The day was bitterly cold. Icy winds and heavy skies meant that it was definitely not the weather for tramping the moors on search of ancient stones. Instead, we had a run out to Tissington, knowing that one of the windows in the little Norman church there would be perfect to illustrate the post we were putting together for the Silent Eye’s April event.
The village is tiny… just a few old streets clustered around Tissington Hall in Derbyshire. The Hall has been the home of a single family, the FitzHerberts, for centuries and the ghosts that walk there, from cellar to landing, are their own. Orbs and lights, tobacco smoke and footsteps may follow you in the cellars… and a man dressed in black. In the Library, the temperature is prone to drop rapidly, while lamps move and vibrate and a spectral cat is a prowling presence whose voice has been caught in EVP recordings.
The most tragic story, however, is that of young Wilhelmina FitzHerbert, who died in 1862. Wilhelmina rose from her bed one night and picked up her lit candle; the breeze from the window caught her nightdress and set it alight. It was too late when they came and found her, terribly burned. She lingered in agony for three weeks before she died. Her room has an oppressive atmosphere. A dark shade has been seen by the bed in her room… a bed that shakes in the middle of the night… and the perfume of lavender lingers.
But it was the church we had come to see. We parked near the Hall Well, a spring that runs through the village and is decorated with flower-petal paintings for the well dressing ceremony each year. Between the well, the earthworks and the church, there has been a sacred site at Tissington since before recorded history.
There was a place of early Celtic worship here that later knew the Saxons, and the present church was built in around 1100 by the Normans. The tower and parts of the church are from this latter period, making them nine hundred years old. The tower, with its walls four feet thick and its ancient window, must have seen much history from its vantage point on the mound.
An avenue of majestic yews shelter the main entrance to the churchyard. At present the green space holds a promise of spring, dotted, as it is, with swathes of snowdrops, celandines and daisies.
Within the churchyard is a huge memorial cross in the Celtic style, the base of another, much older cross, and many fine gravestones, including a memorial to Frank Richard Allsop, a local man who died on the Titanic in 1912.
It was too cold to linger outside. Although we have been here before, I had forgotten about the doorway. It had come as a surprise the first time too. I’ve seen a fair few Saxon and Norman carvings since then, but this is still one of the strangest. There are none of the scenes of beasts or the mythical depictions we are used to. You might even miss the strangeness, so plain it seems at first glance. But look closer…
In the centre of the simple patterned semicircle a cross is inset with the small carved blocks, but it is the two figures that catch your attention. They are crudely carved, far more so than the deep reliefs we have seen. Very simple in style, almost like a child’s drawing. They stand, one either side of the nine hundred year old arch, arms akimbo, watching.
At first glance, we thought of the idea of the Divine Twins again, a theme that keeps cropping up in our wanderings. But there are differences. Perhaps they are not twins, but two sides of One thing? The one on the right is slightly taller and wears a longer robe. He seems more severe in his expression, or perhaps quizzical, than his smaller companion with his knee-length coat and an unmistakable smile. You cannot help but wonder to what the masons who carved them were making allusion. What story were they telling? A Christian tale from the Bible, or something older that lingered in the hearts and minds of the local people?
Inside the little church is a peaceful place of old wood, graceful arches and treasures of times long gone by. There is a rather splendid organ for a small church, made by Albert Keates of Sheffield. The Norman chancel arch separates the nave from the altar, but has lost one of its uprights to an ornate tomb.
The Communion rail before the altar is beautifully carved and dates from around 1570. The chancel contains several seventeenth century memorials and is lit by three bright and relatively modern windows.
Many of the memorials are to members of the Fitzherbert family. One, surmounted by fat cherubs, is to Mary Fitzherbert, who died in 1677. On the other side of the altar is a more severe memorial to William, who died twenty years later, aged seventy-two.
Throughout the church there are monuments and traces of the Fitzherbert family who have held Tissington Hall and the village for centuries.
The most impressive is the tiered seventeenth century memorial to the north of the chancel arch, with its kneeling portraits of Francis and his family. I have to wonder about the story behind the heraldry. the upraised fist usually signifies fealty but the blue crescent is an odd detail.
The Norman font though, has to be the most fascinating artefact in the church. It stands in front of the organ near the base of the tower, a simple, unattractive and ancient bowl… at first glance, anyway. But again, look a little closer…
The carvings may occupy us for some time to come. A pair of figures yet again, standing side by side. Follow the design round and there are large and ferocious beasts with strange, serpentine tails… lions, perhaps, carved by someone who had never seen one? Or stylised wolves? Following the design, one beast captures a delicate deer whose head is in its maw while a bird flees its grasp. Further round there is another beast, and this one holds a human head in its mouth.
Just what story are we looking at here? Because they were stories… myths, legends, pagan and Christian… Saxon, Norse and Norman stories all seem portrayed in these ancient artefacts. We do not have the certainty or knowledge to say this is what they were saying. We can do the research, learn what the experts may think, except the experts all seem to say little more than that the carvings are crude and badly done!
Ultimately these images, like the very architecture of these sacred places, were designed to speak without words to something deeper than logic. By looking and trying to join the dots of missing centuries, perhaps we may come closer without knowledge to a truer understanding. Sometimes I think, we think too much.