VISIT | Seeing Shobdon Arches And Its Ghosts Too | Herefordshire
Religious Grace in Landscape Design
A lesson in landscape design at Shobdon with its mighty Arches
The ghosts of a medieval history captivated within this Herefordshire countryside
Simply wonder at the miraculous stone carvings from another time and another purpose
"...this evocative architectural feature in former Herefordshire estate grounds..."
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.
For that is what they are known of around these parts of northern Herefordshire. For we are in borderlands. Not far from the wild Radnor Forest and betwixt there and the Forests of Mortimer. These lands once stood as conflict ground and where once not far from here was the mother of all battles. The Battle of Mortimer’s Cross.
But for truth, see the local monument where at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross on the 2nd February 1461 Edward Mortimer, later to be Edward IV led his Yorkists against those Lancastrians led by Jasper, Earl of Pembroke in a violent and bloody battle. Edward won.
But 4,000 men lay dead on the lands around and many heart and soul Welshmen were taken prisoner including Henry Tudor who was executed at Hereford. Henry VIII’s great-grandfather no less. The men of that battlefield ranged across this area resting and bathing on the banks of the River Lugg.
And if you can see those ghosts on the fields around you, you stand a good chance of seeing why people are appealed to this depleted stone monument. For the Shobdon Arches whether in sun or mist, is a haunting backdrop to this Herefordshire countryside. It almost feels as though some film company has left it behind.
But if you stop and park near the very special St John’s church, through the gate - 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?
Directions and Map |
Find the Shobdon Arches near Shobdon church near the former estate in north-west Herefordshire near Leominster