‘Green represents Spirit over Matter’
We had decided to visit six churches with our companions. That is a lot of churches to visit in one afternoon… and we were conscious that they are not everyone’s cup of tea. These ones, though, are all old and interesting, and each one of them marks a point of the hexagram in the landscape with which we would work. We had assigned each of the churches to a place on the Fire or Water triangle, which carried with it a planetary attribution and colour, and each companion had chosen ‘their’ church by drawing lots.
We hoped it would be an interesting exercise and give a taste of the ‘thrill of the chase’ that we get when we are on the trail of mysteries, although you can neither predict how others will feel, nor assume they will feel as you do… or as you hope they will. We would have to wait and see.
We started with the Church of the Holy Rood, in the village of Buckland Newton. The area is rich in archaeological remains, with traces of prehistoric settlements, dykes, barrows and forts on every hill. Ancient trackways converge on the area and it seems to have been a hive of early activity. Dungeon Hill, an Iron Age hillfort, lies to the north of the village and Roman remains have also been located.
The church stands apart from most of the village and, on arriving, seems to be alone with the manor house opposite. The old manor is probably one of the reasons why the church appears to be rather grand for its surroundings, set as it is amidst green fields and farmland. Another reason is that historically, the church also served the villagers of Plush and, it seems, they were assigned their own door on the north side… the side traditionally reserved for the Devil’s Door, through which the demon could escape when baptisms were being performed. It makes you wonder about the relationship between the two villages…
The tower is the first thing that strikes you, being very tall for the proportions of the village church… a feature we would find was common to the churches we would visit. There are old yew trees throughout the churchyard, which is always a good sign. You are watched by some rather odd gargoyles as you approach too.
Another good omen for our quest was finding the four, six-pointed wheels carved on the sundial… Not a bad start when you are looking for a hexagram.
The south porch is very grand these days, thanks to the carved lantern. Above it is an old Parvise, a little room kept for the priests visiting from Glastonbury Abbey, to whom the church once belonged. The porch gates and lantern were given by John Bishop IV of Massachusetts, in 1989, to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the marriage of his ancestors, Alice Dunning and William Bishop. They were married in 1589 and emigrated to America around 1600.
The church is an old one, originally built eight hundred years ago, though the figure of Christ in Majesty that greets you in the porch is a hundred years older than that. No mention is made of its origins, and I have to wonder whether there had been an even earlier church on the site.
Much of the chancel dates to the thirteenth century, while the nave and the font are fifteenth century. Near the ‘Plush Door’ is a heavily carved Poor Box, that has collected alms for the past five hundred years.
The base of the tower is hidden behind a carved screen, which is a pity as the stained-glass window by Kempe cannot be seen. It shows the three canonised Archangels Gabriel, Michael and Raphael, and I wonder once again why the Church saw fit to accord sainthood to Archangels. It seems a superfluous honour…
There is no lack of stained-glass though, with some stunning panels around the chancel, showing unusual scenes like the raisings of the dead from both old and new Testaments and some complex, symbolic patterns.
Beneath many of the windows are glass cases holding medieval tiles with fragments of intriguing designs. Behind the altar is a reredos, carved in high relief and showing Christ ascending, and fortuitously for us, surrounded by an aureole in the shape of the vesica piscis. Both altar and reredos were carved by a Mr Tolhurst of Mowbrays and were dedicated in 1927.
There are a number of really interesting old memorials dotted around the walls, including one whose date I could not make out but which must be three or four hundred years old.
There are many examples of heraldry throughout the church, including one I rather liked, showing birds and with a motto that means ‘Truth without Fear’. And one of our number was a girl named Truth, and the motto seemed wholly appropriate, given the events of the morning.
There is a lovely wooden sculpture too of the Virgin and Child. She raises Him above Her… or He rests lightly within her hands, a fleeting presence reaching down with the kiss of Love. There is much tenderness in this work and much to contemplate. As parents and teachers, it is for us to raise those within our care and let them fly. Their time within our hands is brief and our hope is that they will rise to find their true selves… and perhaps, as they look back with love, we will learn from them too.
As we could not access the tower where we intended to work where possible, we gathered in the porch for our meditative ritual, finding the symbolic planetary colours within the living land. But before we left the church, we had to stop and look at its oldest inhabitant… and wonder what on earth we were seeing. The small stone plaque was found in the vicarage garden in 1926. Its presence attests to the age of the site as a place of significance in the area, as the carving dates back around fifteen hundred years, making it historically Saxon. It shows a wide-eyed figure with what appears to be long hair, wearing trousers of some sort beneath a full-skirted coat.
He smiles, and the strange eyes seem amused at our puzzlement. Some have suggested it must be an early depiction of St Thomas, because it carries his symbol of the spear. Although, it does not look particularly saintly to me, nor does he seem to be holding the spear. In fact, at first glance it looks more like a tail… or an arrow carried in a quiver. Others believe it to be secular rather than religious but offer no explanation for what it might show.
It is an amazing thing to find in a village church, but it is not the first time we have come across treasures you might only expect to find in a museum, housed in a church way off the beaten track. It will not be the last either, for it is one of the joys of visiting these venerable old buildings that they hold the history of a thousand years and often more, holding it lightly and within reach as if to say ‘here, this is your past and these were your people’.