On Saturday I visited a village where the warm summer was still at its height. Once again, Pettifer led me there, although at times I wonder whether following his trail is a wild goose chase. He combines a considerable level of scholarship with a sort of esoteric mysticism. For instance, he has done a lot of work listing the genealogies of the patrons of church foundations (inevitably incomplete, and making whopping leaps between Saxon and early medieval), but then cross-references them with his interpretive “feelings” that a particular settlement corresponds with a place in the Holy Land. I thought at first he meant this literally, but I am beginning to think he intends a symbolic connection (like a series of Edwardian eschatological twin-towns). Added to this, his crabbed hand-writing and slapdash organisation make his notes very difficult to follow.
This particular village (“Gilgal”) was on the sides of a lush and humid wooded valley, the hillsides sharply falling and then rising again, with no valley floor. You couldn’t drive up to the church, you had to park on a sort of ledge at the side of the road and then walk up a curving path for about three hundred yards. Trees blocked the view and luxuriant ferns grew waist-high on either side.
The first view I got was of the medieval tower - a deceptive view since the rest of the church was Victorian (pulled down in 1842 and rebuilt according to designs by the architect Teulon). The trees hemmed around so closely that they made the approach seem dark, although it was a bright late afternoon (about five o’clock). The ground was very springy underfoot.
On the sloping ground the tombstones seemed to be falling down the hillside. The dense vegetation was almost exotic in the abundant way it rose up from the graveyard, as if I was in some kind of micro rainforest (an effect heightened by the damp earth, although it hasn’t rained for over a week). Big rabbits in the undergrowth looked at me curiously before thumping off, the unhurried slowness of their gait indicating that they were not used to visitors.
Look at the door! Even Pevsner agrees the Teulon ironwork is spectacular. But why such elaborate decoration on the door of a humble out-of-the-way village church?
Inside I was assailed by the smell, which was musty (perhaps a little damp) and slightly bitter with a myrtle edge to it. The church consisted of a nave (with a simple north aisle) and a chancel. Pevsner says the font is from the medieval structure although Teulon has put an elaborate cover over it. The sense of stillness and silence was profound, the silence accentuated by the loud steady ticking of the church clock in the tower, a mechanism that in its sober deliberation seemed to be counting down the years. Looking at the Visitors Book I noticed that the last entry was 10th August (obviously they must have had services since then?). As I walked along the nave I saw that candle lamps were fixed to each of the columns (above) - they are still used since the wicks were fresh.
Monuments to a family of churchwardens - there is a propensity for church offices in these parts to run in families (and woebetide any incomer who upsets the equilibrium).
When I reached the chancel step I stopped and looked back (notice on the left at the back the font with its cover and the strange bracket that lifts it off). The church seemed to be filling up with a white light. Pettiferian mystical manifestation or just the brilliance of a Teulon design that floods the building with light at unexpected moments?
The altar was decorated with fresh flowers, the lilies still in bud. The east window was stained glass, but you can see the white light just floats through it. I think Teulon has designed the building so that as the sun moves the light comes down at oblique angles and from all directions at once.
In the centre of the little chancel, exactly where Pettifer said it would be, was the inscribed stone. The medieval slab was surrounded by a Victorian floor of encaustic tiles (I wonder if Teulon had a look inside the vault - it might be worth checking his papers to see if he mentions anything). All was as it should be, except that the church notes (a typescript photocopied sheet) say that the stone covers a grave belonging to one of the former priests, who died in 1420 (so what is Pettifer playing at?).
Emerging from the church, I felt cold despite the warmth of the afternoon. I walked round to the north side where the trees gave out and the ground fell steeply into the valley. A friendly donkey in a paddock came up to me, and I experienced a sense of relief as I rubbed his head and felt contact with his animal warmth ( I am aware of how pathetic this sentence must seem).
On the way back to my car I thought I would have a look at the Rectory, which is also by Teulon (usual forbidding style of his domestic work, but I could see it included a massive conservatory at the back which looked innovative). I walked a little way up the drive, then my nerve failed me, and I felt I couldn’t disturb the householders on a Saturday afternoon. I confined myself to taking the above photograph, but when I looked at it later the house had been masked out by the light through the trees, as if I was not meant to capture the image (or perhaps I had just got the light setting wrong).
Joshua 4, 19 & 20. And the people came up out of Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped in Gilgal, in the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of Jordan, did Joshua pitch in Gilgal.
More on Teulon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Sanders_Teulon
Kim Blacha is tied up with London Fashion Week, so in her absence I am choosing people at random to suggest their Song of the Day (obviously they don’t know I'm putting their suggestions up on this site). First up is my “assistant” Pete: Sorry seems to be by Blue and Elton John.