It's in a weird place at the very edge of the graveyard. It's not like the wide stones we've seen used in Saxon carvings in any of the numerous places we've been. And why on earth wouldn't it be deliciously carved with knotwork? The whole thing felt very wrong. But I'm happy to be disproved. The curves look ever so slightly like Moss's photo here of an Anglo-Saxon cross. Which is, I suppose, where the idea comes from. But it doesn't look the same. The curves are wrong and the back is weird. I'm not convinced.

After that we felt rather disgruntled and didn't bother going into the church. Hmm.

Brixton Deverill, Wiltshire

Next stop another Deverill and another lovely solid Norman font. This one was brought here (one hopes for safekeeping) after the occupants of Imber were chucked out of their village by the Ministry of Defence. I think during the war they were led to believe they'd be returning, so I guess the font was moved some time after that, once hope had evaporated.

It's magnificently chunky and uneven, and decorated by a big band of chevrons. Mr Pevsner calls them arrowheads which I suppose is fair enough, but I like the word Chevron. It was peaceful here. The door opened straight into the west end of the church. I couldn't help patting the font fondly as we left; it's very organic.

Longbridge Deverill, Wiltshire

St Peter and St Paul's church in Longbridge Deverill is rather hidden below the main road. It's some way from the rest of the village at the crossroads, but close by the lovely River Wylye.

Naturally we had come to see the super Norman font in its scallopy variety, but the church is jam-packed with unusual things and seems to have gathered some dubious piffle as lore. Call me a cynic, but for example, the idea that Thomas Becket himself had carved some crosses on the altar seems a bit much - I'm sure he had things to do in Canterbury. And also "I read on the internet" that a tree in the churchyard is a cutting from the Glastonbury Thorn, which would be very cool, but I can't find any collaborating information for it anywhere.

The church also sports this thoroughly gruesome font by Alfred Gilbert, the sculptor who carved 'Eros' in Picadilly. I'd rather stick with the original one. And there are several bright and gilded screens which look like something out of a theatre production (I do kind of apologise for being so dismissive of these interesting historical artefacts). We opened the door in one of them with trepidation... a vacuum cleaner and the tea-making equipment lay mundanely within.

On the font, the scallops are all carved differently, with straightforward and bold designs. In places there are little faces nestling between the scallops. It's lovely.

While we were drawing, two women from the Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust arrived and noodled round the church just as we had done. I thought for a moment we were seeing our future selves. But when they came over they pulled a look of confusion and asked the classic question "What ARE you doing??" as though seeing two people hunched over their sketchbooks wielding pens and crayons wasn't self-evident. Thus we knew they could not see the exciting attractions of the scallops and that they were Lost.

So I tried to evangelise, but I think it turned out they were trying to convert us instead - indeed, why wouldn't we be interested in joining the Trust. The trouble is, I'm like Groucho Marx and would refuse to join any club that would have me as a member. And besides, I'm not sure it's for me if drawing Norman fonts wouldn't be at the top of their list of activities.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Kempley, Gloucestershire

Someone at the roadmap company chose to mark this. So I'm not sure it was really where we were aiming for, but as the brown roadsigns started appearing, I started following them. And after much windiness of road we ended up at St Mary's, Kempley. Our quarry was the lovely 'tree of life' tympanum pictured above. As the ancient structure of the porch obscured the view (see Nicholas Kaye's photo), we had to stand very close and crane our necks back (another of Mr Kaye's photos here shows what we were up against). I really believe that the design (as well as I could make out) was as wonky as above. So it's interesting to see the nearby unobscured tympanum at Dymock on the CRSBI website because it's so similar, but not wonky. I think I prefer the asymmetrical one really... it's one of those characteristic things the connoisseur of Norman carvings looks forward to :)

Inside the church was a rare treat - in fact, "one of the most outstandingly complete and well preserved sets of medieval wall paintings in England" according to its caretaker, English Heritage. Simon Jenkins goes even further: "the most complete set of Romanesque frescos in northern Europe".

Retrospectively it's interesting to see how the painting of the underside of the chancel arch echoes the carved detail we saw beneath the arch on our later visit to Marden.

Kempley also makes you wonder how colourful any number of these places were originally. Though it seems quite strange and crowded to the modern eye - like the Elgin / Parthenon marbles, we've become used to the stark minimalist look of the churches and sculptures being unpainted.

Perhaps I didn't appreciate the frescos as much as I should: a combination of turning up not particularly prepared, plus being surrounded by Other People - the latter being most unusual and strangely off-putting. You need a special sort of quiet to want to get your sketchbook out. But I'm glad other Romanesque fans were out in force that day (really).