If you are making a visit to Ledbury, it is hard to miss its parish church. Its spire can be seen from many miles around but disappears when you find yourself on the town’s High Street.
Follow the picturesque cobbled lane that leads away from the distinctive black and white timbered Market House and you will arrive at the gates of St Michael and All Angels set back within a walled churchyard filled with crumbling tombstones.
The building itself is perhaps larger than you would expect for a town of Ledbury’s size. Nikolas Pevsner called it the premier parish church of Herefordshire and, in his England’s Thousand Best Churches, Simon Jenkins gives it four stars, calling it ‘a church of all periods’ .
It is believed that the church might have been built on an ancient site of pagan worship, whilst the present building has been added to over the centuries; the beautifully carved Norman West door, dating from a time when the church was narrower and darker, faces you as you enter the churchyard.
Norman West Door
The square bell tower, with its nine foot thick lower walls, was built originally as a stronghold against the Welsh invaders – hence its separateness from the main church – with a steeple added five hundred years later. Within are housed eight bells, the earliest dating from 1690, whose chimes can be heard all over town all through the day and night. If you are lucky enough to get permission to climb the bell tower you will have an incredible bird’s eye view of Ledbury town.
Once within the church, the pronounced sense of overlaying centuries is even more obvious. In the oldest part – the Chancel – there are round headed arches and ‘porthole’ windows of an earlier structure. Like a church within a church, these portholes now look out to the north and south aisles. On the north side is an unusual extension, the Chapter house, also called St Katherine’s chapel, built in the 14th century.
When you look upwards to the 15th century carved roof you will notice the main columns, built on the original Norman bases, lean very slightly outwards towards the two adjoining aisles.
Ledger Stone Detail
As you walk around the interior you tread over Ledbury’s history. There are over 150 floor memorials or ‘ledger stones’ commemorating nearly four hundred past residents of the town. Some are now indecipherable but many tell of prominent local citizens of the past.
All about the walls are effigies and monuments. There are misericords carved in the choir stalls, a beautiful seventeenth century font, unusual pillar carvings of mythical beasts, brass effigies and the many designs of the embroidered tapestry kneelers.
There are twenty four stained glass windows that span the centuries, including ten windows by the celebrated Victorian Charles Eamer Kempe. I was advised by one of the volunteer guides – on hand most days to share a wealth of historical information and enthusiasm – that the south aisle stained glass window would have been more appropriate as the main window behind the altar.
I was also told of a fascinating – but hard to spot – detail of a small red window that can be seen when looking up from the Nave. History tells that it was inserted during the Reformation when the red sanctuary light of the Catholic faith was forbidden.
The oak pulpit was carved in 1833 by the church’s rector Reverend John Jackson. The story goes that he infamously had to resign in disgrace after his maidservant carried her baby up this aisle to where he was preaching to the congregation, demanding he acknowledge his bastard child.
My favourite memorial is the 17th century Skynner family tomb to the right of the Chancel . All the figures, except the baby, are wearing Tudor ruffs. The husband faces his wife in her splendid hat, their tiny deceased baby between them, whilst at the base of the memorial their ten children kneel at prayer. One of the daughters holds a skull to indicate that she too died before her parents.
Skynner Family Tomb
In June this year the church confirmed an extraordinary finding. It would seem that one of its two Last Supper paintings, recently restored by Artist and Conservator Ronald Moore, has been identified as an original large scale Renaissance Altar Piece.
“It’s probably mid-16th century from an Italian Renaissance painter who was aware of Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan… Paulo Caliari, one of the great Venetian Renaissance artists comparable with Titian and Tintoretto ….I think this is the lost Last Supper of Polidoro and friends “ Ledbury Reporter August 2018
The Last Supper by Paulo Caliari, showing details (below) from the whole (above) which stretches over 13 ft across.
If you do come to Ledbury, take the time to visit here. I might have noted a selection of some of St Michael and All Angels’ beguiling aspects, but there is a great deal more to Ledbury’s Parish Church.
The beautiful little church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck is one of the glories of Herefordshire.
Head west from Ledbury towards Wales, between the Dye and Dore valleys, to the tiny hamlet of Kilpeck (pop 211) and there you will find an architectural gem; a church built around 1140 decorated with masterpieces of red sandstone carvings and sculptures of such diverging themes and styles that no one interpretation of them seems to exists.
Described as one of the ‘most perfect Norman Churches in England’* the Parish Church of St Mary and St David at KIlpeck has stonework that has survived, relatively unscathed, the vagaries of war, famine, plague and religious fervour. These carvings are recognised as the best examples of the Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture.
The church is open every day from nine until dusk. I have visited twice, once on a bitterly cold winter day and yesterday, in the heatwave heat of early June. On both occasions I have had the place to myself. This isolation and quietude add much to the experience of a visit there. There is the feeling you have stepped out of the twenty-first century and back into history.
Look closely at the carvings that abound at Kilpeck, both within and without. Here is the magnificent entrance of the South Door with its Tree of Life tympanum; it’s column stems where strangely dressed figures dubbed the ‘Welsh Warriors’ are clothed in soft shoes and Phrygian caps such as French revolutionaries might wear.
Look up at the corbel table and its gallery of over eighty ‘grotesques’ that runs around the whole of the outside of the church. Styles change with almost no repeating patterns or images. It is said that the lack of symmetry is a unique Herefordshire quality. There is a wealth of detail in the carvings and you will wonder what exactly is being represented here and where the carvers’ influences might have come from.
This mystery of interpretation makes the carvings particularly beguiling. The feudal society that built this church was dominated by early Christian culture and perhaps the images were used to educate an illiterate congregation? But that can only be a part explanation. Were the masons influenced from Scandinavia as well as the pilgrimage routes of southern Spain and France? Is it agreed there is a mix of styles from Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Frank and Spaniards?
The Welsh Warriors
Amongst the corbel carvings there are mythical creatures and there are scenes of religious iconography and daily life. Records show there was a weekly fair at Kilpeck: do these dancers, musicians and animals; a ram, dogs, doves, bears, rabbits and an upside down pig represent the nature of village life? With the Green Man and the Sheela-na-Gig are we reaching back into a pagan past that has been absorbed and reinterpreted by early Christianity ? At least two terrifying creatures, the Mantichore and the Basilisk are recognizable from the Medieval Bestiary. Are those two entwined figures, wrestlers or dancers or perhaps lovers or maybe even, as someone has suggested, a gay couple? Are the snakes a symbol of Christian evil or are they pagan symbols of rebirth and the continuation of life?
Snake detail on South Door
Sheela-na-Gig and Monster
Even today we have no certainly of interpretations but even the history of interpreting can be entertaining. The rare Sheila-na-Gig, a woman holding her vulva wide open, was apparently described by a straight-laced scholar as ‘A fool opening his heart to the devil’! Perhaps it was this interpretation that saved the explicit carving from destruction. Was it Victorian puritanism that removed some of the other missing corbels? More speculation.
Within the simple whitewashed interior of the church there are more treasures to wonder at. There is a pre-Saxon stone stoup, carved as two hands clasping a pregnant belly that has been given snakes for feet and which today has been filled with June flowers.
On the day of my visit, a poster on the village green invites everyone for tea the following Sunday to meet with the new vicar. It seems incredible that there has been continuous worship for over a thousand years at Kilpeck.
On my visit to the church I felt a calmness and spirituality all about, but most of of all I felt a profound connection to the past. The skill of those early Herefordshire craftsmen present in the survival of their artistry transported me beyond the twenty first century and the rural farmlands of the Marches into a collective past that places us firmly within the history of Europe and early Christendom.
* Simon Jenkins England’s Thousand Best Churches