Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Monday 22 April 2019

Brent Pelham church, Herts - here be dragons (well, here was once one dragon)

This is my one hundredth Icknield Indagations post. Brent Pelham is the twenty-eighth Hertfordshire church I've written about; I've also written about some other churches in the south-east, and about other subjects such as stained glass, the books I read as a child and teenager, John Surman, Gerald Finzi, and more. Please feel free to browse some previous posts; some of them can be accessed by clicking on the appropriate item in the the list on the right.

Brent Pelham church is most well-known, inasmuch as it's known at all, for one thing: being the last resting place of a dragon slayer. His name was O. Piers Shonks, and his tomb is in the north wall of the nave.

Shonks was the lord of the manor and a giant, a full twenty-three feet tall. A dragon (or serpent) was terrorising the district, and Shonks, with his hunting dogs (which were so swift that they seemed to have wings), went out to tackle it. The dogs attacked first, and while the dragon's attention was diverted, Shonks managed to fatally stab it.

However, as it happened this particular dragon had been a special favourite of the Devil, who was furious at Shonks. (A Devil who has a favourite dragon sounds rather sympathetic.) The Devil told Shonks that he would get his revenge by taking his body and soul when he died, whether or not he was buried in a church.

Many years later, when he was on his (unusually large) deathbed, Shonks fired an arrow into the air, decreeing that he would be buried wherever it fell. It hit the north wall of the church, and so he was interred within the wall, neither in nor out of the church, and thus safe from Hell.

There's an inscription, in Latin with a fairly loose English translation, on the tomb, which claims that Shonks died in 1086. The English version ends:

But Shonks one serpent kills, t'other [ie the Devil] defies,

And in this wall as in a fortress lies.

Nathanael Salmon, who published his History of Hertfordshire in 1728, attributes the lines to the Rev. Raphael Keen, who died in 1614 after being the vicar of Brent Pelham for (allegedly) seventy-five and a half years, so we can assume that they were written in the 16th or early 17th century. Presumably Shonks' story itself is older, and is based on the images on the black marble slab that covers his supposed tomb. This slab, quite apart from the story it inspired, is a remarkable object. (It's also difficult to photograph adequately as it's mostly covered by a low arch.)

It dates from the 13th century and is carved in high relief.

In the middle is a richly floriated cross. 

Above this is an angel (his, her or its face has been smashed) who carries a soul to Heaven in a piece of cloth. (This is a fairly common medieval motif; it can be seen for example on a tomb in Benington.) Around the angel are the symbols of the four Evangelists:

The lion of St Mark.

The (badly damaged) ox of St Luke.

The man of St Matthew.

The eagle of St John. At the bottom of the slab the stem of the cross continues down and becomes a spear*:

The spear stabs the dragon in the mouth. In its death agonies the dragon throws up its tail, the tip of which is elegantly, even genteelly, curled. (You can sort of see why the Devil was so upset.) This symbol of good triumphing over evil is of course the source of Shonks' legend. 

It's not known who the marble slab was intended to commemorate, nor where it came from. It predates the present church by half a century or more. It's possible that an earlier church, perhaps made of wood, stood on the same site, and was burnt down. (It's postulated that the 'Brent' element of Brent Pelham is a corruption of 'burnt'.) My amateur guess is that such a sophisticated object as this carved slab must have come from somewhere of high status, but when and why will remain unknown.

The church as it stands dates essentially from the mid 14th century, though the tower is 15th century and the whole building was, like Westmill, heavily restored in the later 19th century by Ewan Christian. Its most prominent features, externally and internally, are due to him. He rebuilt the nave roof to its original steep pitch (and it must now rival Westmill's in height, reaching all the way up to the top stage of the tower), and his patterns of red and black tiles catch the eye very effectively on a sunny day.

Inside, the aisleless nave topped by Christian's impressive hammerbeam roof (though the hammerbeams themselves are admittedly a bit feeble) feels lofty, if barn-like. But there's not a great deal to see once you've looked at Shonks' tomb. 

Christian removed the 15th century rood screen, but some of it is preserved in the tower screen.

Apart from the tomb, the best thing in the church is the early 14th century door with mouchettes (curved dagger-like shapes). 

Hanging in the church are four monochrome watercolours from the 1840s, by J.C.Buckler, who painted similar pictures of very many Herts churches. (Some hang in the relevant church, and there are four fat volumes of them in the County Archives in Hertford.) They show the church before Christian; in particular, note the box pews, low-pitched nave roof, two-decker pulpit, chancel screen and classical Venetian east window.



There are some enjoyable 15th century grotesques on the tower. The one in the first picture above seems to be wearing the noseband of a bridle. He looks crestfallen, while the one at the bottom looks fierce.

Just outside the entrance to the churchyard are these stocks. It's impossible to date them exactly, but they must be 19th century. The lych gate at Anstey, about three miles away, was converted into a lockup in 1831; perhaps the stocks date from the same period. The 1830s were a time of social and political unrest in England; for example, in 1830 the Swing rioters had smashed threshing machines in a protest against low wages and poor living conditions. The authorities responded harshly; nineteen protesters were hanged and nearly five hundred transported to Australia. These events must have touched Brent Pelham and Anstey, so the stocks and lockup could be part of the same reprisals. They're peaceful places now, but in the past that peace has been disturbed, perhaps by riots, or even by dragons.

Brent Pelham church has always been open whenever I've visited. 

* (Added 6/12/19) At least, this is how I saw it until I recently read Christopher Hadley's outstanding book Hollow Places (2019), which examines the whole of the Shonks story in fascinating and forensic detail. Astoundingly, the conclusion he reaches is that the story does have some factual basis. Shonks was a real person (but spoiler alert: there wasn't a literal dragon). Hadley points out that what I took (and most others take) to be a spear is clearly not something being thrust into the dragon's mouth (my pictures don't show this very clearly, because, as I've noted, it's very hard to photograph the whole of the tomb at once because of the low arch; the next time I'm there I'll try to do better). If anything, it's something emerging from the mouth, stylised foliage or perhaps even flames. I'm convinced by this, as I'm convinced by almost everything in the book. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Westmill church, Herts - Anglo-Saxon to 1950s

Westmill is an exceptionally pretty village. I'd always unconsciously assumed that this was simply a matter of luck; however, the newly published third edition of Pevsner's Hertfordshire disabuses me of this naivety. Its attractiveness is due in large part to its being cared for - we might almost say curated - in the earlier 20th century by Mary and Thomas Greg. They lived at Coles Park, a house about three-quarters of a mile to the south (demolished in the 50s), and employed the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Spooner (1862-1938) to restore and adapt existing buildings (as well as construct a few new ones). He had plenty of raw material to work with in the shape of houses dating mostly from the 16th to the 18th centuries. 

The Gregs are new to me, and Mary (d.1949, twenty-nine years after her husband) seems to be uncommonly interesting. (Everything I know about her comes from this website by Liz Mitchell.) She collected everyday domestic objects - keys, thimbles, combs, needle cases, spoons, etc etc. She especially wanted to preserve examples of traditional handmade artisanal items, and donated her finds to various museums, in particular the Manchester Art Gallery but also the V&A and others. She, together with her husband (about whom it's harder to find information online), paid the same sort of loving attention to the village.

The church was restored by John Loughborough Pearson (one of the greatest Victorian architects) in 1865, and again by Ewan Christian (who restored or built several Herts churches) a decade later. I'm always a bit reluctant to join in with the knee-jerk knocking of Victorian restorations; many, perhaps most, of the buildings the restorers worked on had been neglected for two or three centuries, and sometimes drastic measures were necessary. In principle I've got nothing against additions to buildings that introduce a new style (if I did I'd have to condemn, for example, Ely's octagon). Even so, it has to be said that Westmill church feels like a Victorian building which preserves some medieval features, and it's tempting to wonder what difference it might have made to the church had the Gregs arrived a quarter of a century earlier. Would it have retained more of its ancient atmosphere? (Spooner did work on the tower.) However, there's nevertheless certainly enough here to make a visit worthwhile.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the church is, in part, one of the most ancient in the county. This is evident in the south-east corner of the nave, which has long-and-short work (quoins - that is, stones forming a corner - arranged alternately horizontally and vertically) dating from before the Conquest. (All four corners of the nave of Reed church have long-and-short work.) So a church has been standing here for a thousand years, give or take. 

Originally it comprised just the nave and chancel; in the decades after the Conquest two arches were cut through the north wall and an aisle constructed. The arches are extremely plain, in accordance with their early date. 

The central pier has this crude graffito, apparently of a man standing in a boat. It's at eye height facing the south door, and, like most graffiti, it's undatable. 

The chancel arch is of c.1330; Pearson's chancel roof is dramatic with its two tiers of wind braces. The nave roof is 15th century, restored by Christian, and is, according to the church guide, the highest of any Herts parish church.

The tower, including its tall internal tower arch, was built in c.1500. 

There are some good grotesques, including a benevolent-looking sleepy creature with ram's horns. In the 1930s Spooner was given the job of taping up the shower - I'm sorry, that should of course be shaping up the tower. He was a cousin of the famous Reverend William Spooner, an Oxford don who apocryphally told an erring student 'You have hissed my mystery lectures. You have been found fighting lyres in the quad. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain' and proposed a toast to 'our queer dean'. The grotesques look quite freshly carved - could Charles Spooner have had a hand in renewing them?

The carving of the west door must be original, however. In the spandrels are censing angels; I like the highly stylised way that the incense fumes are depicted (more like hair than flames). The sculptor was evidently so keen to include his representation of the fumes that he has depicted the bowl of the censer upside down. Compare it with other carvings of censing angels (see here, for example, from Simon Knott's excellent Churches of Norfolk website), which show the bowl the right way up. If made as shown at Westmill, all the incense would just fall out. (The church guide claims that the angels are wielding 'flaming swords', which is clearly flaming wrong.)

At the apex of the arch two inelegant angels present a pierced heart, a symbol of one of the Five Wounds of Christ, a very popular emblem in late medieval England.

The font and some of the benches are of the 15th century, while the altar rails, with balusters of vases topped by barley sugar, are late 17th century. The chancel seats are mostly Victorian, but incorporate some elongated heads, two of which (I'd guess the second and third in the photos above) are 15th century.

The colourful pulpit of 1930-31 is probably by Spooner, who also designed the lectern.


The tiles behind the altar are, according to the statutory listing, said to be the last work of Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960), the architect and designer. They date from 1958, when he was 94. There are also two riddel posts (designed to stand on the ground at the four corners of the altar) by him surviving. (The other two, which were once under the tower, are no longer in the church.)


There's some moderately interesting Victorian stained glass. The best is to be found in the richly coloured east window; attributed to the firm Clayton and Bell, it dates from 1858. If the attribution is correct, this is an early work by them, as they were founded in 1855. (They survived until 1993.) It was installed by the rector, the Rev. Henry Pepys (a descendant of Samuel), to commemorate his four children who died young. There are four children depicted in the window; I don't know how he managed to enter his church (probably almost daily) and be faced by this reminder of the terrible fickleness of fate. 

This one is also said to be by Clayton and Bell. It's from 1861, and less colourful than the earlier window.

This window is slightly later again, 1866, and depicts St Peter raising the disciple Dorcas from the dead. Its maker isn't known, but unlike the Clayton and Bell windows, which are inspired by Gothic art, this one is based on Renaissance paintings.


Today the chief visual distraction in the village is the parked cars (including on occasion mine), their drivers and passengers attracted by the postcard-perfect-picturesqueness, the pub and the tea shop. They detract from, even ruin, every vista. Public transport to Westmill is, at best, sparse. There is allegedly some sort of bus service, but details are elusive. Probably just about every family in the village owns a car and so doesn't use the bus, and so what buses there are are empty and run at a loss. There was, for a hundred and one years until 1964, a station in Westmill (on a line from Buntingford to Stanstead St Margarets) (see here). But now the only way of visiting the village without contributing to its despoliation is to pedal or perambulate. The church is open and very welcoming.

The Gregs' memorial in the church

The Gregs' influence on Westmill continues to this day. There are still virtually no intrusive out of keeping buildings. When Mary Greg died she left some Westmill houses to the Guild of St George, which sounds like a cover for far-right thugs but is a highly respectable charity dedicated to propagating the values of John Ruskin. It owns and manages the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield, a forest in Worcestershire, and eight houses in Westmill. I can't support all aspects of Ruskin's ethos, but I agree with him more than I disagree, and it's hard to have anything but praise for what I know of the Guild's work. 
The Gregs' tomb by the south door. I believe that Spooner is also cherried in the birch yard, but I haven't been able to find his grave.

Next to the Gregs' memorial is this one, which features a line of music, something I don't think I've seen before.

A splendidly moustached figure on a Victorian label stop on the exterior of the north aisle.