Monday, July 30, 2012
The other day I stopped off at Littledean churchyard on the way back from somewhere else. My reason for stopping was quite simply that I was stuck behind a double-decker bus trundling along at 20 miles an hour and it was driving me bonkers, and as the church looked old and curious I thought it was worth pausing there rather than grinding my gearbox any further.
Littledean is an interesting place on many levels. It's an ancient crossing-over point where many old tracks meet. It sits on the cusp of the Forest of Dean but it overlooks the lush valley where the River Severn does a lurching loop in the shape (so some say) of a Celtic torc. Among its many curiosities are an 18th century prison housing, amongst other things, the world's largest collection of Quadrophenia memorabilia, and which was also the site of Gloucestershire's last witchcraft trial (as recently as 1906). The beautiful old house Littledean Hall traces its roots into Saxon and Celtic times and has enough hauntings to bliss out the most demanding paranormal investigator, and, of particular interest to my Sulis Manoeuvrings, it has in its grounds the remains of a Romano-Celtic temple sited over a spring and thought to have been dedicated to Sabrina, the goddess of the River Severn. So a return visit is in order, but in the mean time I want to focus on Littledean churchyard and its chubby-cheeked cherubs.
Littledean church is a funny looking thing, so you can see why it appealed to me. It originally had a spire but it fell down in a gale in 1894 and has been replaced by a little squat wooden structure on top of the tower. The church is essentially 14th century (parts of it are older) but has had a few alterations, and is dedicated to the Saxon saint St Ethelbert (that would most likely be the canonised King Æthelberht II of East Anglia, who was around in the 8th century AD).
As a lifelong lover of old gravestones, however, it was the abundance of quirky cherub-topped monuments which caught my attention here. The best ones mostly date from the 18th century and some may be the work of one local stonemason or a small group of different masons with similar tastes. They belong to a distinctive style of Forest of Dean headstone but I can only really let them speak for themselves.