Friday, November 30, 2012

The Chosen Hill church scratchings

At the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, a pencilled notice was visible above the south door of St Bartholomew's church on Churchdown Hill. Very possibly it still is, obliterated by layers of scribbles, scratchings and daubings. The notice read: "Non scribe Ecclesiae Muris Quia Deus Dominus Tuus In Ecclesia Habitat". Which translates as "Write not on the walls of the church for the Lord thy God abides within". Given the continued rampant defacement, perhaps something more on the lines of "Don't write on the fucking walls" might have got the message across.

  The south doorway, where pencilled signatures of the early 20th century make an odd accompaniment to carved Norman studded chevrons.

I have to confess though that I love church graffiti. Not that I condone the daubing and etching of sacred buildings, but the historical graffiti is fascinating and it's one of the most direct and personal relics our ancestors have left us. It often shows considerable patience and stone-working skill, and beautifully proportioned letterforms – largely lost skills, which show up the casual wall scratchers of today as rank amateurs with no sense of beauty or proportion.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the best historic graffiti is found in places where people could scrape unobserved. Isolated churches, where bored people had to hang out for long periods, are a rich source of them, especially when they're not overlooked by any roads or buildings. Perched as it is on the top of a sacred mound at the corner of an iron-age hillfort, high above the surrounding countryside and quite a steep trek even from its adjacent village, St Bartholomew's on Churchdown Hill (or Chosen Hill as it's called locally) has acquired quite a collection of graphical scrapings from every age of its history. They adorn more or less every part of the church, inside and out.

When it comes to unobserved spots, St Bartholomew's church is pretty impressive in its isolation, perched on top of the ancient ramparts of Chosen Hill.

For sheer flagrant cheek, it's hard to beat the contribution of Thomas Badger, who carved his name in crude capitals deep into the stone of the chancel arch, in a way that cannot fail to have led an incensed vicar straight to the culprit – unless perhaps this part of the wall was covered up by furnishings in his day. His vandalism is currently exposed for all to see.

One of the things that intrigues me most though is a symbol which appears over and over again all over this church, but particularly on the north side, and which I will name the Churchdown Sigil. It comprises a lozenge with an arrow through it – invariably pointing upwards, although it has a few variations such as multiple arrows or multiple lozenges. The best example can be found in the north porch, just to the left of the door, where it appears alongside another intriguing pattern based around a quartered cross.

The Churchdown Sigil (right) and the quartered cross

The guidebooks describe it as a mason's mark, and that certainly seems very reasonable. I've seen masons' marks on other churches which look very like it. But masons are skilled stoneworkers and most of the examples of this symbol are a bit amateurish, as if they were carved by somebody who didn't have the right tools or skills. There's also the sheer number of them – sometimes several times on the same block of stone. An obsessive amateur copier of mason's marks? Or something else? If anybody has seen this symbol on any other churches I'd be interested to know.

Alongside this figure of a bird and someone's initials are more examples of the Churchdown Sigil. A small one and the point of a much larger one, plus an incomplete one (far right).

The north porch (pictured at the top of this post) has some of the best of Churchdown's amateur chisellings as well as the highest concentration of sigils. The porch is an unusual two-storey job with a priest's lodging above it, which was added to the church in the 13th century. Some of the graffiti is probably not far off being contemporary with it, and in fact it's possible that some of the carvings pre-date the porch on stones re-used from elsewhere. A good example of this can be seen on the outer walls of the porch where the base and lid of two Crusader coffins, complete with incised cross, have been used as building blocks. (I have a Joe Orton-style mental image of the masons turfing some poor benighted skeleton out of its coffin so they can nab the decorative lid.)

Here's a rather nice fleuron, bunged in for no apparent reason as if someone was practising and got bored half way through the second one.

Much of the graffiti in the porch is highly enigmatic, and the more you stare at it, the more you see different ways of viewing or interpreting it, especially as it's often hard to distinguish the lines of a carved image from natural marks or chips and scrapes in the stone. I think it's always important to look at these things with an open mind and be prepared to come up with your own thoughts about them, rather than taking anyone's view as established fact – even when it's in a respectable guidebook.

Perhaps one of the most curious to interpret is the figure, now extremely faded, on the door jamb of the porch's outer door. William T. Swift's book Some Account of the History of Churchdown, a valuable local history resource published in 1905, includes a description which Swift most likely got from the Rev. Dr. F. Smithe, who was vicar at the time he was researching the book, and who took a tremendous interest in the church's history. In their view it represents "a gaunt figure, or emblem, of Death – having the long hair and breasts of a woman; the fleshless arms are extended; in one hand an hour-glass is held, to denote the brief span of man's life, and in the other hand, to signify the grave, is an asperg├Ęs, which was used when the sprinkling of Holy Water upon the corpse (at the grave-side) was enjoined in the rubrics of the Old Uses or Service Books, such as that of Sarum."

Far be it from me to question the judgement of Dr Smithe or W.T. Swift, but to me it looks patently obvious that this is a mermaid. As faded as she is, she clearly has a scaly fish's tail, and underneath her is a symbol which looks very much like an anchor. Whether that could be an hourglass in her hand I couldn't say, but the other thing, an asperg├Ęs?! I'm not sure where these gentlemen are coming from in their "female Death" interpretation, but I think they might have got a bit tangled in a Biblical mindset. Last time I saw a priest asperging, he was using what appeared to be a pastry brush.

Given that she seems to be a mermaid, it may be fair to assume that the objects she's holding are a comb and mirror, since the majority of English pre-Reformation mermaids are depicted with them –  though admittedly the comb looks more like a television aerial. 

Another very striking image is what appears to be a face of Christ, with radiating aureole, chiselled into a lump of blue lias. Swift/Smithe reckon this to be pre-Reformation, and may well be right. And yes, all around this Christ-head you can see crude but distinctive Churchdown Sigils, some with multiple arrows.

Not all of St Bartholomew's wall chisellings are illicit; this official one (below) is rather nice too. The original Norman tower of the church fell into a dilapidated condition and was rebuilt in 1601. The rebuilding is commemorated by an engraved stone tablet at the back of the nave, incised with big bold letters and prahper Glahhsterrsh're spelling.

"This Belhows was buyldede in the yeere of our Lode God 1601". Plus additions.

The outside of the church has loads of carved grafitti – some of it quite brazen, other examples more subtle so that you spot different things every time you look. The oldest dated piece of graffiti I've found so far on the outside walls was apparently done in 1624.

Names and initials on the west wall of the tower dating back to 1624, not long after the tower was built. The Badger family have been at it again.

The church guidebook (an exceptionally good one, by the way) mentions a scratch dial on the outside north wall of the chancel, but this is very faded indeed and you need sharp eyes to spot it – all that's really visible is the hole for its long-lost gnomon. Another little enigma of this extraordinary church is why anybody would carve a scratch dial on the north wall, where it would have been as much use as a chocolate teapot. Most likely it was originally on the south wall and the stone block got moved during a past rebuilding: there are numerous re-used carved stones all over the fabric of this church, which point to the likelihood of an earlier building on the site whose stone was recycled. The fact that it's so weathered backs up the idea that it could be very old. Either that or it was etched by somebody with no sense of direction and a very poor grasp of physics.

 The northerly scratch dial. (NB This photo has been tarted up in Photoshop to enhance the outlines, otherwise, honestly, you wouldn't be able to see a damned thing.)

I feel like I've barely started extolling all the delights of St Bartholomew's Church so there will definitely be more to come. It always seems to be omitted from any books about interesting historic churches, but it seems to me to be a very special place and much underrated. Not to mention its position on a pre-Christian sacred hill where the powers still flow, and its magnificent views over the Severn Valley.

Swift, William T., Some Account of the History of Churchdown (1905).
Waters, Gwen, A History and Guide to the Churches of St Bartholomew and St Andrew, Churchdown (church pamphlet, 1989, 2004).