The Parson and The Publican: Charming churches and interesting inns

PUBLISHED: 11:45 10 October 2013 | UPDATED: 11:49 10 October 2013

The Church of St Catherine, Hoarwithy

The Church of St Catherine, Hoarwithy


Our men on a mission to seek out charming churches and interesting inns

In the words of The Parson:

All churches have a tale to tell of the lives of those who have worshipped there in generations past. Sometimes it is a long tale marked by glorious examples of craftsmen’s art.

Sometimes it is a shorter tale with little remarkable about it. For those who know where to look there are also the tell tale signs of a more recent struggle fought in these churches – the struggle to stay warm. It is a battle oft lost as my chum the Publican will attest.

Now, I am no expert but it seems to me that our medieval ancestors were a significantly hardier bunch than we are for I can see no sign that they ever gave a thought to heating their churches. Indeed it is not really until the 19th century that such an idea seems to have occurred to anyone other than the very wealthy whose family pews occasionally contained fireplaces.

From the 19th century heating pipes, vents and grilles began to litter churches. Where they have been removed it often looks like large mice have been gnawing the wood work. Every step along the aisle seems to bring forth a clunk that threatens to deposit one unceremoniously in the channel below and, unless carpeted, can lead to those never to be forgotten moments when a bride’s heel gets caught in the grating or the rings slip from the satin cushion to disappear into the depths.

If not on the floor then the roof often betrays the secret of a stove long gone with chunks removed from beams to accommodate the flue. Marks on the stone work in dark corners outside churches tell of boiler houses pulled down to prevent the damp from coming through the wall. In vestries, fireplaces, once lovingly tended by maids from the Rectory next door lest the Parson should catch a chill before Divine Service, are filled with the safe, the chimney now the preserve of jackdaws. No longer does the crunch of coke in the aisle betoken the verger’s progress from bunker to tortoise stove. If one is lucky then the electric fires will have been put on an hour before the service but sitting, as they do, 20 feet up the wall their efficiency has to be called into question.

It is January and the Publican is feeling the cold. I tell him that after years spent in cellars “just changing the barrel” he should be used to it. We are climbing the slope to the Church of St Catherine, Hoarwithy. A warming exercise. It is one of those beautifully clear blue days that one sometimes gets in January and looking up as we ascend it feels as though our backs should be warmed by the suns of Italy rather than braced by a cold wind off the River Wye. A campanile guards the approach and we are lured through the shadow dark portals by the enticing prospect of the sunlit loggia beyond. The double ranks of pillars that march down the length of the walk are each topped with various Romanesque carvings many worn but each full of life as animals, coils, and intricate patterns leap from one capital to another. As we walk the mosaic pavement is alternate light and shade. In the summer it must be very pleasant to linger here on the benches and soak up the warmth whilst thoughts of long Italian lunches play on the taste buds of memory. On a day such as this we do not linger. Sunny it might be, warm it is not. The colonnade turns at right angles and we enter through another beautifully decorated arch into an enclosed porch that runs the width of the church. Out of the sun it is cooler but at least with the door shut we are out of the biting wind and so we pause to take in the usual range of leaflets of life in the diocese and further afield, notices of local events, postcards and a guidebook.

Double doors are pushed open and we are taken from the banks of the River Wye to the shores of the Adriatic.

Below left Altar piece at St Catherine’s wood that meets the eye. All this is concentrated in the sanctuary where Cornish marble columns support the domed roof over the marble altar which is vibrant with blue lapis lazuli inlays, a great golden cross of tiger eye winking in the middle. Over all a mosaic of Christ presides, created by the Italian artists who enriched St Paul’s Cathedral with the same style of mosaic, each piece laid at a slightly different angle to reflect the light.

The nave of the church is a simple white box with high windows on the south side and large, plain windows on the north letting the light flood in while the west end has serried ranks of saints and patriarchs depicted in stained glass. We pause to try to work out who they all are by the symbols they hold. Noah is easy; we think it is Adam but it does look like he is carrying a rather fancy guitar until we decide it is probably a heavily decorated spade. However the chill starts to seep in. I discover that the church, when finished

in 1904, was heated by the ancient Roman method of under floor heating – hypocaust. The old licensed victualler thinks that hypothermia’ is more likely. I try to point out to him that this is unlikely given the antifreeze properties of cheap alcohol and the quantity of it in his bloodstream but he is not persuaded and heads for the car. He seems still to be out of sorts when I ask if he would mind breathing on the windscreen to de-ice his side. So in the hope of facilitating a warming of the cold shoulder sitting next to me I head for the Cottage of Content at Carey.

In the words of The Publican:

No hypocaust here, simply the open crackling fire upon its irons surrounded by flagstones. Richard and Helen Moore are now the owners of The Cottage of Content, a delightful name for what was once three farm workers’ cottages dating from the late 1400s with one room set aside for a cider and ale parlour. The bar is light wood clad with high stools upon which to perch and white fairy lights festooning the shelves of bottles. Collecting our pints of local cloudy Broom Farm Perry we sit at a scrubbed pine table with slate place settings which seem as ubiquitous as white soup dishes these days. We take in the low, hop-festooned beams and interesting patterns of stone flags and quarry tiles unchanged since the days when the small areas signified the tiny rooms of the original cottages.

Whilst my clerical companion waxes lyrical about the rustic door and latch my mind wanders to a summer’s day of long ago when a past incumbent of the Cottage of Content crossed my threshold for the first time. “How is it that as soon as certain coves lift the creaking latch and walk through the parlour door you instantly know that you are going to like them?” I interrupt the flow opposite to enquire. The old ecclesiastical brain cannot quite put his finger on it but certainly recognises the truth of what I say. Over time I got to know that fellow innkeeper well and I recall how miffed he was at only being judged the second rudest landlord in Herefordshire when everyone knew he should have won the title hands down. He would arrive at odd hours of day or night, his dogs at heel and often accompanied by a glamorous girl whom he would introduce as “one of my nieces old chap.” Always generous with the champagne there was an open invitation to come to The Cottage. In many ways I regret that this is my first visit.

Chalk boards adorn mantle shelves and crevices heralding chocolate chip cookies and a double Gloucester cheese and ale pot with toasted soldiers. Someone enjoys being in the kitchen, we feel. Warming at last thanks to the glowing oak blocks in the grate we decide on the daily specials which are a choice of two starters and two mains. The old codger goes for the marinated olives with chunks of parmesan and warm ciabatta. He likes olives, I think it conjures up scenes of blue Aegean seas, the olive groves reaching down to white sandy coves that one day he may see when his daughters have married well and can support him in the style to which he will rapidly become accustomed. My plate of charcuterie is rather disappointing, slices fresh from the plastic packet perhaps, but the apple and fig chutney is excellent. It is, I feel, overpriced at £6.50. I know he enjoyed the slow roast lamb on bubble and squeak which followed as he tried to suck the marrow out of the bone whilst looking heavenwards, though for favour or forgiveness I know not. My roasted cured salmon fillet on a leek risotto was superb, with plenty of bite left in the rice.

The lady of the house kindly let us have a look around and we explored the spacious dining room with its dark oak tables and starched white napkins. A staircase went up from the centre of the room. “If that’s to the bedrooms,” I say to my old chum, “you wouldn’t be able to sneak off early with your beloved for an early night without your fellow diners having a nudge and a wink.” Which reminds me again of the late landlord and I ask after my old compatriot. The good lady gave us the sad news that he was indeed late and had been called to that tap room in the sky where no doubt he lounges with other rogues and vagabonds discussing stillaging, sparging, stout and Sauterne, looking lovingly on his dogs and remembering the finer attributes of his many nieces.


The Parson is The Reverend Ian Charlesworth, rector of five rural parishes centred on Llyswen in the Upper Wye Valley, co-writer and in the driving seat.

The Publican is Richard Stockton, formerly innkeeper of a local hostelry of some repute, co-writer and watercolourist.

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