“The Church of St. John the Baptist and Kilpeck”
An Extract from Three Churches
After lunch we headed towards the little known landmark of the church of St John the Baptist in the hamlet of Llanwarne near the Welsh border. The church is famous for its partially submerged condition owing to years of sedimentation and entrenchment in the low, loamy earth by the Gamber brook where it was built. This recalled to me of the spire of Dunwich church sticking out of the sand of the Suffolk coastline mentioned by Sebald in his travelogue Rings of Saturn. In any case, as a result of its untenable condition a new church was erected by village authorities in 1864 just across the road on a small swell, when the former church of St John the Baptist was abandoned.
Now the Norman church, the chancel and nave of which date back to the 13thcentury, is little more than a beautiful relic whose ruins have been scenically preserved in a bed of dandelions, daisies and other wild flowers. Due to its gradual internment in the ground, upon entering the building whose ceiling has long since fallen away, the walker has the unfamiliar sensation of walking at the same level as church windows. The iron bars within these, which once held stained glass, or perhaps just plain, and more rudimentary transparent glass have corroded away, but in some parts they are still left forlornly clinging to the skeletal window frames like sinister objects of torture.
Next we headed towards the early Norman church of Kilpeck – a fascinating remainder of the past. Unlike most churches whose treasures are sealed on their insides like the pellucid silver coating on the inside of shells, all of Kilpeck’s most significant and original features are strewn along its outer edges.
The plain and austere square geometric lines of this early church are elevated on a ha-ha. Beside it, an earthwork and large mound, believed to have been a castle in former times rises a few hundred feet into the air. At one point the church of Kilpeck was the heart of a bustling community based in the medieval market town of Kilpeck. Now it is surrounded on one side by a few farmhouses and barns but seems by and large unaffected by the coming and goings of the outside world. It has surrendered itself to time.
Unlike the effete beauty of the All Saint’s Church or the romantic dilapidation of St John the Baptists in Llenwarne, the church of Kilpeck was a robust though comparatively rough-hewn structure that expressed a mineral, Anglo-Saxon simplicity matching its name.Inside the church felt boggy and cold, and had little adornment. Outside our group peered in wonder at the lacing of gargoyles which covered its outside wall. It was as if – like Medieval manuscript illuminators – the stonemasons weary from work, decided to have some fun in the peripheries. Many of the stone carvings consisted of small mean-looking faces which pulled comical or menacing expressions at the onlooker. Some contained profane symbols suggestive of fertility and birth cycles. Others were animal: showing wild bears and foxes.
Though softened by lashings of rain and years of neglect, there was no mistaking the pagan quality of these strange and disarming glyphs which seethed and jibed so unexpectedly from the walls of the ancient church of Kilpeck. It was the last of many rewarding discoveries made that day.