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The Most Sacred Site in Shropshire?

Hope Bagot is a tiny village nestling in a valley between Clee Hill and Ludlow. The Church of Saint John the Baptist stands sentinel over the hamlet, a tiny example of very early Norman architecture and little changed from when it was first built, with even the timbers of the wooden porch thought to date from the 1300s.

The interior is plain and simple with many original features still in situ. The arch to the tower is actually reckoned to be Anglo-Saxon which suggests a very early structure here before the Normans, but as we shall see there was something here far earlier than even Christianity itself. Stepping back outside and looking down at the foundations of the tower, a pair of round blocks are lodged at two corners of its base. These are actually medieval millstones, but why are they here?

In 1292 a miller named Valentine was crushed to death by his own millstones, an accident no doubt, but bizarrely the stones were held responsible for the miller's death and at the local Assizes were charged a fine! Obviously unable to pay, the millstones were declared “Deodand” - given to God – and forfeited to the Crown to be “used for pious purposes”. So there there it's two parts are, sentenced to hold up a house of God forever.

Above the porch is another strange stone feature. A ghostly face has been used as a brick in the wall above the porch roof. Nobody knows what it is or where it came from, it doesn't look like a gargoyle at all but it does resemble the strange heads that dot England, particularly in the Peak District, which some think are pre-Christian “Celtic” in origin. Another possibility might be that this was a relic of the old Anglo-Saxon church that once stood here, the image of a saint and most likely John the Baptist. It stares out, bug-eyed and gawping, but why it has been built into the church structure is anyone's guess.

Leaving the church and moving on up the hill to the rear, we are confronted with a yew tree that can only be described as gargantuan. This is a vast organism, a tree as big as the church itself, and it has been dated to be at least 1600 years old How do we know this? None other than David Bellamy, the famous bearded botanist, signed a certificate to say so, with an appendix stating that it is in all likelihood much, much older. This document is inside the church and is countersigned by Robert Runcie when he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, yew expert Allen Meredith, then by Robert Hardy the veteran actor who many will know from the Harry Potter films and his TV roles such as in All Creatures Great and Small. Hardy was an expert on the English longbow and as the yew was a primary source for the wood they were made from he was brought in to advise on dating the tree.

As if this magnificent natural monument wasn't mystical enough, something else is here at its roots. A holy well, nestled inside an old stone grotto, still accessible for those who'd like to take its waters. A symbiotic relationship, the water source feeds the roots of the yew but the ecosystem of the yew itself also affects the water with its many changes to the soil above it. This must have been a very important sacred place for pre-Christian people of Britain but also for later devotees of the old Celtic church and the successive religious dogmas that followed. As far as I can tell, the well has never been officially dedicated to a saint so this speaks volumes of its mystical importance. The church is obviously dedicated to John the Baptist because of the well but the water source itself isn't.

This is a lonely yet peaceful place that has a real energy about it, a strange atmosphere that is difficult to describe, and you get the sense that it has always been like this. I'd hate that to change.

I take an in-depth look at the church, the yew, the well and more of the curious features of Hope Bagot in The Mystery Of Mercia Volume II, out now.

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