Visiting Kilpeck

img_3593Over the last year I keep coming across references to the Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, so I felt I was meant to visit it. It’s a fascinating place: built on an ancient site (and who knows what lies beneath the current building?), the church as it now stands is thought to have been built about 1140. It’s in an egg-shaped graveyard, because an old superstition indicates that this prevents the Devil from hiding in corners, and the area is likely to have been considered sacred due to its pure springs as well as other more obscure phenomena. You can read more about the church on its excellent and informative website, which also has an app (the app is basically an audio guide, which is a good idea but as we had children with us we didn’t get to use it!)

The church is Romanesque, the 10th century precursor to Gothic style, which as I understand means that churches described as Romanesque have a lot of arches and circular parts (apologies here to the more knowledgeable)! It’s also wonderfully carved, by craftsmen of the Hereford School, whose work appears all over the county and is remarkable for its vivid detail. The south door is wonderfully carved, with designs which look vaguely Celtic to me, including a (disputed) Green Man at the top of the right hand pillar, along with birds and foliage. The church is particularly famous for its 85 corbels (these are what I would have called gargoyles, but the technical difference, the guidebook tells me, is that gargoyles have a purely decorative purpose, while corbels actually support some part of the building). These include a famously rude sheela-na-gig, a female figure who may be intended to ward off evil spirits, or might be a Celtic fertility symbol, or indeed a warning to the lustful – but no doubt she is the most frequently photographed part of the building!

The church is also situated on in the ley lines identified by Alfred Watkins in his book The Old Straight Track, so Kilpeck has become a site for the curious, be they Christian, pagan or somewhere in between, because of the church’s reputation for being a site where differing approaches to the spiritual merge – in the building itself, at least.

There is a castle behind the church, somewhat earlier (though by less than a century) than the church, which was probably once the administrative centre for the area. There is little of it left, but with the spectacular views of Herefordshire one can see that it was a perfect spot to defend an area. It was captured by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and demolished, hence the very few remaining walls.

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A plea for a church tower

St_Michael's_Church,_Stoke_Prior,_Worcestershire_2The village in Worcestershire where I live has a beautiful church, St Michaels and All Angels, of which parts date back to the 12th century. It’s a wonderful building, as well as a place of worship, and one which the vicar would like to see becoming more of a social hub for Stoke Prior. Not only is the building attractive and Grade I listed, but the ancient graveyard is full of wild flowers and contains areas reserved for wildlife, which is rampant among the illegible gravestones. I spend quite a lot of my time exploring the church and grounds with my small son, and it’s a place of which I’m very fond. Every day when I come down the hill into the village on my way home from work, I look across the field of sheep to the church and sigh with thankfulness that I can look at this scene which can barely have changed in centuries. It’s sad, then, to see the tower covered with scaffolding and part of the grounds out of bounds due to the crumbling tower.

I’m not an ecclesiologist (unlike my father!) but, briefly, the chancel is 13th century, while the north chapel and the south aisle were added in the 13th and 14th centuries. Decorated windows were installed at the same time, with further Victorian renovations. There is much more information here and here if you’re interested.

In the nineteenth century the church was renovated with funds providedEdward by the ‘Salt King’, John Corbett, a local man who made his money in salt-mining, and is best known now for building Chateau Impney in Droitwich Spa. He was also a very charitable man, it seems, and used him money for good, building almshouses, renovating churches and, I think, also paying for the school master’s house for the Reform School, which is now my house.

Now, the church is fundraising, with the hope that when fully renovated (which will cost around £150,000) the building will continue to be an integral part of village life. If you can donate anything at all to this fundraising effort, please visit their JustGiving page. There is also a facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/StokePriorChurchTowerFund

Photo.jpgJohn Betjeman, that great preserver of English buildings, had a deep affinity for country churches, even writing poems as fundraisers (something I would love to do, but I’ll spare you). You can listen to him reading his comic ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’ here. He wrote that: ‘When a church has been pulled down the country seems empty or is like a necklace with a jewel missing.’ I’m sure it won’t come to that for St Michael’s, but perhaps we should all follow Betjeman’s lead and think about the spiritual, architectural, social, historical aspects of the heritage represented by our church buildings. Like Betjeman, I can’t walk past a church without popping in for a look, and the peace and beauty always makes it worth it.

If you have any bright ideas about fundraising, or want to know more, please feel free to contact me.

There is a lovely video of the church and its surroundings on Youtube:

 

A church in the best possible taste

photo 5Croome Court is a National Trust property not far from Worcester, and one I particularly enjoy visiting because of the variety of things to see there, including the Neo-Palladian house, designed by Capability Brown and visited by several monarchs (and once occupied by Hare Krishnas, surprisingly). The grounds are beautiful and extensive (also designed by Brown) and including follies and a grotto (I do like a nice grotto, though this one lacks a hermit, sadly). The site was used as a secret airbase (RAF Defford) during the Second World War, and the buildings that remain from this period in its history are now the visitors’ centre and canteen.

What particularly caught my attention last time I visited, though, was the Church of St Mary Magdalene, no longer in use, but in a good state of repair (due to the Churches Conservation Trust, who have restored it ‘in the spirit of’ Adam’s original design) and remarkable in many ways. An earlier building on the site was knocked down to make way for this building, designed by Capability Brown and with an interior by Robert Adam. What appphoto 2eals to me is that it is a fantastic example of Gothic Revival architecture. Completed in 1763, this church represents the first wave of Gothic architecture in England, around the same time that Walpole was doing up his ‘little cottage’ at Strawberry Hill as a Gothic castle, inspired by the soaring ecclesiastical buildings of early Europe. The decor, the shapes of the windows and the church furniture, the elaborate monuments and the muted colour scheme all reek of a Gothic aesthetic. Nikolaus Pevsner, a font of all architectural knowledge fondly referred to by my father as ‘Uncle Nick’,  in Buildings of Worcestershire, says:

‘The church, as originally planned by Brown, 1758, was to be classical, with tetrastyle portico. As built it is medievalizing: one of the most serious of the early Gothic Revival outside, one of the most beautiful within. With its W[est] tower and large E[ast] window, it must have looked perfectly convincing from the house as well as the road.’

He goephoto 3s on to say that ‘Adam’s interior is pure Georgian Gothic’, though one does wonder how much he approves given that he talks about the ‘monuments choking it within’ as well as the unusually long chancel. There are, indeed, many monuments; in fact, they are the reason the chancel is long, because the family monuments from the previous, demolished church are there alongside other, more recent ones, and the effect is of a mausoleum in the best possible (if slightly cramped) taste. The monuments tend towards the sculptural, reminding visitors of the money and pomp which underpinned the building of this elegant church. It is impressive, and of its time in a historically and culturally fascinating way, but one suspects it had less to do with glorifying God than with elevating the Earls of Coventry, the residents of Croome Court, for whom, as Pevsner suggests, it was mainly an ‘eye-catcher’ for their landscape.

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