The Fascinating Romanesque Churches of Herefordshire

The Fascinating Romanesque Churches of Herefordshire

Don't be worried about the term Romanesque. These places in deepest darkest Herefordshire all have amazing architecture and design in these churches or indeed former churches. All will become clear.

The Romanesque school of architecture was around in the medieval period when stone masons and church building designers used Roman principles in their creations. Look for features like semi-circular high arches in windows and doors, large vaulted roof and roof lines, vast piers of thick stone walls with few windows, beefy columns or medieval art often in religious scenes or characters through sculpture or stone features.

The Ornate doorway to Kilpeck Church
Kilpeck Church

The Herefordshire school as its referred to were pretty busy during that medieval period creating masterpieces which can be seen in this rural county of Herefordshire. So if you fancy an afternoon of quiet reflection - come take a tour with us here.

  1. Eardisley Font

  2. Shobdon Arches

  3. Kilpeck Church

  4. Dore Abbey at Abbeydore

  5. Castle Frome Font

1. Eardisley Font

At the Church of St Mary Magdalene in the Herefordshire village of Eardisley lies a very interesting font. I know. A font.

Fonts were placed in every medieval church, near the main entrance to remind the parishioners about their own baptism and the significance of baptisms of becoming closer to God. In 1236 it was dictated that fonts should have a cover which could be locked. And the water had to be changed – hopefully once a year…

But back to Eardisley - the Eardisley Font is rather special. There is a lion. There are figures seemingly fighting. There is elaborate Celtic patterns and swirls. There are crosses. Made in c. 1150, its uniqueness is its design. The carvings around the outside show men fighting with spear and sword.

It more than likely depicts ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ – the descent of Christ into Hell; between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

It was almost certainly produced by a group of master stonemasons from the 12th century known as the Herefordshire School. These master craftsmen worked in and around Herefordshire and occasionally Worcestershire creating unique pieces of stone carving.

The Herefordshire School usually featured Norman figures, stylised animals and a pattern of Celtic swirls, crosses and lines. Another feature tends to be a particular type of humour which can be interpreted through the images portrayed.

2. Shobdon Arches

There was something gothic and haunting about the scene. Everything was there. The enshrouding mist restricting sight for just a few feet in front of you. Cold frosty air. Perfect silence except for the wind blowing the leaves of the trees. But there, there amongst the soft mist was the heart of this scene - the Shobdon Arches.

Shobdon Arches
Shobdon Arches

If you stop and park near the equally very special St John’s church, wander through the gate at the bottom of the avenue that heads upwards - you will find yourself where once was surrounded by farmland knee deep in corn or wheat. And where now a grassy path tricks you to wander farther and onwards to a destination unknown.

The avenue of trees is majestic and masterful. It is a call to the big house of the estate at Shobdon. Shobdon Court which was once a might Jacobean mansion, then a sumptuous Palladian affair and now a miss-mash of this and that.

But the magic of this place lies at the top of the incline, the height of the avenue.

Now there are those who object to man’s attempts to create meaning and pattern in the outdoors. And whilst natural beauty can literally take your breath away, sometimes man’s creations offer a little more story, even if it’s a construct, a fakery. For this – the Shobdon Arches is one of those casual pieces of human intervention.

A haunting piece of church architecture that once was of a church.

For there once was a Norman church at Shobdon Court. The Chancel Arch and the north and south doorways of the Norman church remain. The church was demolished in 1751 to make way for the new church. A fancy and fashionable Rococo affair for the Bateman family of Shobdon Court. John Bateman is the man who made the decision. He wouldn’t be the first monied aristocrat to knock down a perfectly good church to re-design and re-place, style it with fashion perfection in mind. But this place feels the certain echoes of his plans.

The term most often applied to things like the Shobdon Arches and places like Shobdon Park is that of ‘eyecatcher’. Most often used to describe landscape features placed thereabouts to draw the eye and create a story, a narrative in the land. In Shobdon Park in Herefordshire, whether they knew or not, the features taken from the old church included the remarkable stone carvings visible now in the Arches. They all make the story here. Their placement. Their echoes to the old religious buildings. The architectural calls to a place begotten of time, and of people.

If you circle the Arches, you stare and study. You touch and stroke. You crook your neck and study. Eyes are drawn to the stone. Feet are drawn to the openings. Your head moves in automatic expectation of seeing something more. It is entirely mysterious. Curious. And the carvings, these are the wonderment on this piece of art, of sculpture.

These stone carvings are the memorials to the wonder craftsmen of the Romanesque masons who were prolific in Herefordshire and Worcestershire. These examples can be readily seen at Kilpeck Church or at the Font at Eardisley. Symbolism. Animalistic design. Power and religion. Curve and line.

It was one of Hugh de Mortimer’s stewards, one Oliver de Merlimond who is credited with the sumptuous stone carvings planned for a priory at Shobdon. Inspired it seems after a pilgrimage to the spiritual Compostela. But with the Civil War of the 12th century, the Mortimers clawed it back and so went Shobdon Priory, its monks probably bound for Wigmore Priory. But this part of England was the site of many houses of religious worship who came and went as battles and powers shifted.

It was perhaps right that Bateman created something from the old. To create some idealistic beauty from the created ruins of the old Shobdon church. For now, it allows all those who wander this way and that over this Herefordshire countryside, a glimpse of that which once was, and a feeling that we too can live in our gothic fairy tale or pretend we are treading out way through some piece of living art created by pen and paper, by humanity’s eye and quest for design. To create story through landscape. And to marvel at small detail and large whilst we puzzle our place in the world.

There is a postscript to this piece – in a corner of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a painted plaster relief of a Tympanum depicting Christ surrounded by four angels sits. The relief was taken from the original sometime in the 1850s before it was placed as part of the wonder of the world in the exhibition in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1854. When the Crystal Palace was burnt down in 1931, the trustees of the Crystal Palace donated this piece to the V and A. The relief of the Tympanum is from the Arches at Shobdon before weather and its effects depleted the wonder of the stone carvings. The true beauty of those original carvings can be seen in absolute wonder from that relief. But it also means that the stone work in the parkland of Shobdon was seen as a wonder for all – sent to be seen by the great, the good, the interested and the curious at the great exhibition at Crystal Palace. Not bad for an ornamental garden feature huh?

3. Kilpeck Church

This little church in the middle of Herefordshire has hordes of fans. People come from miles around to see this amazing church. One quick glance and you'll see why.

Kilpeck Church
Kilpeck Church

For its fans come to Kilpeck church for the absolutely stupendous and fascinating stone carvings which litter the building. I suspect you can spend hours studying this small marvel and still miss something. For most, the first and most striking stone work is that of the doorway. That is right, before you even enter the church, you stop mid-step and just gaze at the craft, the skill, the beauty. For this is a place of architectural and historical beauty.

The church is open much of the day for visitors. And those with time to spare can distract themselves by looking into the delightful Herefordshire countryside which surrounds this old gem of a church. Or equally the ruins of the once significant garrison of Kilpeck now lies a little broken and sad - the old Motte and Bailey castle. A symbol of the once significance of this now sleepy village.

The church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck in rural Herefordshire - a one of a kind. Open to all.

4. Dore Abbey at Abbeydore

There is no place like this one. Dore Abbey in west Herefordshire is probably a building that shouldn’t exist. This place is special. It really shouldn’t be. But for a man with a wish and a conscience it probably wouldn’t. But let’s begin at the beginning...

Dore Abbey is in the village of Abbeydore in Herefordshire. Its tucked away in the lee of the Black Mountains and in the once troubled border territory where Wales meets England. To appreciate this architectural gem, you must go back to a different time. See if you can draw upon your history lessons from back in the day, to the days of the Norman conquest, the troublesome Celts making a nuisance to its new Norman neighbours and the days when religion trumped all.

Dore Abbey
Dore Abbey

When poor old Harold Godwinson lost the Battle of Hastings in 1066 thanks to some poor strategy and an arrow that went somewhere it shouldn’t, Guillaume, Duc de Normande became King of England – the English would term him William the Conqueror. And thus began the Norman Conquest.

As William parcelled up England for his knights, gifting them lands and patronages, the many manifestations of the church including monks and nuns from orders across mainland Europe were tempted by the opportunities of these new lands.

Step forward the monks of Morimond from France – a Cistercian order looking for new horizons and expansion into mainland Britain. In 1147, Robert Fitzharold, Lord of Ewias founded a new Cistercian Abbey at Abbeydore and according to legend, bumped into the Bishop of Morimond at one of the Crusades into the Holy Land who offered up some of his monks. How kind!

The Abbey was sited in a good position with protection from several Norman castles at White Castle, Longtown, Grosmont, Raglan and Dorstone. Like many other Cistercian abbeys, they prospered in these medieval years from wool profits and tithe ‘donations’. The church was singular in terms of its power, its ultimate power over Kings and countries. The wool that was produced on the Dore Abbey estate was particularly valued and sold for high value on the continent. Life was good. The Abbey prospered and expanded.

Now with every story of success, there comes a turning point. And for every religious building and every religious order in England, that moment happened when King Henry VIII decided that one woman was not enough.

It is more widely known as the Reformation – a period of religious reform and change, when Henry VIII demanded a divorce from the Catholic princess he had married, Catherine of Aragon and permission to re-marry his new beloved Anne Boleyn. Because let’s face it, if you’re a King you need a male heir and if you don’t get one, you want someone who will give you one. The only person able to award such a divorce was the Pope – the head of the Roman Catholic church. And unfortunately he wasn’t in the mood to award such a divorce – for fear of upsetting the very Catholic nation of Aragon on the Spanish mainland and because well, Henry’s reasoning wasn’t entirely convincing (there was a dead older brother, a proof of consummation and other accusations) but all trying to besmirch the character and good name of his then wife Catherine.

Now how then does this affect little old Dore Abbey? Well what happens when a King doesn’t get his way – well, he takes control! There was a ‘schism’ in the church – and Henry named himself Head of the Church of England. And a massive onslaught against the very Catholic institutions – such as the monasteries, nunneries, churches and abbeys all making money for the Catholic church. Henry’s troops were ruthless in their closure and subsequent stripping of all wealth and acquisitions. It was called the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It meant that for places like Tintern Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey and poor old Dore here in Herefordshire – the end was nigh.

The monks came and went. Most went back to continental Europe. Which left the buildings. Most like Tintern and others fell into disrepair and ruin. The old stone buildings began to be taken down as locals used the stone for their own buildings and housing. Piece by piece – these once wealthy and impressive ecclesiastical buildings became broken and robbed away.

Dore Abbey was dissolved in 1536 and the lands and buildings were purchased from the Crown by local nobility and landowners – the Scudamore; specifically John Scudamore. And nothing further was done to the former abbey. It broke apart…

Fast forward just over one hundred years and step forward the great grandson of John Scudamore – his namesake John, the 1st Viscount Scudamore. He developed a strong relationship with William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Under his counsel, John became convinced that God was punishing the family, specifically by the absence of a healthy living son, because of the acquisition and treatment of the former Dore Abbey by his family after the Dissolution.

The Scudamores made money from the former abbey lands and belongings. Viscount Scudamore decided to act. He began by restoring part of the old building for use as a religious building once more. The eastern end was restored, the formerly medieval monastic church became once more a parish church. And Abbeydore once more had a functioning religious building. By 1634, it was re-consecrated – and had stained glass windows. Some of its former belongings were found scattered across the local area such as the altar found in a local barn. Other essential ornaments were purchased and blessed. The Scudamore family had paid back to God what had been taken away under Henry VIII. Poor old William Laud would unfortunately go on to be put on trial and executed during the English Civil War period in the execution of Charles I and the hunt for those seen as heretical and Catholic. But for Dore Abbey – it may not have been what it was once was, but at least it was back as a church.

There were more restorations of the building in the 18th and late 19th century with modest alteration and refurbishments. But nothing of the architectural splendour of before. Indeed, the chapterhouse at Dore has the only twelve-sided example in the entire country (Margam Abbey’s chapterhouse fell into disrepair in the 18th century). Roland Paul, architect and surveyor at the turn of the twentieth century tracked the extent of most of the former abbey buildings and became so enamoured with the place that he got married at Dore Abbey to a local girl. Under his watch and the ongoing parish support which followed its restoration, several hundreds of pounds was spent on restoration and new items including a stained glass window and lectern; some gifted from local citizens.

In 1934 there was even a special commemorative event for the 300th anniversary of the re-opening of Dore Abbey. A special service was held, and prayers and events were held in the village at Abbeydore. They even used some of the original prayers and parts of the service from the original re-opening on March 22nd 1634.

Simply speaking, Dore Abbey is the only Cistercian Abbey used for ‘divine service’ in this country. How many abbeys were brought back into service after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century? Compare if you will with the relatively close Tintern or Llanthony abbeys – both now lie in partial ruin. But Dore Abbey remains – not perhaps half the abbey it was, but still a functioning religious place of worship. And more significantly with the echo of the abbey that it once was.

So after you wander through the lych gate, poddle down the path and enter into the building – see this place for that which it was and that which it is now. Beloved by the local community but who are now laden with the responsibility of a church that is/was/remains an abbey in size, status and character. It is a very special place. We must all make sure that Dore Abbey remains for another thousand years. It is that special.

Don’t just take my word for it – go stand in the centre of this ‘church’ and appreciate the majesty that it holds on to; and then imagine the melodies of a piano or a cello splendid in these surrounds. Would you rather Dore Abbey be more like Tintern? Roofless and still? Join those who love this place and fight to keep it standing and sealed tight.

Prove you’re better than a King.

5. Castle Frome Font

If you've been to see the amazing sculptured font at Eardisley in the north of the county then when you find the tiny place of Castle Frome in the east of the county, you may be asking yourself if this was possibly the same man that carved it. There are definite similarities.

For there is perhaps no other reason to find this tiny village of Castle Frome with its small and quiet church. Many do come.

For this font is possibly even more special than Eardisley. Just marvel at the stone craft of the people that created these designs and appreciate the fact that it still exists.

Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. And a visit to any of these quiet and free architectural gems would be worthy anyone's quiet afternoon.

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