Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Shurdington Green Man

Sometimes it's good to research a place before you visit it, to ensure you don't miss anything. But then you do lose out on the element of surprise. I had no idea there was a green man in Shurdington church, despite living about 3 miles from it for much of my life. I even managed to visit the church once before without noticing it, but as I didn't have my camera with me I decided to go back and photograph a few bits on another occasion. I just looked up at the ceiling to admire the red and gold roof bosses, and YOOOWWWW! There he was.

Because he blends in with the wood of the beam in the shadowy rafters high above the nave, but is several feet lower than the decorative fleurons on the ribs of the vaulted ceiling, you can look right past him without seeing him until he suddenly snaps into focus and gives you a jolt. Very possibly this optical illusion was deliberate on the part of the medieval craftsmen who stuck him there.

Then again, you can see traces of red paint around his nose and mouth, and at some point he may have been painted all over, so it's not clear whether he's meant to be this subtle.

The Shurdington green man in context, looking down into the nave from the middle of a crossbeam.

I've mentioned in a previous post that the symbol of the green man is more complicated – and more simple – than modern perception gives him credit for. Usually seen as an incongruous pagan interloper in a Christian setting, either as a symbol of the church's dominance over old superstitions (if you're a Christian) or of the enduring survival of natural religion (if you're a pagan), he is really a universal figure who doesn't need to be polarised in this way. Reducing him to a "fertility" figure is also doing him a bit of a disservice, as he's more than just the face of Beltane bonking. He's the impulse for growth which courses through every green and living thing. He may look unChristian to our modern eyes, but to the earlier inhabitants of an agricultural community, as Shurdington was in days of yore, he would not seem out of place in their church at all.

The Hatherley aisle in Shurdington church, built for the inhabitants of Hatherley when they didn't have a church of their own. Strangely, it appears to have a Norman doorway on the left, which must have been moved from somewhere else because this aisle wasn't added until the 14th century. The outside of this door has what appears to be Victorian pseudo-Norman decoration around it.

Shurdington church is worth a visit anyway, for various antique delights it offers. It's tucked away down a side street with loads of parking space, and a footpath out the back of the churchyard leads to a lovely trek over the fields. The church itself is Norman in origin, and although it only has a handful of surviving Norman features, and fairly plain ones at that, the atmosphere is quite something. In my experience of going round old churches I find huge differences in the feel of them; some are "alive", while others are practically dead, and seem to have minimal spiritual buzz even if they are well kept and regularly used. I don't know why this is, but I notice it a lot. And Shurdington church is very much alive, thrumming with a sense of something very sacred. A trait which it shares with its neighbouring church of Badgeworth, a similarly compelling place.

The church has a 13th century pointy chancel arch, and I rather like the way it's offset so that the view down to the east window is lopsided. The chancel has been mucked about by the Victorians, but they haven't spoilt its atmosphere or character too much, other than sticking a load of angels in it, as was their wont. In the nave there is a nice old font carved with quatrefoils and leaves.

The font is 14th century, as is the top ring of its pedestal, as both are carved from a single block of stone. But the lower section is older – thought to be 13th century. The mason who made the font bowl must have copied the design of the earlier pedestal and extended it to two tiers. It appears to be a good match at first, until you look at the detail of the carved columns and see the difference in style.

The most dramatic feature on the outside of the church is unquestionably its broach spire, which is incredibly tall and slender and dates from the 14th century. You can see it poking up quite distinctively as you're driving around the Shurdington area or walking in the Cotswolds. It has two dates carved into it: 1797 and 1894. Both of which are the dates of major repairs. A spire of this size, not surprisingly, has been zapped by lightning more than once.

On the south (well, obviously) wall is a rather nice sundial, set at a slight angle because the orientation of the church is a bit "off" the cardinal points. It bears the name of Rich[ard] Gwinneth, and the date 1655. The Gwinneths or Gwinnets were a prominent local family at that time and owned Badgeworth Manor. Sundials are more precise than most clocks when they're set up properly, as they work from the movement of the planet – and this one recorded the time of my visit pretty accurately, except for the fact that it does GMT all year round, so it's an hour slow in the current BST period. It is similar in style to the sundial at Badgeworth (dated 1645), which has lost its gnomon and is now kept inside the church, and which has the indignity of a crudely corrected spelling mistake where the stonemason got the donor's name wrong.

Shurdington: Church, School and Village (parish guidebook, no date)
A.C. Fryer, 'Gloucestershire Fonts, Part 8', Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1916, Vol. 39.