From the serpent stones of Arbor Low, we headed to the village of Youlgreave in search of tea and salamanders. There is a pub that provides the former and a church that provides a superb glimpse into the history of the area. Youlgreave is an odd place… a village with a memory of grandeur. Once upon a time, judging by the scale of the church, the residential architecture and the faded names of businesses that linger above doorways, it must have been a bustling little town. Like many such places though, industry changed and moved on, taking its wealth with it and leaving the only ghosts of former glories behind.
Youlgreave church bears witness to past times, but not just to the lead mines that made the sleepy village once a centre of industry. It contains relics of a long history dating back to the time of the Domesday book and beyond. There are fabulous stained glass windows by Burne-Jones, alabaster screens, medieval knights in armour, Norman carvings and a strange figure with cloven appendages hidden in the shadows of the rafters.
One of the most striking features is the salamander on the font. It has curled around the Norman font to support the stoup for the past eight hundred years. In the symbolic language of Christianity of the time, it represented rebirth and, although it seems odd to our modern eyes, it would have made perfect sense at the time it was carved by the stonemason.
Such symbols form a language that is as clear, and yet evolves as much, as any other language. What our eyes and minds find intriguing or puzzling made more sense to our forefathers than words on paper. At a time when literacy was a skill limited to the few, the fantastic beasts and visual stories held far deeper meaning for the many. Images such as the ‘mooning men‘ and the sheela-na-gig that we had seen at Kilpeck, may seem to our eyes to be grotesque or indecent…or both. Perhaps we might just be amused by such crude and primitive wit. Then again, much of Shakespeare’s work would discomfit the discerning prude. Our earlier forefathers were less repressed about bodily functions than our society has become; the Victorians sent Nature underground and divorced body from spirit.
Most of these enigmatic figures feature on the outside of churches and can be explained away as depictions of temptation or sin that is left behind when entering the embrace of the Church. I have a feeling that is far too simplistic and it does not explain the figure in the rafters.
Usually the roof of the church is carved with angels or other heavenly beings that symbolise the aspiration and raising of Man to a higher realm. Instead, we have the cloven hooves of beast or demon, the body and head of a man… and what appears to be a depiction of a palm leaf in place of a penis. They don’t teach you about this stuff in Sunday School, but oddly enough, they do in magical schools.
Looked at from the esoteric perspective, the hooves could represent the ‘animal’ nature of humankind. The Bible tells us that Man was given ‘dominion’ over the beasts. The human aspects of the figure, especially the serene head, represent the intellect as opposed to our animal instincts. By taking control of our bodies, not suppressing them but allowing the ‘higher’ aspects of ourselves to guide our lives, we open ourselves to that dominion. The genitals are the source of physical life… the palm branch in Christian iconography is a symbol of the victory of the faith of the martyrs and of rebirth. By laying the egoic self on the altar of a higher service, we open ourselves to a spiritual rebirth. So the cloven hoofed demon becomes, instead, a symbolic guidebook to spiritual growth.. worthy of aspiration and a place amongst the more usual angels.
It is easy to dismiss or misunderstand when you look simply at the surface…not just symbols, but life and events too. The time had come for the parting of the ways. We had spent far too little time with our American friends… but the time we had spent had been meaningful, to all of us. Coming straight from the workshop to the land that had inspired it, we were open to the gifts of each moment and friendship had more time to grow than can be measured by a clock. We waved the girls goodbye in Bakewell and returned Nick to his hostel, taking a very long way round to show him some of the places there would not be time to visit on this trip north, though he and I still had a morning left before his train and my drive south… and I had plans for that….