In which The Author ventures past the point of no return
Just under four hours after leaving the house on Saturday, I was sipping a glass of Coke in front of a roaring log fire. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get to the pub, but this was a special occasion.
I was in the south Herefordshire village of Kilpeck.
I first heard of this place nearly thirty years ago, when I was working on the Cynon Valley Profile. Kathleen, our photographer, mentioned Kilpeck a few times; she was intrigued by its rather unusual church. Apparently it was famous – or infamous – for its medieval carvings, an odd mixture of Christian and pagan symbols. As with most things in those days, I made a mental note to visit it when the chance arose. The chance never seemed to arise.
On Saturday morning I was awake at the crack of dawn (again), so I switched on Radio 4 to catch the morning news. The weather forecast seemed fairly promising – bright sunshine for the weekend, with rain moving in on Monday.
After enduring half an hour of school shootings, Syria, Jeremy Corbyn and rugby I switched over to Radio 2, where Brian Matthew’s Sounds of the Sixties was just getting under way. One of the first discs he played was the Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper.’ Talk about a subtle hint – it could have been my last chance for an excursion from Aberdare before the autumn really set in. I ate breakfast, got some cash out, and headed to Merthyr on the 0900 bus.
In Merthyr I bought a paper and caught the X4 towards Hereford. I’ve done the journey through the Eastern Valleys plenty of times, so once I’d finished the crossword (in Tredegar) I sat back and made notes of things to include in the Vanishing Valleys project. When we reached Blackrock Hill, I got my first look at the huge road improvement scheme some of my friends are working on.
We sat outside Abergavenny for ages. The town centre was a real logjam for some reason, and it was a good while before we emerged onto the A465 to Hereford. The promised sunshine had failed to materialise. The sky was overcast, and the early morning mist seemed to be lingering on the hillsides. I toyed with the idea of staying on the bus and spending a couple of hours in Hereford. While I was trying to make up my mind what to do, the bus pulled up just past Wormbridge to let a teenage girl get on board. On the spur of the moment I decided to jump off and make my way to Kilpeck.
It took me a little while to walk back to the junction. There are no pavements along the road, so I had to stay on the verge and hope for the best. If I’d got off the bus a couple of stops earlier I’d have been in the right place to start with. I knew I’d reached the junction because a roadside sign announced that the Kilpeck Inn lay a mile to the east, down a narrow lane.
I set off and within a minute I spotted the bulky outline of a sandstone church behind a field of placidly grazing cattle. Straight away I had a feeling it wasn’t the right church. As soon as I stepped into the tranquil churchyard I knew I was right. The exterior was quite impressive, but there were no carvings.
It turned out to be the church of St Devereux. I took a number of photos all the same, as the Norman churches strewn along the border really cry out to be captured on film (or SD card). One peculiar feature was the filled-in doorway in the north wall. I found out later that, according to folklore, the Devil lived to the north. Apparently a large number of churches in the Marches and elsewhere exhibit this charming nod to tradition.
Back in the lane I was soon reminded that I was deep in farming country. Herefordshire is known for – among other things – its cider. The land alongside the churchyard is lined with apple trees, and they’re heavy with ripe fruit at this time of year.
I was starting to wonder how long it would take me to reach Kilpeck. The flat fields stretching in all directions didn’t give me any clues. I hadn’t gone far when a brown tourist road sign assured me I was heading the right way. I’ve mentioned before that I love the strange place names along the border, with their mixture of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and French elements. This signpost is a great example, with a bit of everything.
A little further on the road rose gently but abruptly, and I guessed – correctly – that I was approaching a railway bridge.
Just below the bridge is the former St Devereux Station, now converted into a boarding kennels called Barkers Dog House. On the bridge itself I spotted this curious hangover from a bygone age.
I suppose it made sense to have a postbox as near the station as possible, so that mail could be loaded straight onto the next train. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the great detective can post a letter at lunchtime and get a reply before supper. In the Year of Our Technology 2015, it took nearly a week for Mother’s birthday card to travel five miles. Progress, eh?
I wondered how long I’d have to wait until a train came along. It’s the main route from Cardiff to Holyhead and Manchester, but the trains run hourly in each direction. I doubt if there’s much freight on a Saturday afternoon. I could have been there for ages before a photo opportunity presented itself.
I decided to push on towards the pub. The church was signposted off the lane, but I’d earned a glass of Coke before heading that way. Needless to say, I’d only walked for another minute or so when I heard a train pass through the cutting.
The rich red fields suddenly gave way to a large red-brick house in substantial grounds. The sign on the gate identified it as Kilpeck House. I’d been expecting to see a sprawling Tudor manor behind the railings, but this looked remarkably modern. Only the chimneys hint at its true age.
An old-school phone box marks the edge of the village. There isn’t much besides the pub and a cluster of red-brick cottages.
I made my way into the pub and had a quick look around before approaching the bar. I was greeted by a cheerful lad in his early twenties. A waitress of about the same age was serving a family in the dining room. It was fairly quiet, but it was still quite early.
The pub itself is large, comfortable, welcoming, and seems to attract locals and tourists alike. A number of old signs inside and outside indicate that it used to be called the Red Lion. Renaming it was probably a sound decision – there are literally hundreds of Red Lions throughout England, but there’s only one Kilpeck Inn.
Unlike many rural pubs, it’s weathering the economic storm without too much difficulty. Having a minor tourist attraction on their doorstep probably hasn’t harmed business. Plenty of people came in for lunch while I was warming up by the fire. I felt as though I’d stepped into an episode of The Archers as the unmistakable border burr reached my ears from the small group by the bar. (There was a even a chap named Brian in the group. I decided against asking him if his surname was Aldridge.) The only incongruous element was an American barbint, whose accent certainly stood out above the rest.
In Foxglove Summer, Ben Aaaronovitch’s latest novel about the adventures of occult detective Peter Grant, our hero finds himself investigating a case in deepest Herefordshire. One of the aspects of rural life that baffles him is the large number of gastropubs. He asks his local liaison, Dominic Croft, about the situation: ‘Dominic blamed Ludlow which, having become a major foodie centre, had raised the pretensions of all the eateries within a fifty miles radius.’ I think that probably includes the Kilpeck Inn – there’s certainly no pie and chips or microwaved vegetable lasagne on the menu. In fairness, their prices are reasonable and the food certainly smelt tempting. If it didn’t take all day to get there, I’d be very tempted to call back and sample the fare myself.
I left the pub and retraced my steps to the crossroads, pausing only to let a tractor pass me at a sharp bend. Harvest is in full swing, and farmers have been taking advantage of the sunshine to cut some late hay. At the side of the lane I found an information post half-buried in the hedgerow, giving an outline of the archaeology of the sites nearby.
I must have seen a castle marked on the OS map, but it hadn’t registered with me. I began to wish I’d picked up the map before setting off. As things turned out, I needn’t have bothered – the church was dead ahead of me.
I’d expected Kilpeck Church to be a tiny chapel, tucked away among farm buildings and probably quite hard to find. Instead, I found a large and eye-catching building with a beautiful cottage (or pair of cottages) opposite.
This is the church of St Mary and St David, and it dates from the first half of the twelfth century.
In their book Exploring Churches (Lion Publishing, 1993), Paul and Tessa Clowney described St Mary and St David’s as ‘one of the most perfect Romanesque churches in Britain.’ Alec Clifton-Taylor (in the BBC book Spirit of the Age) called it ‘the most enjoyable of the small Norman churches.’ The reason it’s so highly acclaimed, and forms such a draw for sightseers, is obvious as soon as you enter the peaceful graveyard above the lane. You can’t help gasping at your first sight of the south door. My photos don’t do it justice by any means.
These wonderful carvings have survived nearly nine centuries in such good shape because the doorway was once enclosed by a porch, protecting the stonework from the ravages of the weather. Apart from resisting the forces of nature, Kilpeck is remarkable in having survived both the Reformation and the Puritan era unscathed.
The exterior of the church features the celebrated corbel table – a row of carved figures along the line where the walls meet the roof. (The leaflet I picked up emphasises that they’re corbels, not gargoyles. Gargoyles were designed to channel rainwater away from the masonry. These are purely decorative.) Kilpeck’s masons were able to let their imaginations run riot, and the results are simple, beautiful, amusing, intriguing, and bizarre. I didn’t photograph them all (there are nearly a hundred, running the whole perimeter of the building) but here are some that caught my eye.
In the classic British black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, Louis Mazzini’s quest to murder the entire D’Ascoyne family leads him to a parish deep in rural England. The Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne, played (as are the rest of the family) by Alec Guinness, gives the scheming Louis (Dennis Price) a guided tour of his church. As Henry points out the west window, he says proudly that it ‘has all the exuberance of Chaucer – without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period.’
A small number of corbels are missing. The story goes that a Victorian lady was so offended by the concomitant crudities of the period that she ordered the carvings to be knocked off. The leaflet says, ‘Perhaps it is just as well that she either did not see or, more likely, understand the Sheela na gig.’
This was the particular piece of stonework Kathleen had in mind when she first told me about Kilpeck. Brace yourself for one of the concomitant crudities of the period.
This ancient symbol is found frequently in architecture, especially in south-west France, across Ireland, scattered around the Marches, and in the Caucasus. It’s interesting to read the competing theories about its meaning (discussed in James Jerman’s book Images of Lust). You have to wonder why it features so prominently here.
Back at the south wall I had a sudden idea to try the door. To my surprise it opened easily, and a light came on as I stepped inside. The first thing that caught my eye was the enormous stone font. It crossed my mind that the locals must have gone in for adult baptism.
The interior is fairly simple, with white walls and relatively little decoration. Two rows of wooden pews line the aisle, and the small gallery (accessed via a creaking timber staircase) can accommodate about another thirty worshippers; a hundred people would fill the place to bursting point. There’s a plain lectern with a well-worn Bible close to the pulpit, and some lovely carvings on the uprights of the arches separating the nave from the chancel. There are some large memorial stones set into the floor, and plain timber vaulting supports the roof. It was difficult to get decent photos, as the interior was so dimly lit, but they didn’t come out as badly as I’d feared.
At the back of the nave there was a table of information leaflets, booklets and guides. I bought the leaflet about the corbels, putting 20p in the honesty box set into the wall. The visitors’ book is full of signatures and comments. I scanned the recent entries for a few moments – people come from all over the country to see this medieval marvel. Only one name had been filled in under that day’s date. The address was ‘House of Commons, London’ and after a moment I was able to decipher the signature. I read it in disbelief before adding my own name to the list.
I think this is probably the first and last time my name will appear beneath that of a sitting Conservative Member of Parliament and Privy Councillor – former Attorney General, the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve MP. Quite why he’d have been in this neck of the woods was a mystery. The party conference started in Manchester this weekend, but as he’s the MP for Beaconsfield, he’d have had to make a huge detour to stop at Kilpeck on his way there.
I left the church, cut through the graveyard, and followed a narrow path through a burial ground which is still in use. The ground rises sharply behind it, leading to the site of Kilpeck Castle. Hardly anything remains of the motte and bailey structure, apart from two sections of the outer wall and a trench surrounding the small hill. You can still see a recess in the thick and gently curving north wall where the fire would have been set and the chimney above it. The views from the top stretch for miles in all directions, and it’s obvious why this site was chosen as a good spot to build a defensive base.
Not surprisingly, Kilpeck has attracted countless pilgrims, artists, writers, architectural historians, and even dowsers and ley-line enthusiasts. Alfred Watkins, the author of the classic book The Old Straight Track, lived in Herefordshire; according to his research, the church and the castle both lie on such a line.
I walked back to the church, where I met a couple walking their dog around the graveyard. It wasn’t their first time in Kilpeck, but they’d decided to have another look at the church while they were in the area. The sun made a brief appearance while we were chatting, so I took a few more photos before heading back into the lane. I knew I had plenty of time to kill before the next bus, so I decided to investigate the surrounding area a bit further.
As it turned out there wasn’t much to investigate. I’d taken the long way round to get to the church by following the brown signpost, instead of my nose. The narrow lane beside the church curved sharply southwards, and at the end of it I could see the distinctive red rectangle of a wall-mounted postbox. I walked towards it and less than a minute later I found myself back at the pub; the postbox is actually built into the side wall.
I decided to have another glass of Coke and write some notes before making my way back to the main road. I found a small table near the front window, and spotted the rather eccentric opening hours in the doorway. If you’re tempted to check Kilpeck out for yourself, it’s probably a good idea to bear this in mind.
The pub’s weird hours are nothing compared to the bus service through the surrounding villages, though. There’s one bus to Hereford, which leaves mid-morning and returns early in the afternoon, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only. My two-hourly bus back to Merthyr suddenly seemed quite civilised.
I followed the lane back towards the main road, crossed the railway line again, and came to a fork in the road. A signpost pointed towards Wormbridge and Pontrilas, so I decided to go that way instead of retracing my route. There was a chance I’d find something interesting in Wormbridge, and I could easily catch the bus from there. It didn’t take me long to walk the length of the lane, and I looked back at one point. Through a gap in the hedgerow I could just about make out the wall of Kilpeck Castle below the horizon. The sun had gone in and it looked as if rain might not be too far away.
I didn’t wander from the main road, so I assume there must be more to Wormbridge than a church, a petrol station-cum-shop, a ‘business centre’, a nursery, two bus stops, and a few houses lining the road. The church is quite impressive, though. It’s built of the same red sandstone as its neighbours, but it looked grey in the late afternoon gloom. Unusually for a village church there was no information board, so I can’t even tell you its name. There are some grand tombstones in the graveyard, but one of them is badly damaged. I assume kids or teenagers are to blame; if that’s the case, it was the only sign of vandalism I saw while I was walking around that afternoon.
It crossed my mind to press on to Pontrilas, which we’d come through on the way out. It has a couple of pubs, a village shop, and a fairly large railway bridge, all of which would have worth checking out. The problem was that I didn’t know exactly how far I’d have to walk. I had a nightmare vision of being between bus stops when the X4 roared past. I pressed on until the verge became too overgrown for me to walk any further, then turned back to wait at what must be the most bizarre bus stop in the whole of England.
While I was walking I’d been amused to see single potatoes scattered at the edge of the road. There was one lying in the gutter just opposite me. I wondered for a moment whether I’d stumbled across a strange rural pastime – Chuck the Spud at the Cow. The mystery was solved when an open truck thundered past, full of freshly dug potatoes. Herefordshire is famous for its spuds as well, of course, and the harvest is in full swing. That lorry was the first of a number that passed me while I was sitting at the roadside, all brimming over with the latest crop. I suppose the odd one must bounce out and end up lying on the side of the road. Every so often on the Radio 2 traffic bulletin there’s a reference to a ‘shed load’ of cargo. Ken Bruce usually teases Lynn Bowles about whether it’s one word or two. Well, for the first time in my life I’d actually seen a shedload of potatoes. Several shedloads, in fact.
The bus arrived just as I was starting to get chilly, and I climbed aboard gratefully. We passed through Pontrilas again, and I knew that I’d never have been able to walk from Wormbridge – the verges are much too overgrown and the bus stops are few and far between. We ploughed our way through Abergavenny again, finally arrived at the bus station, and then the driver announced that we had a twenty-minute wait before the next stage of the journey.
I suddenly realised that I was heading into the Twilight Zone – the last bus to Aberdare would have left before we arrived at Merthyr. I wasn’t even sure if there’d be a bus to Aberdare from Pontypridd, the next stop on the X4 route. I had to bite the bullet and ring Mother to ask her to meet me in Merthyr.
I’d like to revisit Kilpeck in the spring, but I know now that it lies beyond the Outer Limits of a sensible day trip from Aberdare. It’s a shame that public transport in the Valleys is so hopelessly limited – after 1800, pretty much every bus heads back to the depot. What would be an easy journey in a car – less than an hour from door to door – had taken me four hours on the outward leg and left me five miles short of my destination on the return leg.
Then again, it had only set me back £7.50 for an Explorer ticket on Stagecoach. A return train ticket to Hereford would have cost me about four times that, and I’d have still been nowhere near Kilpeck.
I’m glad I finally made the effort to get there, as it was definitely worth seeing, but I’ll try and rope in some friends with a car for my next visit. You live and learn, don’t you?