Thursday, March 29, 2012

Deorhurst: grove of glorious beasts

River Severn at Deerhurst.

An isolated flood-prone plateau between the sluggard River Severn and the eternal old track now baptised the A38. A long straight lane ending in a curl before it glances the river bank. A menagerie of wild beasts in stone and legend, and the oaken tracks of Kings. A place of orchard cottage dreams, of roses and lawns and white violets, demurely hosting two Saxon churches barely 100 yards apart.

Deerhurst crouches off the modern beaten track, a secret spot about equidistant between Tewkesbury and Cheltenham. It gets minimal through-traffic because its roads, so close to the unbridged River Severn, don't really go anywhere. It's mostly open meadows and flood plains these days, but its older name, Deorhurst, reveals a "grove of wild beasts".

This is the first of two articles about Deerhurst, as there's far too much interesting stuff in this village to cover in one go. Here we have a dander round the older of the two churches.

From this angle you can clearly see that the Priory Church of St Mary is a bit of a bolt-together job from different time periods. It's immediately obvious that the aisles on either side of the tower have been added later, the smooth ashlar making no attempt to blend in with the rougher rubblestone. If you look carefully you can see that the top part of the tower is also an add-on, although still very ancient. The lower part of the tower is the oldest bit. One of the giveaways is the use of stones stacked diagonally within the masonry, and with little attempt to arrange any of it in level courses – a building style that particularly characterises the Saxon period. Two sticky-outy carvings of dark age provenance are unfortunately too weathered and damaged to decipher.

You only have to get just inside the door to find the first of Deerhurst's wild beasts.

Is it a dog? Is it a dragon? From the front it even looks like a cow, but I wouldn't want to meet a cow with a set of fangs like that. Its nose certainly suggests it's a dog - reminiscent of the style of hunting dogs seen in Celtic artwork. It stands on guard by the door, along with its asymmetrically matching companion, as a label-stop inside the west porch of Deerhurst church. No ordinary church, you understand, but a proud, mutated but miraculously surviving edifice of a vital Anglo-Saxon monastic site. The doggy is of eye-watering antiquity – probably chiselled into being some time in the early 9th century.

At the opposite end of the church is another pair of beastie label-stops on a chancel arch. These look more dragon-like but also, it has to be said, like a cartoon hippopotamus (George from Rainbow?) They have tusks though, so perhaps they're supposed to depict wild boar. The church also has an interesting image of a domestic animal; the tomb brass of Sir John Cassey and his wife Alice (dated 1400) also depicts her pet dog, Terri. It's very unusual to find animals' names mentioned on old brasses.

Anglo-Saxon remains in Britain are rare. There are plenty of Norman parish churches around, but for something as old as Deerhurst priory to have survived is remarkable fortune. It hasn't got through history unscathed of course; the original church was smaller and simpler in shape. During the turbulent medieval years (when its wares were repeatedly plundered by greed-crazed monarchs) it got its chancel whipped off, its tower strangely bolted onto, its outer walls knocked through for an aisle extension and a monastic building shunted up its kisser. But with a bit of imagination and a floor plan you can still see the tall thin lines of the original Saxon building, and some of the ramshackle lopsided herringbone stonework which shows off its dark age credentials.

Plans reproduced from H. Massé's Tewkesbury and Deerhurst, published 1900.

Even within the Saxon period the church was undergoing changes. The earliest church was a simple rectangular job and may have been built in the seventh or eighth century, or possibly even earlier. During the next few centuries a west porch was added and the two side chapels appeared; and then in around 1000 AD the church was extended at both ends with a further souped-up porch in the west, which was built up to make a tower, and a semi-circular chancel added at the east end (now ruined).

However there were some more drastic changes in the 12th and 13th centuries which have altered the character and shape of the church, and some of the Saxon features were lost. Much of the original nave was knocked through to make way for a row of decorated arches.

The domestic building which adjoins the church is also a rude interloper in historical terms, but it is a gorgeous building. Built around the late 14th or early 15th century and much poked and prodded in the fashions of later eras, it's now a private farmhouse but the quadrangle it forms alongside the church was once a monastic cloister. The blocked doorway which once gave access between church and cloister also has beastie-heads as label-stops, but these face into the priory garden and are not accessible to the public.

The Priory farmhouse, joined onto the church at one end, is a surviving monastic relic. What is now a domestic garden was once the cloister (see plan above) still with an original Saxon door.

It isn't possible to put a date on the original foundation of this church. The first definite recorded reference to it is in 804 AD, when it was part of a monastery or abbey and received a gift of land from a bloke called Æthelric. It's highly likely that it was already well established by then, but nobody really knows for how long. It was at one time the principle monastery of Hwicce, the Saxon kingdom of the lower Severn. The churches of Hwicce originally adopted Celtic Christianity rather than the missionary Roman version.

It must have been an important place and it predates its close neighbour monastery, Tewkesbury Abbey, by some centuries. Information about the Deerhurst monastery is scarce but it seems at some late date to have become a Benedictine priory. One of its luminaries was St Alphege, or Ælfheah to give him his Saxon name, who began his monastic life at Deerhurst before going on to become Archbishop of Canterbury and later a martyr to marauding Danes at Greenwich and thus into a giddy spiral to canonisation. St Alphege is commemorated in a 15th century stained glass window at Deerhurst, and as it happens 2012 is his millennial year, having met his sainted demise in 1012.

Another slightly less high-flying martyr saint is associated with Deerhurst, but still important in his own way: St Werstan. He was a monk at Deerhurst at a time when it was ransacked by Danes. He escaped and fled up to the Malvern hills, where he founded a cell close to the site of St Ann's Well. The misery of Viking-harassment was far from over though, and the unfortunate Werstan was murdered in his own chapel. Legend has it that this atrocity was the reason for the founding of Great Malvern Priory; whether true or not, St Werstan is well commemorated in the windows of Great Malvern Priory church.

West doors. The inner one, though probably restored, is a beautiful example of a rounded Saxon arch. The outer one is an original Saxon doorway (from the church's later development, around 1000 AD) with a later medieval pointed doorway inserted into it.

Despite medieval alterations, Saxon features abound. The round-headed arches, the small triangular recess beside the blocked doorway half way up the wall (suggesting there was formerly a second floor in the church at this level, or at least a gallery) and most notably the twin triangular-headed windows at the top, which are exquisitely carved – all are surviving features of the earliest pre-Conquest church.

It's speculated that the Danes may have made an occasional raid on Deerhurst Abbey during the late Saxon period, and they were known to have a particular fondness for ransacking monastic establishments. The eventual fall of the Saxon royal dynasty was enshrined at Deerhurst, where King Edmund Ironside was obliged in 1016 to sign over most of England to the Danish King Cnut in a meadow by the Severn. The decline of Deerhurst as an abbey probably came about a few years later during the reign of Edward the Confessor, who handed it over to the French Abbey of St. Denis. It was downgraded to a priory, and then the notoriously exploitative King John came along and trousered all its revenues. Subsequent Norman dukes and monarchs helped themselves to whatever was left.

Detail of the triangular windows and their curious fluted decoration. There is an "upper room" hidden on the other side and the window is carved on that side too.

Another of Deerhurst's Saxon treasures is its font, decorated with beautiful panels of spiral scrolls in a style that shows a certain Celtic influence. It's made from local Cotswold stone (oolitic limestone) and like the other carvings in the church it dates from before the Norman Conquest. At some point in the subsequent centuries though it became detached from its home and ended up being used as a washtub in a local farmyard.

In 1844 it was rescued from this ignominious fate by the Dean of Westminster, who bought it for the nearby parish church of Longdon. There it remained for 25 years, until its lower portion apparently turned up in Deerhurst:
"A lady in the neighbourhood (Miss Strickland, of Apperley Court) found in a garden close to the river, in 1870, an upright carved stone. It occurred to this lady that the stone was in reality the stem or lower part of the font then in Longdon church, in Worcestershire, as the ornament seemed to be similar. The vicar of Longdon was then asked to give up the bowl portion which had been conveyed in 1845 from a Deerhurst farmyard to Longdon church. The request was graciously entertained, and Longdon church received in exchange a new font. The two portions – probably long separated – were then replaced as they are now to be seen in Deerhurst, and the font previously in use there was given to Castle Morton church." (Massé, Tewkesbury and Deerhurst, p.114)
And so it remains today, but more recent expert opinion is that the stem and bowl don't actually belong to each other at all. You can't blame Miss Strickland for her assumption though – the pattern really does match very closely, and they must be connected in some way or other.

Fittingly for a village named after a grove of wild beasts, Deerhurst has its own dragon legend. The legend was first recorded in 1719, but the best description comes from a guidebook by Samuel Rudder in 1799:
"In the parish of Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury, a serpent of a prodigious bigness was a great grievance to all the country, by poisoning the inhabitants, and killing their cattle. The inhabitants petitioned the king and a proclamation was issued out, that whosoever should kill the serpent should enjoy an estate in the parish, which then belonged to the crown. One John Smith, a labourer, engaged in the enterprise. He put a quantity of milk in a place to which the serpent resorted, who gorged the whole, agreeable to expectation, and lay down to sleep in the sun, with his scales ruffled up. Seeing him in that situation, Smith advanced, and striking between the scales with his axe, took off his head."
There are many theories for the serpent/dragon/worm legends that abound all over England. One possibility is an allegorical origin, with the Danish invaders being a good contender for the role of "serpent of a prodigious bigness". The pagan associations with serpent energy (tying in nicely with the spiral-patterned font) are a nice symbolic connection. Whether there ever was any actual physical manifestation of a marauding mythical beast, well, who knows.

There are a few more mythical beasts on the outside of the church in gargoyle formation. These are much later than the Saxon carvings and belong to the medieval period alterations, and they seem (although very weathered) to depict a more conventional kind of mythical beast, probably gryphons. The beasts are not themselves gargoyles; they appear either side of a large human or semi-human head with a startled facial expression (which is fair enough really) holding its gob open. Very curious.

Gargoyle at SW corner

Gargoyle at NW corner

The church is so full of exciting Saxon features that it's easy to overlook a slightly more recent historic treat which Deerhurst is exceptionally rich in. The churchyard is full of old gravestones dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of these are exquisitely beautiful in their carving and typography. I will only include one sample picture but really you could make an article just about these, as they are so diverse and intriguing. They have done well to survive the all-too-frequent flooding from the nearby River Severn, most recently in 2007 when the whole churchyard was submerged.

 Grave of Thomas Cox, who died on the 19th of April 1696. One of many lapidary gems.

The churchyard is a wonderful place in its own right – quiet and secluded as far as humans go but alive with noise and activity from the crows who live in the tall trees on the north side. They are the custodians of the grove of wild beasts and the place positively reverberates with the skraaaaaa of their derisive laughter.

The magic of Deerhurst will be continued in part two ...

Massé, H.J.L.J., The Abbey Church of Tewkesbury, with Some Account of the Priory Church of Deerhurst, Gloucestershire (London, Bell & Sons, 1900).
Gilbert, Edward, A Guide to the Priory Church and Saxon Chapel, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire (privately printed, 1956, revised 1977)
Laing, Lloyd and Jennifer, A guide to the Dark Age Remains in Britain (London, Constable, 1979).
The Deerhurst Dragon:

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  1. I had absolutely no idea about the Priory Church of St Mary in Deerhurst. Thanks for sharing this .... particularly the great pictures! I can feel a trip coming on.

  2. Thank you! It certainly is well worth a visit - wonderful atmosphere too. There's a second Saxon church literally just round the corner, which will be covered in a follow-up post.

  3. An old friend recently died and left me rather a lot of books. One of them is a real cauldron of resources. I found this in “Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain.”
    “Deerhurst, Glos
    Long ago, the people of Deerhurst lived in terror of a monstrous serpent, which poisoned men and cattle. Eventually, they appealed for help to the king, who promised a piece of land on Walton Hill to any man who could slay the beast. Attracted by the offer, a labourer named Smith agreed to try. He crept close to the dragon’s lair, placed a trough of milk outside it, and waited. The creature drank the milk, and then fell asleep in the midday sun with its scales ruffled up. Smith took his axe, stuck a mighty blow between the scales of the creature’s neck and completely severed its head.
    The Smiths held the land until the 16th Century, and in the 18th Century it was reported that a Mr Lane, who had married the widow of one of Smith’s descendants, possessed the axe that was supposed to have slain the dragon. No one knows who owns the axe today, or even if it exists.”
    I wonder whether there are any descendants of the Lanes still living in the area?