Churches

Is This a Gargoyle, or is it Just Grotesque?

Church grotesque

The Monday Photo

This is St Firmin’s church, at North Crawley. There are quite a few carvings on the outside of this church that are fairly similar to the one in the photo, but does that make them gargoyles or grotesques?

A gargoyle is a projecting water spout that throws rainwater clear of the church. It will be just below roof level, it will be a figure or a head of some kind, and it will usually have a lead pipe protruding from its mouth.

A grotesque lives up to its name; it is grotesque. But it doesn’t have a spout.

This example meets the first two requirements, but there’s no lead pipe, and there doesn’t seem to be a hole where one might have been, even though it’s the type known as a mouth puller.

I found it difficult to be sure just from the photo, so I went back to North Crawley for another look. The carving isn’t very high up; it sits on the corner of the nave and I could see it fairly well, but still I was not sure.

There are five other figures like this on the nave, all at the same level. I had a good look at them too and now I’m sure. This is not a gargoyle. None of them are. The four carvings near the top of the tower, now they are gargoyles, though not all of them still have their lead pipe.

But where do these names come from?

You’ve probaly noticed that gargoyle sounds very like gargle, and both words derive from the 15th Century French word gagouille, meaning throat.

Grotesque, though, is a later word. At the turn of the 16th Century, basement rooms from emperor Nero’s palace were excavated.

These cave like rooms had been decorated with imaginative and fantastic human and animal figures, and with symmetrical patterns of foliage and tendrils. Renaissance Europe went wild for these “cave paintings”, or in Italian, pittura grottesca.

This style of decoration became popular, and was called grotesque in much the same way that arabesque or moresque was used to describe Islamic art. But in the end the word became more and more associated with the fantastic and bizarre figures we see on Gothic architecture.

The ones on North Crawley’s church certainly were not known by these names when they were carved in the 11th Century, so what were they known as then?

We think that in the middle ages they were called babewyn; it means baboon. Or in other words, what they are is monkey business.

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Norman is as Norman Does

Church tympanum  Water Stratford

The Monday Photo

As soon as I saw this arch, I realised I was looking at a Norman church. The giveaway is the three rows of concentric zigzags or chevrons around the edge.

But really, I thought it might be Norman as I rode past it on my motorcycle, just yesterday. The church’s solid, compact and simple appearance made me turn the bike round and park up for a better look. This is St Giles’s church, in Water Stratford.

That semi-circular panel between the arch and the door lintel is called a tympanum, and the carving is of Christ in Majesty. This doorway, and the nave it’s in are believed to have been built in around 1135.

There’s another tympanum on the other side of the church, above a door in the chancel.

The lintel is carved with a miniature blind arcade, and if you want to see a full sized blind arcade you can find one on Stewkley’s Norman church.

Those knotted designs on the tops of the door pillars (the capitals) are carved with the cable motif. Those horizontal slabs between the ends of the arch and the capitals are the imposts, though I don’t know what the motif carved into them is called.

The church is very simple. There’s the nave, a tower that used to be much taller, and a chancel. The whole building is not much more than about 75 feet long. Of course, I couldn’t go in and didn’t try. I look forward to the time when I can go into a church and look around inside again; shouldn’t be too long now.

Water Stratford used to be called West Stratford until around 1436, and “Stratford” means there was a ford for a Roman road near this spot. The Roman road ran between Bicester and Towcester, but another one branched off it to Stony Stratford, from just North of the village.

It’s amazing what you find if you have your eyes open.

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Church Aligned

Holy Trinity  Drayton Parslow
The Monday Photo

As soon as I turned off the B4032, I saw Drayton Parslow church, up on the hill in front of me. Have ever noticed how often it is this happens, that as you approach a village the first thing you see is the church?

Two more examples that occur to me, because of the roads I use, are Great Horwood church, from the Winslow road, and Hardwick church, when coming from Aylesbury on the A413. I don’t think this is by accident, but why does it happen? The only reason I can think of is for navigation, probably from well before the Norman conquest.

Many churches are not the first one to be built on a particular site. At Great Horwood an earlier church was already in place there in (we think) 1066. It’s believed that an earlier church was at Hardwick, too. And many churches were, or still are, on pre-Christian sites.

The 14th Century Holy Trinity church at Drayton Parslow was not the first to be built there, and there’s an ancient preaching cross in the churchyard that I think must be older than the church.

Either of these would have made a fine landmark. They are up on the hill top so would be visible from the B4032, once a Roman road and a route that’s been in use for two thousand years or more.

In Line

But there’s another reason I think they were used for navigation; Leys.

Alfred Watkins believed that a network of straight tracks (the leys) covered the British Isles, aligned for navigation with beacon hills, mounds, moats, and old pagan sites that now have churches on them. Some of these routes were 4,000 years old, he believed. He called these routes leys because ‘ley’ as part of a place name seemed to occur remarkably often on them.

Some call these ley lines, and believe they are lines of force in the ground. I don’t believe this and neither did Alfred Watkins; it’s a belief that only came about in the 1960s.

Watkins published his book The Old Straight Track in 1925. By then he had been developing his theory about the leys for four years.

I have a much later reprint. The most interesting part for me as the North Bucks Wanderer is Appendix B, titled ‘Buckinghamshire Leys’. There he lists 15 leys, and many of the alignment points are churches. Quite a few of those leys have major Roman roads running along them. What do you think the truth is about leys?

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Milton Keynes is Just a Village

First World War memorialAt the bottom of the war memorial are the usual crosses and a wreath, but there’s pebbles painted with poppies, and for some reason, wooden spoons.

Until the late 60s, if you knew of Milton Keynes at all, you’d probably be a local. Before then it was just a tiny village on a side road three miles from Newport Pagnell, but with the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1967 this began to change.

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Being Ahead

Norman beakheads

The Monday Photo

Why are the carvings on this 12th Century arch in Stewkley’s Norman church called beakheads? It’s simple; many of these carved heads, found widely across England, are birds with beaks that point to the inside of the arch.

Each head (but sometimes in this church there are three heads together) is carved on a separate piece of stone. The zig zag pattern above these beakheads is another clue that this is a Norman building. There are 37 beakheads on this arch in St Michael’s, the West one of two that support the enormous weight of the tower.

There are over 160 sites with beakheads in England, but none in Wales and just one in Scotland. There’s just a few in Ireland. They can also be found in Normandy (of course!) and in the old province of Anjou in France, and in Northern Spain.

Stewkley is one of the churches featured in the book England’s Thousand Best Churches, which is well worth getting if you’d like to plan a few expeditions for when the present emergency is all over.

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What Did I Do This Year?

Quite a bit, really. I managed to get around to quite a few places in North Bucks when we were allowed to, and got all the way to Hillesden before the lockdown. But this post is a Covid free zone; I’ll say no more about that today.

Now here are some of the highlights of the year from the North Bucks Wanderer.

Great Linford station

On a grey February day I explored The Railway That Nearly Was, a line that might have gone all the way from Wolverton to Wellingborough, but only made it as far as Newport Pagnell. If you know what to look for, you can still see where the line was meant to run.

This was the old station at Great Linford.

 

Musket ball hole  Hillesden

Hillesden Church is often called The Cathedral in the Fields, for its huge Perpendicular windows. Because of the windows, Inside All is Bright, but here is the outside of the porch door, in the shade. That’s a musket ball hole.

 

Olney pancakes

In Pancakes for Everyone, some of the Olney Pancake Race competitors wait to run. As well as the town race, there’s an international match against another pancake race in Liberal, Texas.

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