The Parson and the Publican in St Mary and St David's and The Kilpeck Inn, Kilpeck

PUBLISHED: 10:57 23 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:04 20 February 2013

The Parson and the Publican in St Mary and St David's and The Kilpeck Inn, Kilpeck

The Parson and the Publican in St Mary and St David's and The Kilpeck Inn, Kilpeck

The Parson and The Publican are The Reverend Ian Charlesworth, writer and driver and Richard Stockton, writer, watercolourist, navigator and mobile phone refusenik


We are standing in the churchyard of St Mary and St David's, Kilpeck, and the Publican is running his finger along some deep grooves in the stonework of the southwest corner of the church. These grooves, the guidebook tells us, were made by the sharpening of swords, the lower, shorter ones by arrows. Those few strokes draw as clear a picture of past lives lived here as ever the writer could hope to evoke.

It might seem odd, surrounded as we are by what is considered by many to be the finest gallery of eleventh century carvings, to go all misty eyed over some grooves in the wall but misty-eyed oddity has never worried either of us. Indeed a day out with the Old Licensed Victualler is bound to include at least one of these things, and there is something about the immediacy of these markings that gives the sense that here were people just like us.

A complete circuit of the outside of the church shows us representations of many aspects of their lives. Here are the things they recalled from the special days when the fair came to town: the wrestlers, the animals. Here are tales of fable and foreign parts. Here are reminders of familiar Bible stories. As they loitered in the churchyard, those for whom this church was built would have been informed and entertained. The south door also contains fabulous beasts and wonderful carving. Arching around the top of the doorframe is, amongst other things, a manticore a human head, full of sharp teeth on a lion's body with a scorpions tale that would lure men with a Siren's song before devouring their flesh. It is like a trip through one of Harry Potter's textbooks. Far from being in the back of beyond, as we might think it now, the church was built by well-travelled men. Here are to be found travellers' tales caught in stone. Hints of pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela, reminders of the Viking heritage of the Normans, ancient Celtic beliefs, southern European styles influenced by contact with the exotic east. I make a joke about it being no Occident that these men are here but the OLV is already through the door.

The nave with its whitewashed walls, pews, gallery and pulpit feels familiar in a way that the riot of carving outsidewas not. The chancel arch though, has figures carved on either side. Not soldiers this time but priests and saints, elongated with prominent anklebones and large eyes. As the stone soldiers guard the entrance where once their fleshly counterparts dawdled so these saints mark the entrance to the holy place where their successors have led the people in worship for nigh on a thousand years. The sacred heart of this place is encompassed in the apse, once a common feature now a rare survival. Over the altar, cat faces pour out the water of life to form the ribs of the vault.

However, the star of the show for me sits at the foot of the chancel arch. Apparently not original to the church but very much in keeping with it this carved stoup would once have stood by the door into the church. As they entered the church, the faithful would have used the Holy Water contained therein to make the sign of the cross. This stoup is fashioned as a pregnant belly with protective hands clasped across the front. Large and rounded it rests on serpent feet. Now this is where the problem started. I pointed this out to the OLV who isn't as green as he is cabbage looking, and who immediately replied that serpents don't have feet. Thus reprimanded I responded that it rested upon feet fashioned as serpents. All well and good he countered but why serpents? Surely snakes and pregnant women are a bad combination? Ah well, I said, and never one to miss a chance to bring a little light to his darkness, began to talk about the symbolism of snakes.

Kilpeck is a church that is loaded with symbolism. In many cases it is a vocabulary lost to us but in this instance we could hazard a guess at a number of layers of meaning. As God casts Adam ad Eve out of Eden an enmity is established between the serpent and mankind. As the instigator of the Fall, the serpent was the sign of sin. Crushed under the stoup, sin is seen to be defeated. As a creature that sloughed its skin annually, the snake was a symbol of rebirth. The pregnant belly and clasped hands are clear signs of the place of birth and the protection offered therein. So as they came into church people would have been reminded of their baptism, their death to sin, their rebirth to eternal life and the care of God. They would have remembered the story of Adam and Eve, also represented in the stones outside, and some of things that Jesus had to say about the water of life.

This church is a sermon in stone, a record of travellers tales, a picture book of village life, a glimpse of the past that reminds us we are not to so very different. All good thoughts that leave us ready to tackle the deepest profundities of the bar parlour.

Contrary to the recent slur made against us in these glossy pages, regarding our lack of cardio-vascular exercise, my old chum the Parson and I walked from the Kilpeck Inn to the church. Not by any stretch of the imagination an Olympian event, but perambulate we did.

A considerable investment has blessed the Kilpeck Inn, which in its keenness to be greenest now boasts of wood pellet-propelled under floor heating and toilets sluiced with gentle rainwater which, due to exercise and the impending pint of the pippin juice, I have to visit. The nature of the place where the call of nature is answered says a lot about any establishment and here it says spotless, minimalist, dare I say, verging on the clinical. Ner a picture graces the wall, just highly polished dark slate amidst white tile and brushed stainless steel hand drier. However, set in a frame on the wall in the lobby is a fine collection of saucy postcards and rules to rather vulgar competitions, which ensures most exit with a smile on their face.

We take our pints and as predictable as we are, veer towards the table nearest the wood burning stove. This I assume would have been the snug in the days when it was the Red Lion, colourfully recalled by renovated inn signs hung on the walls. There is a warren of glistening alcoves and unexpected spaces. In some polished tables are laid up for lunch with sparkling glasses, in others squidgy sofas, side tables and papers.

The rude postcards, found during renovations, remind us of the days when they were part of the community life of the local. Weve heard from Jonnie, the landlord would say as the lunchtime school assembled. There would be a general murmur of interest. One of their number was absent, spending his hard-earned dosh on the annual fortnight, putting up the deck chairs on the windy beach in Bournemouth, filling the kids with ice cream and crisps and sneaking off to the Mermaid and Dolphin, whenever she was settled into making sandcastles. I would retrieve the card from the shelf behind the optics along with the curling, red Best in Show cards and pass it around:
Lousy weather hes having.
Traffic jams on the bypass.
Found a pub with good cheap beer, unlike here.
Yes, and the landlords cheerful and buys his locals one. Laughter all round as the card is replaced until someone else calls for it.
Thoughts of the 1970s must have inspired my choice and I attack a half pint of shell on Atlantic prawns, homemade mayonnaise and toasted bread. The toast is warm and crisp but the prawns are cold and soggy. My old chum is a bit of an expert on chicken liver pate, making a pretty good one himself and what is set before him today on the olive wood board is a poor attempt. It is cold and runny; we can only assume that it is out of the freezer.

The waitress arrives saddled with large white plates. What a difference a course makes. The ecclesiastical head nods in contended silence at my enquiry.His chargrilled rib eye is perfect. I have chosen the sauted mushrooms, spinach, sun blushed tomatoes on toasted olive bread, which is well seasoned and full of flavour.

We are just enjoying our coffee when the parson tinkles, jumps up and clamps a little box to his ear. How odd thinks I. Who could have his number? I am not even sure the Boss has it. Greater surprise, its for me. Puzzled I take the contraption and wonder who on earth has tracked me down and why I am speaking to a plastic box no bigger than a 20 Woodbine fag packet?

There is a family crisis; I am needed NOW. Why does it have to be so immediate? What can I do now that couldn't wait a little while? The curse of these things that see everyone on call and checking to see every three minutes who wants them. It makes little difference; he might have had it on but the charge is low and there is little credit on the phone so I can do nothing. I knew the parson wouldn't let me down.

Upon my return, the dogs still greet me with wagging tails, the cat mews for milk and the kettle boils for tea; there is just a problem to solve. It hasn't got any worse for the want of an hour or two but later as the cork comes out of the bottle there is delivered a recurring gripe from senior management, which is not unexpected.

I do wish you would have a mobile phone. What would happen if something happened while you were in the garden? I can think of no finer place to be when the time comes to be reeled in. Listening to the bees amongst the flower borders, the ravens croaking and buzzards mewling high above the whispering poplars. My old chum the Parson on hand to administer last rites would be a bonus, but he knows the order of service... he has it in writing.

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