It’s only taken us 25 years to travel the 10 miles from Hereford to the church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck. I think that works out to be a speed of about two yards a day or three inches an hour on average. Still, given that the church had already been waiting about 850 years by the time we first arrived in Hereford, why worry about an extra quarter of a century?
The first view we got of the church conveyed something of its special character. The semi-circular apse perched high on a mound dominated the view. There was no sign of the chancel and nave behind it. Stepping out of the car I found myself beginning to wonder whether we should have waited a bit longer to make the trip. I reassured myself that the few carvings I could see were a sure sign that Richard Taylor hadn’t been lying when he triggered this trip by raving about this place in his programme Churches: How to Read Them.
When we came to the South Door all doubt was dispelled. It was a feast of sandstone carving – mostly unintelligible admittedly, but magnificent none the less. As the guide on sale inside the church puts it (page 7):
It is very likely that the carvers of the Herefordshire School . . . . intended these figures to teach. What message each figure or group of figures was to give is largely a matter of personal interpretation and has caused a good deal of dissension!
To give a clearer sense of what these carvings are like, I’ve pulled in the next two pictures from the internet as I didn’t have a telephoto lens with me to get a good enough close up myself.
Snakes appear more than once. The snakes which are seen above on the outer columns of the door show the tail of the one in the mouth of the other. They could be meant to depict evil devouring itself or, in the Celtic tradition which is evident in many places in the local area, be representing the continuous cycle of life. The dog and hare may be evoking some kind of hunt, but what exactly isn’t clear. On the other hand, it could be a local variation of the lion lying down with the lamb. What the whole experience seemed to be leading me to, yet again, is how richly suggestive imagery is while at the same time being tantalisingly elusive. Many hands and many minds appear to have added their own contribution to this varied collection, making it very hard indeed to connect all the strands of animals, angels and saints into a coherent whole. Maybe we just have to accept that coherence was simply not on the agenda for the masons of the Herefordshire School even under the direction Hugh, the Keeper of the King’s Forests, who drove this work forward.
A symbol that occurs three times, once on the right hand side of the door and twice on the window high up on the west end of the nave, is that of the Green Man. This is strongly Celtic in association. The handbook states (page 26):
[The Green Man] is always connected with greenery, and is a fusion of man and the green world of nature. He, better perhaps than any other figure, illustrates how man is but grass, to die and be reborn and is intimately connected with May Day, when the Celtic world celebrated the return of summer, with both literal and symbolic meaning.
What came across powerfully from this visit was the sense of early Christianity, which had founded its churches next to pagan sites, as Taylor explained in his programme, consolidating itself into an authoritative, dominant and powerful source of spiritual direction while still interweaving its image of itself with remnants of the old religions. It was as though you could feel how the Normans knew they could not destroy every trace of the old gods of the countryside quite yet. It was an insight into how, if they are to grow and prosper, new faiths do not have to annihilate all that they seek to transcend, and perhaps should not do so as the old ways are not totally devoid of wisdom.
We could use a bit more of that well tried common sense realism and tolerant self-restraint right now, I think. It would help as we strive to widen the lens of our moral imagination, as we absolutely must if we are not to devour ourselves like the snakes over the doorway.