Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Holcombe Rogus Time Traveller

It was a freezing January morning when I lifted my bike off the train at Tiverton Parkway station and wheeled it down the ramp into the carpark. The station is nowhere near Tiverton (it’s actually just outside Sampford Peverell), but it is near the Great Western canal which winds its way across mid-Devon from Tiverton in the West to Greenham and the River Tone in the East (it used to continue as far as Taunton). A telling proximity, given that the coming of the railways meant that the canal never extended its watery vein from Bristol to English Channel as originally planned. It was eastwards that I was bound, to the village of Holcombe Rogus just a short, winding turn of a country road from the Great Western’s terminal tunnel. I pedalled off, crunching the ice glazing puddles and sending the silhouettes of crows flapping into the sky from the skeletal branches of their winter roosts. The path alongside the canal immediately passes beneath a concrete road bridge carrying the busy A361 traffic. It’s a bleakly functional signifier of the decline of the railways, which is why you can no longer get anywhere in mid-Devon (Tiverton included) by train.

The canal is frozen over, lengths of anchored reed emerging from the pale blue plane of its surface and forming acutely angled peaks. The reflections of these sharply outlined reed strokes combine to create rectilinear groupings of wonky rhomboids. Nature’s formalist abstract compositions. I lose myself in their strangely perfect patterns for a while, but then an electric blue peripheral eyeflash and I immediately look up to see a kingfisher dart in a frictionless glide over the icy channel. I follow its flight in staggered cycle stints, from bullrush perches to branch overlooks to weir post plinths. In the colour drained winter landscape it is a tiny splash of vivid orange and blue life, a mesmerising will-o-the-wisp drawing me inexorably onward. At times it levitates into the air above unfrozen stretches of the canal, hovering blurrily before plummeting with mercurial suddenness into the icy waters. Its beauty is at times quite breathtaking, and I am entranced for a lengthier period than I had bargained for, or had factored into my admittedly extremely loose and largely notional schedule.

On the other side of the canal, I pass a perfect pastoral scene, sheep grazing beside an oak tree spreading bare branches before a small chapel in the middle of a field the size of a large garden. Had it been a burnished autumn day, it could have been a composition from a Samuel Palmer painting, the Darenth Valley superimposed over the rolling plains of mid-Devon. The building was Ayshford Chapel, dating from the 15th century and attached to the medieval seat of the Ayshford family, a manor which was recorded in the Domesday Book. 16th and 17th century monuments to successive generations of Ayshfords can be found in the church at Burlescombe nearby. From the latter part of the 17th century onward, manor house became farmhouse and, by the looks of it, remains so to this day. The location of a chapel in a farm field occupied by a placidly grazing flock of sheep suggests an obvious symbolism of the sort the more pious Pre-Raphaelites would have used unhesitatingly. It was also an incongruous and delightful sight to happen upon.

There were techno pastoral vistas to be viewed from the towpath, too, as the canal was paralleled by the striding giant frames of pylons. Crackling lines were held up by upraised, ceramic insulator-braceleted arms sloping from hunched, vorticist shoulders, strung in slackly undulant lines from one giant to the other. They crossed the canal and marched off over the gentle rise of the slope beyond, marking out distance with dwindling perspective as they approached the horizon. Blue reflections in half-frozen water contrasted with the quills of bulrushes on the bankside, coiled and pendant tubes of insulators the hollowed out forms of the erect, solid seed heads, chocolate brown and cigar-shaped. Passing under the power lines, I paused to tune into the harsh electron drone, the white heat overtone hum of modernity. I’m travelling back to the pre-modern age, alongside an early modern industrial transport network. I’ll soon arrive in a time when technologies of the electric (now digital) age, long since taken for granted, would have been considered miraculous, magical and quite possibly the work of the Devil.

The canal now ends just beyond the twin nooks of old limekilns, entering a dark, narrow tunnel of the sort to produce claustrophobic nightmares, or inspire a ghost story by LTC Rolt or Robert Aickman (both founders of the Inland Waterways Association in the post-war period). Pushing my bike up the slope to the bridge above, I travel the short distance along a contour winding country road to the village of Holcombe Rogus. The church is at the further end of the street which gently winds up between tidy cottages, raising its square, crenellated, copper weather vane-crested tower above them all. It is bordered by the imposing façade of Holcombe Court, a 16th century Tudor house built by Sir Roger Bluett, and inhabited by the Bluett family until they sold the estate in 1858. We will discover a good many Bluett’s inside the church, and will find the divisions so unequivocally demarcated by the manorial walls looming above the humbler dwellings of the villagers below will be replicated in its sanctified but far from unworldly space. The venerable Nikolaus Pevsner says of Holcombe Court that ‘its entrance front is the most spectacular example of the Tudor style in Devon’. The gates are connected to an intercom with attached number code pad, a clear signal for the uninvited to clear off. I take a quick photograph and then briskly retreat before the current incumbents release the hounds.

Walking up the path to the church, the present started to seem more attenuated, the sense of still suspension engendered by the clear winter chill intensifying the effect. The mud and lack of preservation gloss allowed for a true sense of the surroundings inhabited by our medieval forebears, much more so than many buildings which have been cleaned up, fenced around and littered with signage and presented to us as prime cuts of our heritage. A sturdily buttressed, roughly-bricked building bordered the narrow approach, lying long, heavy and squat. This was once the church house, the hall where the villagers would gather for meetings, church ales and seasonal revels. Festivities would no doubt spill out into the surrounding streets and even into the graveyard and the nave of the church, its public space. The high west wall of the graveyard is also the wall of the Tudor manor house, and its roofs and chimneys rise ostentatiously above its top edge. A door in the wall gave direct personal access to the churchyard for the Bluett family, a private passage and short processional leading to the south porch.

I enter the porch and turn the iron ring on the oak door upward. The latch inside lifts with a decisive thunk and I push the door open, the creek of iron hinges echoing around the still interior. There is always a slight thrill upon finding an old church open, and knowing that you will now be able to explore its layers of history, to become attuned to its hushed ambience and subtle resonances. These must be haunted spaces to inhabit at night, with only a flickering candle to hold back the murmuring darkness.

I wander along the aisles of the nave, head craned upward so that it’s a wonder I don’t run slam bang into a pillar or crack my shin on a bench end. It’s not long before I spot my first Green Man, carved on the capital of one of the 15th century stone columns. A two-faced head in peasant’s hood, its features an uncommon portrait of a common villager, folds itself around a corner. Its Janus gaze takes in the unscrolled landscape of historical time and untold visions of far futurity, finding no distinctions between them. The head’s dumbly gaping mouth spews forth plaited oak shoots decorated with acorn cups both empty and full, which garland the columnar circumference. This symbolic figure of the woodlands, emblem of vegetative renewal, has proliferated within the church, manifesting itself on the trunks of several columns.

One Green Man has leaflike ears and a mild porcine face, hawthorn-like branches and leaves issuing from its gullet. Another capital is carved with a fourfold Green Man, one face for each corner. Their varying moods and visages seem to reflect the shifting tempers of the seasons. One stares blankly with gummy vacancy, hardly there at all. Another looks ferociously out with sharp-eyed, sharp-toothed hunger. And another has a bovine mien, ears devilishly pointed but with the blunt, squared-off teeth of the herbivorous ruminant. A fourth face, thoughtful and human, a wreath of hair crowning the ridges of a bony forehead, looks down on the benches below, the eyes alert and intelligent. They are all tethered together by ropes of ivy which shoots forth from generative mouths, the sprouting language of the greenwood.

That other perennial inhabitants of medieval churches, the memento mori skull, is also present in bony profusion. Church’s are death-haunted spaces, full of memorials to those who have passed through and beyond. Here is Death etched in slate on the floor, ebony features smoothed by centuries of soles. He wears a wreath, the Emperor of his own domain, and one eye socket has a tiny grain of red lodged in it. He crowns one of the Bluett memorials, kingly pate bounded by a crown, although sans the crown of his teeth, his hollow gaze focussed on an unearthly distance beyond the heraldic eagle and squirrel perching on milky helmets before him. He is at the root of another Bluett tomb, cracked open like one of the squirrel’s nuts. And he is carried by the ghost effigies of the Bluett children like some dark-lit Hallow’s Eve punkie. He is everywhere, inescapable. You cannot evade him whichever route through the aisles you take.

Low winter light pours in through the windows at the east end of the church. It illuminates the marble globes fixed into smooth craters in the gray, lunar stone of the reredos, the screen behind the altar. It looks like they might long ago have worn the dishes of those craters through repeated rolling rotations. The red, black and grey patterning of the spheres resembles the plateaus, rifts, oceans, deserts and mountain ranges of planetary surfaces, the warmly reflective glow hinting at habitable worlds.

I ascend the narrow spiral of stairs which used to lead the dizzy climber to the rood screen dividing nave from chancel, secular from sacred, the public from the priesthood. It’s no longer there, the steps ending in empty space, a small rectangle of hardwood acting as a token barrier. The colourfully patterned organ pipes rise in swelling and ebbing graphs, physically charting the relative masses of sound, the volumes of air which will be displaced. I imagine a protean organ chord suddenly erupting from the arrayed pipes, tumbling me back down the stairs in a Peanuts roll. I could potentially jump from the narrow top stair on which I perch, feet placed toe to ankle in a sideways alignment, and land on the roof of the organ, sending up a thick billow of age-old dust like a volcanic ashcloud. But I suspect my dashing leap, Phantom of the Opera theatrics on a parochial scale, would result in my crashing straight through the ceiling leaving me trapped within the belly of the musical beast.

From the precarious vantage point of the top stair, you can get a close view of the stained glass angels in the upper tracery of the East window arches. Created in 1892, they are Arts and Crafts creatures. But they also look curiously like comic book characters from the 1970s, or golden haired rockers from an album cover by Jim Fitzpatrick. The Victorian artists may have left out extraneous detail which wouldn’t have been visible to the congregation below, but the resultant simplification of form apparent from closer quarters results in a surprising modernity. These are timeless angels. A thread of spidersilk spans one of the angelic panes, anchoring a spun which gently trembles with its seething black cargo. Soon the face of the angel will be occluded by a crawling arachnid shadow of tiny scuttling dots.

Another pane has a two-dimensional cookie-cutter strip in the form of a clover leaf intertwining with a triangle in a puzzling Escher embrace. The three lobes of the clover the leaf and the three points of the triangle are perhaps symbolic of the Trinity, a linking of the divine symmetry of nature with the ideal geometries born of the rational mind.

I turn to descend the spiralling stair once more. Halfway down, I pause to look through the diamond lozenges of the centuries old windows. They are frosted with a fine cracquelure of scratches, cracks and webs which seem to have fused the surface, all spotted and coloured with dots and blots of lichen and mold. The windows frame the gravestones, manor house wall, church house and trees, freezing them in a blue-green light. It resembles the gelid tint of the icebound canal. The world outside is lent the semblance of worn and abraded antiquity. It’s as if the speed of light has grown sluggish in its passage through this obscuring glass, and I am looking out at a scene from some indeterminate period of the past. Will I witness a stern figure in Puritan black walk determinedly up to the churchyard gate? Or church ale revellers in medieval tunics stumble out of the church house? I turn from such reveries and tread the last few downward steps to re-enter the main body of the church.

I cross to the North side of the chancel where a screen brought from St Peter’s in Tiverton in 1854 now encloses the Bluett family chapel. The screens proclaim this as a private space, the Bluetts exercising manorial rights even in death. It contains the elaborate tombs of two generations of the family. Richard Bluett and his Mary Chichester are dressed in sober black, their heads resting on the pleated plates of their capacious ruffs. Richard died in 1616, some years after Mary. His effigy rests on its side, propped up on an elbow, and looks down on the recumbent form of his wife below. His eyes are clear, and the brown-irised pupils shift their gaze sideways to focus upon her face. Mary’s eyes are turned upward, and are glazed with the sightless film of death, focussed on nothing visible in this world. Richard’s lips are full and ruddy, still flushed with life; Mary’s are thin, drawn and pale within her drained marble features. Two panels of text above the couple proclaim her virtues in gold lettering, declaring that ‘a modest matron here doth lye/A mirror of her kind’, being ‘Godly, chaste and hospitable’.

The subsequent generation, Sir John Bluett (d.1634) and Elizabeth Portman opt for more formal tomb attire and poses and restrict themselves to monochrome marble. He is encased in armour, with a frilly lace collar adding a courtly touch and making it clear that the protective plating is purely ceremonial. His face has suffered some minor damage over the years, however; and a crack across the bridge of the nose and from the mouth to the cheek (the latter appearing as if it has been partially disguised by the growth of a moustache) are suggestive of duelling scars or war wounds. Lady Elizabeth has on her finest dress, with expansively puffed out sleeves making the point that she doesn’t expect to be doing any practical work. They both stare blankly upward at the ceiling of their funerary fourposter, their heads resting on tasselled pillows of stone, hands pressed stiffly together and raised in permanent prayer. At their feet, loyal heraldic beasts keep eternal guard. Elizabeth has a small house dog curled up by her pointed slippers, ready to yap ferociously at any potential desecrators. Sir John has a bushy-tailed squirrel nibbling on a nut clutched in its tiny paws. It’s a creature which also perches atop the heraldic helm crowning the tomb. A perplexing and potentially comical choice. But perhaps the squirrel’s storing up of its nuts represents a pragmatic conflation of the worldly husbandry of wealth with the promise of spiritual fulfilment in the life hereafter. Heaven is a place where you have an endless supply of nuts. The squirrel is, of course, of the red variety, its transatlantic grey hoodlum brethren yet to have been introduced to take over the whole park bench feeding racket in the 20th century.

At the side of the cold stone bed, the Bluett children obediently line up in an orderly rank. They were all daughters (and thus none could inherit the estate) and they float spectrally in palled marble, gowns sweeping the floor. Some carry flowers, some have hands pressed in prayer, others carry skulls before them. These are the unlucky ones, these bony tokens memento mori of their own early passing, outlived by their parents. I briefly became fascinated by the views of a varying array of intricately twined topknots visible from behind, a rare insight into the details of period hairdressing.

Both pairs of Bluetts are overlooked by the vague presences of Putti, disembodied infant heads fluttering about with the aid of wings attached to their neck stumps. They look like they they’ve alighted for the briefest moment and, easily distracted, will flit off elsewhere at any instant. On my way out of the chapel, I notice a slab tombstone on the floor memorialising another Bluett along with his wife, Kerenhappuch. What a name! And she lived to the age of 94, dying in 1759. A fine innings, seeing out significant social and constitutional changes, and no doubt aided by the medical advances of the 18th century age of reason.

Adjoining the Bluett memorial chapel is the Bluett Pew, the living taking their place alongside the dead. It’s a clear statement of continued lineage, of power and wealth (and spiritual capital) inherited and maintained into the present generation and beyond. The tall screens boxing off seats reserved for the Bluetts and guests resemble the rood screen which divided the congregation in the nave from the sacred rituals performed by the priesthood in the sacristy. But here, the division is between titled landowner and commoner. Perhaps a better analogy, then, one devoid of sacred connotations, would be a private box at the theatre or opera. The screen, carved in the early 17th eentury Jacobean period, is topped by 15 oval medallions, each a small theatrical proscenium framing scenes from the early books of the Bible – the Pentateuch. The stars arcing across the borders suggest a bounding firmament containing this earthly stage with in its circling embrace. It’s rather like Shakespeare’s wooden O from the prologue of Henry V, both the Globe theatre and the world at large which it strives to represent on its stage.

The sequence of narrative tableaux within the medallions is full of vivid life. The carved figures are simplified, but are all the more potently present for it. Eve in particular, who features in three scenes (the temptation, the expulsion from Eden and the raising of the first children, Cain and Abel) is filled with primal power and spirit. She looks timeless, both ancient and new, not rooted in any particular style of the period in which she was fashioned. Suckling the younger child, Abel, she as the look of a mother Goddess figure, an icon of fertility rooted to the landscape in which she sits, and which she also blesses with her fecundity. She is haloed by dusty cobwebs, canopies gilded by silvery sunlight – Our Lady of the Spiders.

In the temptation scene, Eve reaches up to pick a second fruit to hand to Adam who stands on the other side of the dividing bole of the Tree of Knowledge. She faces us full on, a frontal boldness which makes her the focus of the composition, the active subject. The serpent is knotted in the crown of the tree above, its head hanging down like the questing tip of a parasitic vine. The whole, and Eve in particular, is reminiscent of Gauguin’s treatment of the same subject (in painting and woodcarving). The same direct, elemental quality he found in the art of the South Sea Islands is present here in an English village church. In the expulsion from Eden carving, the angel border guard hastens Adam and Eve on their way with what looks like a well-aimed Chaplinesque boot up the bare backside. Adam pushes Eve ahead of him with a shove to the head, a violent gesture which makes it clear who will bear the blame for this exile and fall. Or is he perhaps simply preventing her from looking back at the paradise garden which they are leaving behind forever.

Behind them, a palm tree raises a feathery headdress. Trees feature in a number of the carvings, partly as a means of dividing the scene into separate sections. The also act as central props to ensure structural stability. The various stylised specimens range from fluting, tapered columns to the arching trunk of the burning bush (coiled with ivy and tipped with deciduous leaves) and a smoothly-barked, bulbous-based baobab besides which Moses stands. His head is parallel with the top branches, as if he were a towering giant.

The knotted, worming line of the serpent recurs too. Snakes writhe away from the burning bush and drape themselves in the tree beneath which Adam and Eve raise their children (the lurking poison which will enter Cain’s heart). Moses sets up a copper effigy of a snake as a protective talisman for his people, the sight of which inures them to the deadly effect of the fiery serpents which God has set on them as a punishment for doubting him.

Some of the figures are wearing the clothing of Tudor times, an anachronism which serves to bring an immediacy to the stories being related. Adam is a gentleman farmer in early 17th eentury ruff and tunic, ploughing the fields whilst a stormy-faced Cain beats the oxen with a stick. The mysterious giant in the first medallion sports Tudor headgear with a feather rakishly attached. Balaam, meanwhile, has something of the look of a Turk about him, complete with broad, bushy moustache. Two later carvings, made in 1858 during a restoration, and depicting Israelite spies returning from Canaan with a huge bunch of grapes and the bearing of the Arc of the Covenant by armed guards, are more open to the possibilities and pleasures of historical fantasia.

There is much here of the violence and retribution spattering the Old Testament. Cain’s murder of Abel, the primal fratricide which introduces death and murder into the world, is shown in all its brutal, bludgeoning savagery. Balaam’s encounter with the warrior angel which bars his way is pregnant with suspended actions and imminent bloodshed. The angel draws its sword in readiness to kill the disobedient messenger, its scything wings emphasising its muscular power. Balaam in turn beats his donkey, who turns aside from the heavenly assassin to whose presence his master is blind, thus saving his ungrateful hide. Moses raises his dagger to slaughter his son, Isaac, in a sacrifice demanded by God. His killing arm is physically restrained by an angel which leans into the world from the starry border. Moses sits above a thicket of pikes, spears and halberds bristling beyond a battlefield tent. His arms are held up by his brother Aaron and companion Hur. As long as these arms remain upraised (in a gesture of prayer and praise), the battle will go in favour of the Israelites, and Joshua, their military chief, will defeat their enemy, the Amelekites, ‘with the edge of a sword’.

Another medallion depicts a giant figure (Goliath?) striding towards a richly garbed man with a wine jug at his belt leading an ox (a sacrificial offering, perhaps). The giant holds a sword on which a severed head is impaled like a cocktail nugget. His shield bearing arm is flung out behind him and would appear to have knocked a fool to the ground. This subservient figure tumbles in his wake, grovelling body hunched in a compact, serpentine squiggle. The snake this time takes human form.

The preponderance of scenes from the life of Moses can perhaps be seen as an illustration of the rectitude of authority and power. Those who oppose Moses oppose God, and they are punished accordingly. The assertion of the divine right of kings was still extant at the time the carvings were created. There was a related sense, propagated by those whom it served, that the social order was ordained by heavenly decree. The tableaux depicting Moses bringing down the tablets from Mount Sinai and chastising the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf; of his remote direction of the course of a battle; and of his protection of his people through the creation of a magical talisman (the copper snake – an acceptable idol). All were illustrations of the rightness of authority, and the wisdom of following the appointed leader. These medallions face outwards from the seats of the Bluetts, the local face of authority and landowing power. They gave something of visual interest for the congregation of commoners to contemplate, to look up to. The establishment of authority and power is also evident in the scene in which Melchisedcck, a king and priest of Salem, pays due homage to Abraham in the victorious wake of a number of battles, and receives a grant of land in return.

Whatever political message or subliminal lessons might be encoded in the choice of biblical stories and their placement above an enclosure reserved fro the local landowning aristocracy, the carvings themselves are beautifully crafted, the figures full of life and character. I turn from my contemplation of them, neck a little sore from craning upwards, and head for the door. On my way out, I notice another stone-carved figure on a capital at the back of the nave. This one looks as though he might be a king, trimly bearded and crowned .Who could he be? Few of the Tudors sported beards, and he is certainly too gaunt to be the lustily full-faced Henry VIII. An earlier medieval monarch, perhaps. I also notice the Victorian stained glass in the rear window, which depicts the visitation of the three kings and the shepherds to the infant Christ in his stable crib. One of the shepherd’s, ostentatiously robed in purple fur, has bought his bagpipes along and is giving them a full, Dizzy-cheeked blast. I can’t help feeling this is a poor choice of instrument with which to lull a newborn baby.

I pick up the pen to sign the visitors’ book, and realise that my fingers are too frozen to grasp it firmly. The stone vault of the church is like one great refrigerator. I write my appreciative comments in a palsied script. Outside, the sunlight is approaching its golden hour glory, and I spend a few minutes wandering amongst the graves, their shadows sharp and clearcut. A couple of neat tussocks of moss top the flat plateau of one headstone, their green humps contrasting pleasingly with the smooth, granitic grey – a miniature moorland landscape. As the hedgerows and hilltop copses begin to make intricately brachiated silhouettes against the sky, I realise that it is time to move on. I pass by the church house, now casting its shadow over the muddy path to the church, and push off onto the country road which will lead me to the canal path, and thence once more to the age of future present.