At times like these, when the sun has deserted half the planet, and a thousand carbon-guzzling engines are doing their best to cast their frantic discs of electric light onto rain-loaded strips of tarmac, strips which seem to stretch away in every direction, enribboning and enwrappening the landscape in infinite linear horror, and a million people sit within their hurtling metal boxes, scurrying before winter storms, pouring particulate-heavy vapours into the rain-soaked atmosphere, each encaged and enraged by their own desperate velocity, it seems even comfort can be made a kind of hell. Or even, particularly comfort can be made a kind of hell.
Yet as I heave my fossil-fuelled way north and west, the downpour eases; high, hard hills fringe the emerging far western skyline, and as if driven away by the warming breath of the coming sun, the thick, wet clouds disappear behind me, revealing in their high-up stead something high, hard, blue and fresh, and beneath its gaze a hard-eyed landscape of reflective liquid mirrors, lapping at the hedgerows and lying in undefeated glazes over the road; and the lanes themselves narrow and quieten, the houses increase in age and decrease in moneyed spruceness, and as I finally round a corner something ancient and perfect faces me across a low curve of field: a rounded apse, the twin gables of nave and choir, rising small and poised from the rise of earth. Kilpeck.
What does sacred mean? Something unutterably important. My family is sacred to me. But if it meant only that, the word would not need to exist (except, perhaps, in that it is shorter than ‘something unutterably important’). The word’s raison d’etre includes some concept of the divine; more than that, an idea that there are gradations of experience between being and not-being in its presence; a concept that on articulation is rather odd, and odder still if one is not even certain if one accepts a fixed or even necessary meaning for the word ‘divine’ itself.
And it is word with many faces. It is easy to attach to things one loves: a mountain range, one’s children; or to articles of faith: the words of a Holy book, the name of a Prophet. Yet in many traditions it has more challenging attributes. Some places have been too sacred to enter; and to the face of the sacred, less wholesome attributes – terror, jealousy, judgement, violence – have been connected. Perhaps, even, we cannot really consider the meaning of the word ‘sacred’ without admitting something of this; perhaps without it the very idea is neutered, tamed, a roaring beast enkittened.
Contact with the natural world in its true power can involve real terror, real violence, real powerlessness; and these are not emotions we should try to imitate just because we have a romantic sense that our perception of the sacred is a little dried-out, a little empty of true content. To rejoin our connection to the natural, to replace the sublime (which is on the way to it but not quite it, too knowing, too indulged-in), is to encounter something we may not really want to have to get to know; and the people struggling to put their lives together up in Cumbria would be right to laugh in your face at the suggestion that at least they have touched some experience that bears on the divine. These reflecting fields beside the road may engulf us all.
So is Kilpeck sacred? It’s certainly perfect. The way it sits on its abandoned hill. The castle tump behind, fresh-deluges filling its empty moat-sockets; the well-trampled earthen paths leading to its peak the deep soft brown of Marcher sandstones. The extraordinary smooth inventiveness, at once fiercely local and giddyingly cosmpolitan, of the corbel-table, tympanum, attached columns of the church beneath it, at 8am on a hard and brilliant November morning.
There’s not much to add about such a well-known place, but there are things to remark on here. The tension between scale and quality: tiny, yet perfect, and so richly elaborated. The question of location: does this count as incipient-settlement-church or exclusive-castle-bailey church? Or is there even much difference, at this date? In other words, who was expected to use it, in the C12, when it was built? Castle Acre, Devizes, Old Sarum, these were much bigger places, yet where still basically castles with a huddle of houses outside one gate: a nodal point in a network of power, for certain; and one that is not uninterested in having a small gathering of people living just beyond its gates, but nothing we would recognise as ‘town’. The idea of the ‘bailey church’ needs unpacking; compare the grandeur of St John’s over the ‘people’s church’ of St Mary’s, Devizes; the levels of customisaton and experimentation that might be associated with an exclusive, aristocratic churches: episocopal Melbourne and Hereford; knightly round churches within Ludlow and at Orphir, on Orkney’s Mainland, and even Cambridge?
This much I know: but the next destination, I did not.
It sits in a broad valley, with empty mountainsides a shadow hoveing on the edge-of-eye, and great long low hills like the scars of nearby mountainbuilding, reaching like pine-fringed fingers in to the valley d’ore. The abbey Dore, with its strange cut-in-half-then-recooked profile and its village a reconfigured city of refuge, a Sinai of the Marches.
Now this place, which was a Cistercian monastery, and then a near-ruin, and was then reinvented in the Laudian era as a parish church, has a quality rarely encountered. Inglesham has it, has it enough to make one weep; and it is indeed more common in such intimate and accidental places. Indeed I don’t think I know another building on such a grand scale that has it, and to experience it in a once-where so grand is somewhat overwhelming. And there is something to unpack in the way that layered acts of violence and re-sanctification seems to result in it: as long as those acts are visible. Terror visible but neutered; change left unpretended; palimpsests of trauma with which to approach the S-word, Sacredness. And perhaps this collision goes beyond the obvious contrast of pre-and post-Reformation, iconoclastic violence, and the reinvention of iconography, and then the melding of both in years of neglect. For there is something remarkable about a place being made by the fierce spiritual warriors of the C12, and then remade for ordinary farmers and their labourers in the C17; about the resulting collision of charged, exploratory early Gothic and potty, licentious post-Renaissance. A chemical reaction between two related and yet utterly contrasting visions of aesthetics, community and Church.
Anyway, whatever It is, It’s dripping from this place. And art-historically, it’s remarkable too. Those Laudian roofs are not just full of the fractured, scrapbook oddness of Jacobethan taste; they are positively pornographic, born up by tiny C17 Katy Prices, without the plastic skin; their silicon breasts of oak poking out above the springers of lost vaults. And this remaking is everywhere, filling choir, making screen, backing chancel with artisan oak; layering the plastered walls with black letter homilies.
Likewise, those early gothic-going-on-Early English arches in the retroquire, a kind of mini, box-sized chapel of many altars, on which all this lies are perfect exemplars of a perfect moment, and in many ways a more interesting expression of the Cistercian ideal than the more straightforward sparseness of earlier Pontigny or Fontenay. Like Wells, this is a model of the new architecture, or rather a model of the church in which the new architecture is one tool in a quest for a way of building which can eschew richly-carved articulation – no Cluniac excrescences here – without sacrificing decorousness, the quiet ravishing heaven-evoking realms of rib and shaft, of space re-shaped. And unlike (secular) Wells – or (secular) Salisbury – or even its closer cousin, the (Augustinian) retroquire, perhaps a decade newer, at St Mary Ouvery, this space on edge of the Walha fully understands the Ile-de-France realisation that the architecture of the pointed arch can fulfil all of these things without recourse to bangs and whistles; with a ravishing purity of form and the quietly elaborated articulation of same.
Is this the oldest building in the country to do such a thing? And what does it tell us of an invisible voice within certain trend within the church, a voice perhaps strongest among the inheritors of St Bernard, that might (if more such structures survived) have in fact spread this potential more widely, explaining its more corporate, sober, collegial counterpart at the above buildings, indeed of the ‘Episcopal style’ as a whole, reaching its highest expression a few decades later in the east end of London’s Temple.
But it’s the combination of the two: these pre-stiff leaf frondlets (and note that what we would call mature stiff leaf is plainly visible in the Wells transepts and St Hugh’s choir around 1190; so is this alternative a reaction to the emerging orthodoxy? Or is Abbey Dore earlier than Pevsner thought?); those post-Reformation indecencies – which is extraordinary. That, and the invisible qualities ramified into this space by the way the eastern chapels today are populated by a lapidarum: violently beautiful clusters of bosses, mouldings, finessed aticulations of some (forgotten?) shrine; and little laminated notes are blutacced over the plaster and the faded layers of polychomy; and the barn-spaces surround and enclose us; and the hard soft sunlight; the silence, the emptiness, the dust, the cold. And from every unexpected corner, the brushstrokes on fresh plaster of five hundred years later remind us, as he flies with his hourglass through the bare transept, clothed as ever as Death, that tempus must ever fugit.
This was sacred. I don’t know what it is, but I know this is it.
Madley has none of this, but it has a fascinating, not to say thrilling, story. This great space, the structural history of which Pevsner (drawing on RCHME?) nails so well, is an expansion on enormous scale – twice or three times previous size – of a plain-and-Kilpeck sized building, that is an ordinary parish church of the late C11-to-mid-C12, resulting in the earlier C13, in something already enormous: a frank and sober and thought-through west tower, and a clerestoried nave, the broken walls of its predecessor plainly caught up within it; a vaulted chancel (even).
The next transformation was less dramatic in scale but more interesting, and was taking place in 1318, when we know there was an image of the Virgin here and a brief but ferocious charismatic cult sweeping the see of Hereford via the unlikely St Cantilupe. The C13 expansion is interesting enough; perhaps one can link it to other regularising and expanding liturgy-parish churches such as West Walton or Potterne. But what of the later, more interesting motivation?
In terms of scale, it is merely the rebuilding of chancel, with the vault taken down, and the creation of an extra aisle on the S side of the building.
In terms of detail, this is all boring Herefs-Dec: ballflower, repeating tracery (reticulated when possible), plain but elegant detailing (the curves-and-straightness of the caps to the grand south aisle, really associated with a family? A chantry?); a few relatively sober eccentricites in the odd triangle-curves of the side apse windows (are these really as designed?)
But what’s interesting is the overall design. In some ways, this is a simple matter: the Marian apse could be out-of-Lichfield, which fits its dating well; though the way in which greater width is engineered is ingenious: by building outside the walls of the C13 predecessor and forming a slight octagon at the W as well as E end, connecting the chancel to the narrower nave and creating space in for two newel stairs. The stretched-Octagon plan that results may indicate knowledge of Wells, or may not, as it appears to be motivated by local, practical requirements (enlarge the chancel, create newel stairs) and moreover is not made a design feature, one does not perceive the space as octagonal; and indeed Wells is probably 1320s and so very tight date wise.
Anyway, neither of these buildings has a crypt. Madley has. The model for what happens below the floor of this apsed, almost-octagonal space, is nearer at hand and more obvious: it is the crypt to the Lady chapel at Hereford (was there then a C13 crypt at Madley? And do both, even, refer to Anglo-Saxon predecessors?); the function of the latter has been linked to the cult of St Ethelbert, to a cathedral parish altar, and to pre-1107 precedents variously.
This crypt is an interestingly detailed space. Look at those thought-through-yet-plain responds, subtley more elaborate round the apse than they are at the west end; the giant-spider vault to the capless column, making sense on the apsed east side, but rising off a flat west wall like some invader from Mars, and inscribing on its western wall the section of a hall church – lancet aisles, wide ‘nave’. Clever stuff. And look at those methods of entry and egress (blissfully left open to the modern church-crawler, as if health and safety has yet to reach the Marches), which explain the importance of the newel stairs above: two long, low well-made stepped passages, leading from either side of the chancel arch, and running slowly downwards to turn into this low-down space. Reminiscent in its way of the ancient cult-crypts of Northumbria; but more so of certain works of cult architecture. The Booth porch at Hereford has side ways in to facilitate the experience of the image of the Virgin at Hereford (and let’s not forget that mere access to a stone newel stair would have suggested privileged levels of access to the average peasant); the outer north porch at St Mary Redcliffe, by which the Booth porch is inspired, has a directly comparable arrangement; one might also compare the Red Mount chapel at King’s Lynn (in its original form). Even closer at hand – close enough to be intriguing in its own right – and not associated with any known cult, is the lost Lady chapel at Great Malvern priory, with an early C13 crypt that was accessed from a narrow door in at least one of the east aisle chapels. This NB is all rather different from the access arrangements at Hereford, where there is a single big entrance from the Lady chapel steps and an even grander external porch. Here at Madley, too there is a third door; a priest has his own way in to the e (and there is barely space for an altar…, a problem at ONP and, a little less problematically, in the Booth porch, too).
Anyway, it’s fascinating as another one for my collection of cult-related structures; and for apsed gothic buildings with crypts: indeed Westbury may be the only other non-great church example in the country; and for the not un-related iconography that at King’s Lynn and Westbury uses crypts to make us think of Holy Sepulchres and at King’s Lynn and Hereford devotes the more richly-articulated space above to the Virgin.
All this, and you can climb behind the high altar and put your cheek inches from the flailing glazed red-and-green richness of a Prophetic Regal Descnedant of Christ, sitting encurled in a top-notch C14 Jesse Tree.
Madley, by the Lugg, is plain after this, nothing but a simpler-still apsed C14 Herefs chancel and a featureless Boring Dec chancel arch, over-restored arcades (late C12/couple of decades later… how many of these things *are* there?) … but this is, in a very minor way, another building with a cult dimension. Apparently there’s a well within the building, and the church itself is certainly located irrationally, with the floodplain lapping almost to the south aisle, and Ethelbert’s head bobs by.
And we have to be two hours south and east by 7pm, and ready to cycle across Bourne and Fleet, from Paddington to Paulsbury, by 9am tomorrow, and as we contemplate the dropping of the light, the turning of the earth, the vanishing of the sun, and the speeding of fossil-fuelled wheels over infinite ribbons of steel and tarmac over hills created from the skeletons of lost Earths, lost eras, abandoned life forms, the joy turns to horror at the the blind will of the sacred …