The early days of March signal the first tenative stirrings of Spring, a turning time of the year when the bite of winter lingers but begins to cede its supremacy. It was a propitious moment to set off on a quest, a pilgrimage of sorts to discover the mysterious magic of pre-Reformation medieval and Tudor worlds as preserved in three local country churches. We would also be confronted with the jarring juxtaposition of the sacred and the secular, of heavenly and earthly power competing for attention. We would excavate stratified layers of history, occasionally catching a fading echo of some ancient archetypal myth figure, a fleeting peripheral flicker from the imagination of our pre-Christian forbears, still resonating in the carved stone arcades fashioned by medieval church masons. We would struggle up mighty slopes, bow our heads before driving hail and return through owl-haunted darkness. But with hope in our hearts and the shining white tower of the Haldon Belvedere to guide us, we would never give up.
First we needed fuel, however, and made our rendezvous in the warm and welcoming confines of Café 36 in St Thomas, west of the Exe and beyond the old city walls of Exeter. I, guiding vicar for the day, naturally drank tea. My friend and travelling companion David Chatton-Barker, instigator of the expedition under the aegis of the Folklore Tapes Tramping and Loring series of sonic investigations, washed down his bacon buttie with a cup of coffee. I regarded his hearty repast with a jealous eye. But I had forgotten my wallet, leaving with a paltry pocketful of change. A shorting of what is usually a reflex action upon leaving the flat, it was the first of a series of incidents which imposed an allegorical narrative upon the journey. I was the pilgrim travelling without means of support, trusting in the generosity of providence. We were both fools on bicycle steeds, venturing into the warren of Victorian terraced streets mazing their way to the village of Alphington. It was a bright morning thus far, and we set off at a relaxed and convivial pace. To the west, over the ridge of the Haldon Hills which were our destination, a solid wall of darkness divided the sky, its gloom-doomy front advancing with the steady pace of inexorable fate.
The hail hit as we approached the iron gates of Pincet Gardens, the words proudly wrought in black and gold Art Nouveau lettering. The gatehouse of these elegant Edwardian pleasure gardens, with their wisteria walk, rose beds and croquet lawn, provided sanctuary from the elements, as it once had for the groundsman, a figure from a publicly-spirited age long-dispensed with. The sheltering arch, and by symbolic extension of Victorian and Edwardian civic rectitude, allowed for the testing of sound levels and the consultation of maps. My Ordnance Survey map of Exeter and its surrounds dated from the inter-war period, the nerve network of local railway lines taking the place of the thick, wormy, blue arteries of motorways to come. It seemed appropriate that we should resort to such dated cartographic means to guide us. We were, in some ways, following in the footsteps or cycle tracks of inter-war British artists and writers like John Piper, Myfanwy Evans (later Piper) and Geoffrey Grigson, who had found inspiration from the medieval art they discovered in old country churches. Figures and faces carved in stone or from wood which appeared to them as immediate and modern as any of Picasso’s work derived from the art of ancient non-Western cultures.
Passing through the old village of Alphington, with its prospect over the city below, we left the boundaries of Exeter and turned onto an old country road which soon carried us over the Autobahn thrum of the A30. It was a crossing which felt significant, putting the functional roar of hurrying modernity behind us and leading us to older roads; lanes whose sparse usage allowed for ridges of hardy, tufted grass to draw a thick dividing line along their length, a rural version of the central reservation. In the village of Shillingford St George, we paused at a junction marked by an old stone cross, and crouched below the overarching beech tree, hunched against a fresh onslaught of hail. The small, frozen white pellets bombarded the moss landscape atop the flat plateaux of the cross’ arms like tiny meteorites crashing onto remote granite-bedded moorland. The right arm of the cross pointed to a lane which cut across the hillside, and we followed its transverse directions as if it were a signpost, which it may well have been. The dark mass of the hail cloud lumbered east over Exeter and the sky’s blue was all the more cerulean in contrast. There on the hill was the white tower, a radiant beacon capping the horizon of the Haldon Ridge rising above us. Haloed in a baroque nimbus of cumulus cloud, it drew us onward, a destination both symbolic and real. Once we reached this tower, the long, hard climb would be over and we could sail down the other side of the ridge to Ashton on the upper slopes of the Haldons.
As if to wake us from nebulous, cloudy dreaming and remind us that the tower was still some steep distance away, David’s faithful old steed Victor chose this moment to limp to a halt, its chain slipping off under the strain of steady ascent and firmly wedging itself between gear wheels. The venerable old bike was on its last legs, or spokes, and this was very likely to be one final, epic excursion before it was laid to rest. But it appeared as if the journey might prove too arduous for its aging frame after all. Desperate efforts to lever the chain out with a pitifully inadequate spanner were all in vain. It bent as if made from pliable plastic. Fingers were cut on gear teeth and blood mixed with oil, but even this sacrifice failed to release the chain. The shining tower was beginning to look like a taunting mirage, an elusive dream which would remain forever beyond our grasp. Even a sturdy old bronze key was unable to dislodge the stubborn links. Victor was mulish – he wasn’t going anywhere.
It was at this point that a Land Rover drove up and turned into the drive of the farmhouse outside of which the recalcitrant old bike was upended. David ran in to request aid and returned with a hefty steel spanner. Proper job! The chain was forced out and reset, the farmer profusely thanked, and we were on our way again. Victor was treated with the respect due to his frail seniority and led gently up any significant inclines, of which there were plenty to come. Reaching the end of the winding hillside lane, we arrived at a crossroads, a symbolic point which really marked the obstacle we had just overcome. The four-armed signpost pointed eastwards to Exeter, the direction in which we would have disconsolately limped had our serendipitous benefactor not happened along. But we now headed west, enjoying a brief descent, freewheeling and cheering, before the inevitable push to the heights of the neck-craning horizon.
Some distance up the hill, Victor now being pushed up the steadily increasing incline, we took a diversion to the north, following a short lane as it wound down into a sheltered dell. Here the red sandstone church of Dunchideock nestled, adjacent to the monkish quadrangle of a cluster of old farm buildings. We parked the bikes and prepared to walk through the small, unwalled graveyard to the church porch, eager to enter our first church of the day. It was at this point that David began patting pockets and rummaging through his bag with an escalating air of quiet desperation. The painful realisation dawned that his keys had been left lying in the road where Victor had experienced his breakdown. There was nothing for it but to go back and pick them up, hoping they would still be sprawling, keys akimbo, in the central spread, untwisted or flattened by the trundling passage of tractors. So it was downhill and up and turn south at the crossroads. And there they were. But a post van was rapidly approaching, filling up the lane with its purposeful progress and looking unlikely to take kindly to a cyclist dithering in its path. I swiftly stooped and snatched up the keys, pressing myself and my bike into the hedge to allow the envoy of the Royal Mail to pass. We would see him in the distance on several occasions during our journey, his van a small corpuscle pulsing along the hillside roads, a vital force yet, the lifeblood of the countryside. He was almost like a tutelary spirit, a background presence ready to intervene at opportune moments.
Another obstacle to the quest had been overcome. The third symbolic mishap, the loss of the key. Firstly, I had come out without any money, reminding us of the pilgrim’s need to rely on the generosity of the world and its inhabitants. Secondly, the venerable Victor had become lame, requiring stretches of the journey to be made on foot. This necessitated a slowing of the pace, a slight alteration of the schedule, and led to a more contemplative state of mind .The journey is a fundamental component of the quest, the time in which significant encounters take place and vital lessons are learned. This incident served to remind us of this, the meeting with the farmer being an example of the world providing in our time of need. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to reach your destination, you may find that in your speed to arrive you lose your sense of purpose. The loss of the keys made me retrace our path and notice the storm clouds sweeping over Exeter, slanted hail connecting cloud and earth like smudged pencil shading. The tower above was still illuminated, however, a castle in the clouds, and the hail passed us by. The keys, once retrieved, seemed to represent a symbolic blessing. The way is now open to you, they said.
I returned to Dunchideock church. A richly rolling nameplace, a pleasure to ennunciate. It’s name, in the old Celtic language, meant the wooded fort. The high places of the Haldon ridge had long been seen as an advantageous site to set up camp. They were now crowned by a white tower which had more recent and far-reaching military connotations, as we were about to discover. It set its gaze far eastwards, but also inward to the mysteries of the human heart.
I found David wandering around the graveyard, recording its atmospheres and ambient sounds. As often proves the case, the stone garden, planted with the dead, was full of life. Graveyards are often oases of nature, residual respect for sanctified resting places leaving them largely undisturbed. The flat granite and slate planes of gravestones also provide a highly amenable environment for hillocks of moss and the slow-spreading, symbiotic stains of lichens. If the dates on the graves have been erased by weather and time, they can be aged by the extent of the lichenous growth across their surface – the arcane science of lichenometry. There are some splendid specimens in the Dunchideock graveyard; efflorescent orange suns, pale green planetary discs and vermillion nebulae. Whole lichen universes expand across the grey stone, life blooming in a wholly different dimension, a long, slow, silent millennial explosion.
Mosses also thrive on the stone surfaces, finding root in the clefts formed by the stonemason’s chisel as he carved out memorial words. These are now traced in green lettering, a moist, green language. These growths also spread across the tomb flatlands, arms extending in ecstatic nebular outreach. Elsewhere, ivy eagerly grasps the corners of the tabletop tombs which invite convivial day of the dead feasting. They crawl onto their flat surfaces and crack open exit doors for their inhabitants whilst shielding their names with thickly twined knots of woody vine, allowing them the blessed relief of anonymity.
The north side of the graveyard was sparsely inhabited. The sun-warmed south side of the graveyard has always been considered more favoured ground. The shadowy north side is more sinister, more prone to intrusions from elsewhere – the Devil’s side. Those buried there might be considered unfit to keep company with the respectable southerners. Those whose lives had been tainted by scandal, who had committed crimes which had not been forgotten, or sorrowful suicides sufficiently beloved in the locality to be granted hallowed rest. Or, of course, those who were simply too poor to gain access to holier ground.
At the base of the stone arch framing one of the windows on the north side, the carved heads of a monk and nun looked out over the graveyard. Their faces were filled with grace and benediction, red lichen lending them a flush of rubicund life. They had the appearance of graveyard guardians, their calm, assured regard enough to stare down all but the most malevolent and powerful demons. To the north, the darkness was gathering itself together once more and advancing towards. The bright suncreated stark, Manichean contrasts between light and shadow. It was time to seek shelter – sanctuary if you will.
The interior of the church was neat and compact, a very tidy and well-ordered space. Not that there weren’t a few church spiders in residence, shading in the coiled curlicue at the tip of a crozier or lacing their webs through the wooden vines of the decorated rood screen. The red brick of the exterior was continued inside. Aisle columns were built from local red sandstone, chromatically consonant with the ruddy cast of the surrounding soil. The columns are rough and particulate, compacted amalgams of pebbly matter. It looks like the space around them could have been excavated from the Haldon hillside itself, leaving its bones exposed. That this is a sacralised quarry raised from its subterranean pit.
The rood screen separating nave from sacristy, the worldly and quotidian from the holy and eternal, looks Victorian. It’s a reflection of the 19th century desire to reach back to a pre-industrial past, retreating into a dream medievalism, conjuring up a simpler world which, of course, never really existed. It does in fact date from the 15th century, but was extensively restored by Herbert Read in 1893. Read had set up business in Exeter as a church conservator and craftsman in 1888, so this was a relatively early job for him. He also carved the wooden pulpit, its facets inhabited by fiercely bearded representations of the missionaries of the early church in Britain: St Columba, St Augustine, St Boniface and St Petrock. They are framed by trailing greenery in which birds alertly perch, plucking succulent grapes and snapping up climbing snails.
It’s hard not to notice the sizeable marble monument which takes up a large part of the north aisle wall. The wordy white tablet is capped with the black outline of an obelisk at the top of which a medallion-framed relief portrait of its subject is embedded, like an oversized pocket memento of a loved one. A war drum lies on the tomb, its beating silenced, a cessation akin in this case to the termination of the heart’s lifebeat. This is the memorial to Major General Stringer Lawrence, who died in 1775. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Father of the Indian Army’, he was the commander of the East India Company troops (a clear indication of the commercial imperatives behind Empire). His military exploits were instrumental in establishing the British presence in India – of building an Empire in the East. The language on the tomb is unabashed in its imperial pride, celebrating victory and conquest and proclaiming Stringer Lawrence as a saviour ‘born to command, to conquer, and to spare,/As mercy mild, yet terrible, as war’ in the words of Hannah More’s epitaph.
The memorial was funded by Sir Robert Palk, the Governor of Madras and at one time paymaster to the Indian Army. Stringer Lawrence lived with Palk for the last 6 years of his life in the nearby Haldon House. Hannah More writes ‘in vain this frail memorial friendship rears,/His dearest monument’s an army’s tears’. She could well have been referring to Palk, though. He clearly bore a great love for the old soldier. Not only did he name his son Lawrence, with the Major General acting as his godfather, but he raised a further, even grander monument in the form of the white tower on the hill. Few now recognise it as Lawrence Castle, but such was it designated, dedicated to Palk’s dear friend when the building was completed in 1788. It stands as much as a testament to one man’s love for another as it does to the Major General’s prowess in battle. With such knowledge, the tower becomes something else. A symbol of desolation, isolation, of unassuageable sorrow. Something has gone out of the world, something which you loved above all else, and it’s never coming back.
A small plaque on the south wall facing the Stringer Lawrence memorial bears much quieter and less triumphal witness to a parishioner who died on the fields of Flanders in the First World War. Similar records can be found in or near almost every parish church in the country. They particularise the terrible, blank magnitude of wartime mortality statistics, rooting them in specific place, in the family names engraved in the graveyard library. The gravestone chapters of lived local history, of generational lineage are brought to a sudden, violent halt. Unwritten pages are torn out of the book of life and cast to the wind.
The imperial atmosphere generated by Stringer Lawrence’s memorial seems to permeate the rest of the church. The 15th century roof bosses are arrayed in a brightly painted cavalcade of heads and masks, beasts and mythical creatures. A Turk with luxuriant black moustache focuses his bright, sharp gaze down on our craning heads. A crescent is affixed to the brow of his turbaned headdress. Adjacent to him is a lion’s head with a corona of gold mane. Its eyes are wild almonds and a sugary red tongue lolls pantingly out. It resembles stylised Chinese or Indian iconography more than the Christian artistic styles of Western Europe in the late medieval period. The colours are gaudy and gay, boldly carnivalesque, the roof a noisy parade of disparate, wildly contrasting participants. Here are three fish linked in a tail-biting Trinity circle, a plushly red triangular shield their sensual centre. A raw, phallic extrusion, seemingly emerging from the fish’s scales, tentatively probes this sacred ground. Around thethe fishes, golden fruits are slashed open to reveal scarlet flesh. The whole is an amalgam of Western animal symbolism and Indian Shiva lingam, a universal hymn to abundance and generation.
More symbolism comes in the traditional form of the Green Man. Or is it a foliate head? One such here seems to be a Green Man in profile (‘just carve my best side’), a branch emerging from the side of the mouth to wrap around its head in an oval foliate portrait frame. Its large, exaggeratedly upswerving nose gives it a jesterish look. The gold leaves could almost be bells on its softly pointed hat. The sky blue, red and gold colours make it a creature air, blood and sun as much as wood, leaf and earth. Another foliate face is the flowering bud at the heart of a spiral of light green vine and gold leaf. I am the true vine – a powerful symbol of the uncoiling spring of life’s seasonal cycle.
The circling vines are echoed in the whimple headdresses which frame the female heads which are present in some number. These are Hollywood Technicolor representations of medieval femininity. But given that they actually date from the late medieval period, the usual grumbles about authenticity are made redundant. This female presence in the church, and the rainbow rejection of grey sobriety the gay boss figures present in general, acts as a welcome counterbalance to the martial, male memorial, with its priapically erect obelisk reaching up to the roof (but not quite reaching its lofty heights).
This celebratory, polychromatic spirit even spreads to a memento mori skull at the base of a 1697 memorial to one Marthae Bryant. The bony visage is given an gleaming gold gilding, eye sockets glowing with corporeal redness, as if the fires of life were still burning somewhere within. The missing teeth in the jaw hinted at a verisimilitude reproduced with disturbing precision.
David had not been idle whilst I was on my key-retrieving side quest. He had discovered an old harmonium in a quiet corner of the Lady Chapel and had set to working its wooden pedals and filling the church with creaking, reedy chords and arpeggios – sounding out its sandstone corners and wooden arches and recording the results. The upper E note was fixed in permanent depression, as if someone had become addicted to its keening drone, lost in the expanding clouds of overtones. As David produced a few more chords in my presence, I could almost hear the faint ghost voices of Nico and Ivor Cutler (a very odd duet) drifting in from the aether beyond.
It was a hypnotic sound. But we couldn’t allow ourselves to drift too long into harmonium reverie. We still had to reach the heights of the white tower, Robert Palk’s shining declaration of pure love and heartbroken loss for his Major General. We emerged to blue skies, the dark sweep of the storm front menacing Exeter safely below us to the east. Onward and upward, we traversed the short lane dipping into the rounded cleft of the valley fold in which Dunchideock nestled and rejoined the road climbing steeply to the summit of the Haldon ridge. In deference to the venerable Victor, this was a walk and push stretch, companionable conversation interspersed with huffing and puffing and other assorted exhalations. Finally, we attained the summit, and were rewarded with stunning views across the Teign Valley to the tor-knubbed horizon of Dartmoor.
The road traced the spine of the ridge, and we followed its blessedly flat track until we reached our turning, the sign pointing to the downward slope leading to Doddiscombsleigh and Ashton. The white tower was immediately above us, pristinely outlined against luminous blue sky. A plane contrail etched its cloudy line across the outlines of winter branches. We debated about taking a short detour and exploring it, but decided that it would serve us better as a symbol, a tower of fable. The fact that it was now behind us indicated that we had reached the goal to which it had guided us, acting as an everpresent beacon. ‘To the tower and to the ravens’ as Sandy sang, although we had to make do with crows. We had made the ascent, and the route to Ashton was now open to a joyful freewheeling glide.
The valleys before us, with their folds and wooded slopes, curving streams and sheep-flocked fields, were enveloped in a dreamy afternoon haze softly obscure distances suggestive of nebulous Samuel Palmer Edens. We paused under the power lines strung between the grasping iron arms of pylons which strode in receding formation across the hillside, coniferous plantations magically parting to permit their progress. Their hum and crackle formed the droning ground over which birdsong, a crow of a cock and the passing sigh of a single car were laid – a rich rural mix. There was even a bit of stereo panning as a surge or stutter in the electron flow sent the electric drone pulsing behind us and then ahead before resuming its steady OHM drone. I felt like joining in, adding human overtone harmonies to the technological oscillations. This would sound great mixed with the harmonium respirations, I thought. A blend of exterior and exterior drone atmosphere, the electronic combined with the organic, wood with wire.
Passing beneath the pylon wires was like crossing some kind of threshold. Shortly thereafter, we entered an avenue of dark evergreen trees, and the Ashton sign appeared at the side of the road. The descent into the village was an exhilarating whoosh, the church tower suddenly appearing above thatched, whitewashed cottages. We parked our bikes at the foot of the church wall and climbed the steep, uneven steps which wound around to the lychgate rising greenly above us. We had arrived at Ashton, the main church on our itinerary. Our quest was reaching its fruition. It was time to pause for a well-earned sandwich in the porch, followed by a celebratory segment of Kendal Mint Cake. Hell, let’s make it two.
Your Ascension continues here:
And finally descends here: