I drove north yet again on Thursday, ready for a meeting in preparation for the next Glastonbury event and our monthly symposium. I have never seen quite so many hawks of all descriptions as I did on that drive; from buzzards flying alongside to trios of kites diving low over the car. Quite what it was about the day I don’t know, but something seemed to have brought them out in numbers… and they were a joy to see.
I had earmarked a couple of places to stop along the way. The four hour drive needs some kind of a break to stretch legs and keep the mind alert. But, as often happens, I just carried on driving and didn’t stop at any of the places I had considered. They didn’t feel right for the day.
I took a slightly different route, one I had only taken once before. That time I had spied what looked to be a small country church, high on a hill, but I had no idea how to get to it, or even what the village might be called. I thought I might have a look. Turning up a narrow lane I found myself in one of those villages that seem to reflect the best of all the architectural styles, with pretty cottages and a gracious vicarage in front of the church.
I had no idea what to expect… Cromwellian severity or Victorian mock-gothic… so imagine my delight when the first thing I saw in the churchyard was a Saxon Cross. The Bradbourne Cross dates back to the 8th century and is said to be a depiction of the crucifixion; this panel is the best preserved. Along its sides curl the familiar foliate spirals, while other panels appear to show twin figures. Hidden in the carved foliage are archers, shooting at men and animals, a symbol that has already cropped up recently.
There is little information in the church itself about the cross, or the ancient baptismal font that stands forlornly on the floor beside its more modern counterpart. Indeed, it was only by looking that I found the carved oak panels with strange creatures and portrait heads that are supposed to be of Scandinavian origin, though no dates are given.
There has been a church here since Saxon times, though the original church was replaced by the Normans around 1100 AD and, as always, subsequent generations have left their mark. There is, however, a lot to see. So much so that even though I photographed it all in some detail, I missed a lot until the pictures were finally up on the screen. The carved heads, human and animal, that edge the Norman tower still seem sharp. The small doorway in the tower itself is incredible and will, no doubt, require closer inspection. Inside a tall stone coffin leans vacantly against a wall and 14th century glass vies for attention with more modern jewels.
It is an odd, eclectic mix, with beautifully embroidered altarpieces shimmering in the sun and a stark 16th C wall painting showing the changing faces of worship across the centuries. The main altar is simple yet colourful, yet the side chapel is all dark wood, simplicity… and far more complex iconography.
This strange tapestry shows the mark of the village’s history; a microcosm of the story of the land itself. Around it the hills rise and fall gently, broken by the jagged teeth of limestone outcrops and veined with the grey of dry stone walls. Overhead two buzzards wheel in the blue and the ground is littered with owl feathers. Even though the leaves are turning, everything is green and lush and somehow, in spite of Saxons, Normans and all the other imported and imposed overlays of history, you know in your bones that this is England.