Monday, May 07, 2012

pure nerdy bliss

Current work: back to the med (awaiting verdict on second revs)
Listening to: Nick Drake (been out with DH)
Reading: The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich

For quite a while, I’ve wanted to visit the church of St Mary’s at Houghton on the Hill.

The village itself no longer exists (the last ruins were demolished barely 20 years ago), but in the field opposite the church, where cattle were grazing, we could see the old ‘hollow way’ that went through the village. The church itself was abandoned before the second world war and gradually fell into ruins. Bob Davey rescued it when his wife Gloria discovered the church on a WI ramble, and has spent the last 20 years working to save the church and showing people round. (He’s a really amazing man – a real powerhouse, even though he’s in his eighties.)

The church is immensely interesting for lots of reasons. It’s built on the remains of what’s thought to be a Roman temple (and there’s certainly Roman brickwork and tile in the structure of the building – typical re-use of the materials). Peddar’s Way passes at the bottom of the hill. The church itself has some Saxon features and the nave dates from the late 11th century.

The reason I wanted to visit was to see the wall paintings. They’re some of the oldest wall paintings in the country (dating from around 1090) and include what’s thought to be the earliest pictorial representation of the Trinity as the Thone of Grace (i.e. God seated on a throne, supporting Jesus on the cross, and with the Holy Spirit as a dove by God’s halo), contained within a mandorla. (That's the shape that looks like a Baboushka doll in the middle of the picture below.)

Doom and Throne of Grace

This is actually part of a marvellous Doom (Last Judgement) painting on the east wall, with an angel blowing the Last Trump to wake the dead from their coffins – note his almond-shaped eyes, and he has three sets of wings. The people below him all have elongated hands, showing that they’re praying. Above them, there are figures with haloes who have already gone to heaven; on the right (i.e. God's left hand side) there are others falling down to hell.

detail of angel blowing the Last Trump

There are also roundels with Jesus and some saints or apostles, holding scrolls.

roundel of apostle holding scroll
On the north wall, there’s the Creation of Eve – God has a crossed halo and he’s holding Eve (having just created her from Adam’s rib). Adam is a smaller figure lying against the Tree of Knowledge, and you can also see the serpent in the branches. There’s also a fragment of Noah’s Ark.

Creation of Eve

On the south wall, there’s a fragment of what’s thought to be the Wheel of Fortune.

Oh, and did I mention the Saxon splay window on the north wall with its original wooden frame? (It’s bricked up, yes, but that woodwork is 1,000 years old. Forty generations. Imagine.)

Saxon splay window with original timber frame
The lovely man who showed us round told us that when they excavated the soakaway on the north side of the church, they found six burials (criminals or others who’d fallen foul of the church and were therefore buried in unconsecrated ground). One was a woman who’d been buried face-down and with a flint placed on her head. I went cold at that point!

He also told us about the stub of a tomb found on the south side during excavations, thought to be that of Sir Robert de Nevile (the lord of the manor there in 1270), who was executed in Yorkshire for having ‘criminal conversation’ (aka an affair with a married woman).

If you’d like more detailed information, take a look at the church’s website.


Morton S Gray said...

Sounds amazing Kate. I'm nerdy about churches and cathedrals too - in fact anything historical. Love nothing better than sitting in the crypt at Worcester cathedral! Is this research for a non-fiction book? Mx

Anonymous said...

Sure hope it's a research trip for an upcoming specialist in old churches/burial sites meets property developer...
School history lessons were at the best blah. As the years have gone on, I have found enjoyment in discovering the history in the city I have lived in for the past 25 years.

Kate Hardy said...

Morton - I did have a church book sold, BUT then the publishers changed their minds. I'm doing bits and pieces on it as a 'for me' project. Haven't been to Worcester cathedral, but it's on my list!

Anon - oh, I WISH! I have floated that past her, but... after she rejected my stained glass book (after two complete rewrites), that'd have to be pitched elsewhere :) (I do have plans...) Glad you're enjoying the history of your city. Same here (though I was lucky and had a really good history teacher at school).

Nell Dixon said...

Fabulous, wish I'd been there. Do come to Worcester. Lichfield and Gloucester are amazing too.

Kate Hardy said...

Nell, I knew you'd enjoy this :) Not been to Lichfield, so will add that and Gloucester to my list!

Carol Warham said...

Absolutely fascinating Kate