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A guest feature by Littlestone. This article first appeared on The Modern Antiquarian in November 2008.

One of two trapdoors with sarsens beneath them
Image credit and © Littlestone

Pulling in to a dead-end bit of road by Alton Priors church (now closed off by a farm gate) I was about to head across the field towards the church when a herd of cows started ambling by with a few of their calves in tow; I held back behind the gate to let them pass (good thing too because the cows were being gently herded forward by a very handsome and very big black bull). Halfway across the field, and between the gate and the church, I passed someone coming in the opposite direction. The gentleman turned out to be the landowner and he told me, as we stood chatting in his field, that his family had farmed the area for more than a hundred years (and that the big black bull was really a bit of a softie).

I asked the gentleman if the church was open and he assured me that it was. I asked him if he knew anything about the sarsen stones under the church floor and he assured me they were there. We talked a little more and then he casually mentioned that I should also take a look at the 1,700 year-old yew tree in the churchyard and the spring that rose close by. I thanked him for his time and we parted.

The church was indeed open. Hot English summer without, cool sacredness within. Just your regular little country church. But where were the trapdoors leading to another sacredness? I ambled about the church for a bit then spotted a trapdoor that was partly boarded over and couldn’t be lifted.* Disappointed, I was about to leave when I spotted another trapdoor. Kneeling alone there in the silence, slowly pulling the clasp and watching as the trapdoor lifted to reveal a sarsen stone below was… mmm… more than a little magical.

I went outside and spent some time under the ancient yew tree in the churchyard – then tried to find the spring that the farmer had mentioned. I found the stream but everything else was too overgrown and the day too hot to look for more.

Alton Priors is a very, very special place. A little church built upon a sarsen circle set in the Vale of Pewsey. I’ve been to a lot of circles but none have had the sense of continuity that Alton Priors has. Go there and be at home (the church is open during the summer months; at other times the key can be obtained from one of the nearby houses).

* Since writing this the larger of the two trapdoors can now be lifted revealing a sarsen beneath. There is also a sarsen under the north-east buttress. See also The Church of St Peter’s, Clyffe Pypard, Wiltshire England.

Sarsen under north-east buttress
©
Littlestone

Roman relief of Aesculpius embedded in the south wall of the Church of St Giles, Tockenham, Wiltshire, England
©
Littlestone
 

Several miles north of Clyffe Pypard, at Tockenham in Wiltshire, England, lies the little Church of St Giles. Writing on her blog, North Stoke, Thelma Wilcox says –

This church is not of notable interest, but the reused Roman statue embedded in the wall probably came from the Roman villa nearby. “Roman tesserae, tile fragments and pottery sherds were found at Tockenham and a possible villa was suggested. The site has been subject to investigation by the Time Team in 1994 and was confirmed as being a villa with associated structures, probably dating from the 2nd to 4th centuries. Finds from the excavations have included pottery, tesserae, window glass fragments and roofing tile. Scheduled.” Taken from Pastscape Monument No.887838.

“The Rod of Asclepius symbolizes the healing arts by combining the serpent, which in shedding its skin is a symbol of rebirth and fertility with the staff, a symbol of authority, befitting the god of Medicine. The snake wrapped around the staff is widely claimed to be a species of rat snake, Elaphe longissima, also known as the Aesculapian (Asclepian) snake. It is native to south-eastern Europe, Asia Minor and some central European spa regions, apparently brought there by Romans for their healing properties.” Taken from Wikipedia.

The snake wrapped round Aesculpius’s rod is a single snake and not to be confused with Mercury’s double snakes. There are also wooden posts embedded in the south wall of the church – Pevesner says, that inside, the bell-turrets stand on old posts, and that they are flanked by new timber-framed work.

More on Clyffe Pypard and Nikolaus Pevsner here.

A guest feature by Littlestone.

The Church of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard
Image © Littlestone

John Aubrey (1626-1697) visited Clyffe Pypard in, or around, 1660 – some twelve years after his visit to Avebury where he records being, “…wonderfully surprised at the site of these vast stones, of which I had never heard before, as also the mighty bank and graffe (grass) about it.” At Clyffe Pypard he describes the Church of St Peter as, “Here is a handsome Church, and have been very good windowes.”

While the tower, nave, aisles and porch of the Church of St Peter were built in the 15th century there remains some 14th century stonework in the south porch. Further study may show that the Norman church was built on the foundations of an earlier Saxon one and, as at other subsumed (Christianised) sites, the Saxon church may have been built on a pre-Christian structure. Six of the buttresses have sarsen stones under them, only one of which has been cut to the shape of the buttress. The other five sarsens, one of which is very large, are left protruding as they do under the buttresses of the Church of St James, Avebury; the Church of St Katherine and St Peter, Winterbourne Bassett and the Church of St John the Baptist, Pewsey.

Sarsen under one of the south-facing buttresses of the Church of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard
Image © Littlestone

The Church of St Peter is situated at the bottom of a steep escarpment and is set in a well-cared for graveyard surrounded by trees.* There is a distinct air of a ‘grove’ about the place which is reminiscent of the grove, and its disordered sarsens, by the river close to Pewsey Church. The leafy and sarsen-paved footpath that leads east past the church comes out on a secluded meadow with a magnificent tree at its centre. Nearby is a stream and lake. Nikolaus Pevsner, art and architectural historian and author of The Buildings of England, is buried with his wife at a place between the lake and the church – their grave is marked by a headstone of slate.

Nikolaus and Lola Pevsner’s headstone
Image © Littlestone

About a mile from Clyffe Pypard, towards Broad Town and close to Little Town Farmhouse, is the cottage which Pevsner used as a country retreat. The cottage was formerly the home of the poet and literary critic Geoffrey Grigson, whose friends included Paul Nash and John Piper. Nash and Piper between them produced numerous paintings of Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow, Stonehenge and other megalithic structures.**

* The ‘Clyffe’ of Clyffe Pypard refers to the adjacent escarpment. ‘Pypard’ refers to Richard Pypard who was Lord of the Manor in 1231.

** Geoffrey Grigson’s 1960s guide to touring the countryside (The Shell Country Alphabet) has been republished (see The Guardian article here).

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