The height of the mason's art: The 12th-century Church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck
When I was a small boy my father would drive me around the eastern counties looking at churches. This was principally for his amusement rather than mine — and there was nothing wrong with that, since children should learn early on that the world does not revolve around them — but I quickly learned various important things. I grasped much about the sweep of history, seeing nearly a thousand years of village life captured in one church after another through brasses, tombs, plaques and stained glass. I learned that, in East Anglia in those days at least, where there was a church there was, nine times out of ten, a pub (though this might have had something to do with the selection my father made). And, with repulsive precocity, I could by about the age of seven distinguish Perpendicular from Decorated, and echt Early English from its Victorian imitations.
But the style that held the most fascination for me, then as now, was Norman, or Romanesque. I was captivated by its sheer antiquity, its scale — the Normans did nothing by halves — and by the comparative crudity of its ornament. Many years after these travels with my father I went for a couple of days round some ostensibly Norman churches on the Sussex Downs with Enoch Powell, and it was in that excursion that my A-level command of Romanesque was elevated to degree status. Powell had known these churches since the 1940s, when his parents had retired to the Sussex coast, and had formed a thesis about them. What Pevsner (or rather Ian Nairn, who wrote that volume) had described as Norman churches were, he argued, nothing of the sort.
The Powell thesis was that these churches were all Saxon, from the ninth to the early 11th centuries. When the conqueror had arrived, he had decided that he would impose his will and the finality of his conquest on his subject people by obliterating, so far as possible, all traces of their culture. So he took Saxon churches such as those on the Downs and made them Norman. Triangular arches over chancels, or going in to bell-towers, or over niches were made semicircular, with Norman ornaments such as lozenge, zig-zag or dog-tooth carved upon them. Square or oblong capitals were recarved as cushions; the columns supporting them were reinforced as circular. By the time the conqueror's men had finished the church would look, to all intents and purposes, as though it was one of theirs. They had, in fact, vandalised it: and Powell, as he leafed through Pevsner, tut-tutted that the obvious signs of this assault had not been spotted. The main clue was given in the sheer proportions of the Saxon church: dizzyingly high towers and walls of a sort the Normans did not build. Almost as obvious, high in the walls, was the evidence, over 900 years later, of where the earlier triangular arches had been, before being filled in or altered.
I suppose this should have put me off the Normans: but I am afraid nothing could cool my enthusiasm for their work. After all, they were not just vandals. England is littered with magnificent Norman work (and not just in churches and cathedrals: there are their castles too) that they really did create, rather than steal from somebody else and bastardise. To my shame, I had not realised that there was a repository of Norman culture in England that is so far unexplored by me: Herefordshire. My education was furthered by the arrival of the new, and quite magnificent, edition of the Buildings of England volume for the county (Yale, £35), in which Alan Brooks has revised and greatly expanded upon the work that Pevsner himself did in the county more than half a century ago.