The Esoteric Masterpiece of Kilpeck Church
Deep in the county of Herefordshire, within sight of the Welsh border, lies the village of Kilpeck. The name means “the cell of Pedic”, a local hermit from antiquity, and while it has existed here since the Anglo Saxon era it was originally a part of the Welsh kingdom of Ergyng. Even though Mercia claimed Kilpeck it's inhabitants spoke Welsh well into the 1800s.
The Church of St Mary and St David is the local place of worship and more commonly known as Kilpeck Church. A typical early Norman church in it's basic construction, it is believed to be built on the rounded mound of a very old Romano-British chapel, with the strong possibility of megalithic remains lying deep within. The reason for the double saints? When the tiny chapel in the castle next door was no longer used, it's dedication to Mary was transferred and added to St David's.
The church is famous the world over for it's incredible sandstone carvings, most notably the main door and the collection of 84 surviving corbels mounted in a line right round the lintel of the roof. There were 99 originally, with a large proportion of them probably coming straight out of the pages of an early medieval bestiary. Snakes, wolves, pigs, foxes, distorted human faces and unidentifiable creatures all stare down but the most well known one is a fine example of a “Sheela-na-Gig”. This bizarre figure is usually the shape of a woman gripping and emphasizing her large and exaggerated vulva, in this case grotesquely so. The debate goes on and on as to the meaning of this character but the one at Kilpeck has an unsettling alien like appearance, bereft of a nose and bulb headed with a cartoonish grin. Another curious detail is the four dragon heads, one at each corner of the building, each opening its mouth at a different angle...very esoteric!
The main door surround is a masterpiece, a tour de force of Romanesque design with influences from Saxon, Norse, Spanish and Byzantine sources. Knotted spirals swirl around huge snakes, warriors, mythological creatures and a Green Man while the lintel features a depiction of a Tree of Life. The work was painstakingly carried out by craftsmen of the “Herefordshire School”, a group of stonemasons who worked in Herefordshire and Worcestershire for a time during the Norman period, turning out fantastical Romanesque designs with as much emphasis on the mystical as on the religious. Why so much of the imagery on the church at Kilpeck appears pagan in it's appearance is a mystery, this is esoteric overload but the original messages in the art have been lost to time. A pious Christian lord would not be likely to commission a church covered in blatant pagan symbology just like that, and personally I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle of these two ways of thinking.
The Tree of Life over the door may appear to represent the Norse Yggdrasil but in other cases has meant the tree of Christian faith growing through the life of the onlooker so there is an example of a heathen story being co-opted in Christian tradition, this approach may also help explain the many snakes and dragons entwined around the doorway. Perhaps the snake sloughing off it's skin represents the heathen shedding their old beliefs? As for the Sheela-na-Gig – who knows?
The remains of the old Kilpeck Castle stand right next to the church. A simple motte and bailey in the Norman tradition, a wide tower on a high mound with a ditch around it while a larger ditch encircled the castle and it's stables, barracks etc. Only two sections of the wall remain but a fireplace and toilet chute are still clearly visible. An early wooden fortress was built by William Fitz Norman when the land was granted to him by William of Normandy immediately after the conquest, while the more imposing stone castle was built by his son Hugh Fitz William along with the church in his later life.
When seen as a whole, the church and the castle have a brooding atmosphere around them. This borderland region has a strange feeling about it, as if one is on the cusp between realms not just geographical but also spiritual. You have to wonder what sort of pagan site the original Roman chapel was built on and why this place was chosen for it. Kilpeck was the location for the Phil Rickman novel “All Of A Winter's Night”, and it's not hard to see why. The very name of Mercia means borderlands and this is as fine an example of a mystery of Mercia as I have come across.