Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist


We were closing in on  Hereford when we spotted a signpost to the village of Kilpeck. No sooner had we seen it than we'd left it behind. The conversation went like this. 

"Do you want to stop?"

"No.  On second thoughts, yes!"

Ailz threw out the anchors and pulled us up on the shingly verge. 

It was the right decision.

I often find  the highlights of a trip are the bits you didn't plan in advance. 

Kilpeck is tiny. It wasn't always so. Once it had a castle- now nothing but an overgrown mound and a few shapeless walls- which was grand enough to host King John in the 12th century and support a Royalist garrison during the civil war.  There was a medieval village too- which has completely disappeared. What survives is this tiny jewel casket of a Romanesque church. 

I han't been expecting anything so gorgeous. We'd made this detour for one small carving (we'll get to that in a minute) and what we found was a decorative scheme which comprises the finest surviving work of the Herefordshire School of Romanesque sculpture.  11th century. Breathtaking. 

This is the arch and tympanum above the south door.

I don't know much about the Romanesque. I'm not sure anybody does.  I look at these carvings and I'm seeing things that look Celtic, things that look Scandanavian. However the men who worked at Kilpeck may well have been French. I know that because we bought the book- The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture by Malcolm Thurlby- and I've been dipping. 

And the carving that brought us here?

A corbel- one of the 89 that support the roof.

If you're a pagan or a witch or a Goddess worshipper you'll almost certainly know the Kilpeck Sheila-na-gig. Versions of her  turn up all over the place. I have a pendant somewhere. 

But here's the great original .

What a rascal! 

And here she is again with her next door neighbour.

Sheila-na-gigs are also known as female exhibitionists. There are about 300 of them in Ireland and about a tenth of that number in England. Kilpeck's Sheila is undoubtedly the cutest. Some say she's a Pagan fertility symbol and others that she's an awful warning against sexual depravity. Personally I don't see why she can't be both. It's all in the eye of the beholder.

 I've always been a little in love with her...


I'm moving on from little pots

To a big plaque of a Sheila-na-gig.

I've modelled it, from memory

On the one at Kilpeck, Herefordshire.

Scholars say these cheery women

Aren't the work of renegades

Undermining the Man of Rome
But strictly orthodox images

Of female lust- meant to reprove

And frighten.  Yes, but did they work?

I mean, could I have kept my mind

On God when just above my head

They'd given me this to contemplate-

A goblin with a vulva arched

Like the west portal of some great church
With lots of room in it for gloom?

Hey scarecrow, but you're beautiful.

Kilpeck's Sheila seems to have survived a19th century purge of the racier carvings because a naive or wily (Goddess knows which) Victorian expert described her as "a fool opening his heart to the Devil". 

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