Simon Doubleday November 18, 2015

Kilpeck

The man in the poetry bookshop told us: “Kilpeck is so difficult to find, they missed it when they were writing Domesday Book”. A Herefordshire village so obscure that it escaped the clutches of William the Conqueror was worth hunting down. It took us a while to find it, and a while longer to discover that in fact Domesday Book states the Conqueror granted Kilpeck to William fitz Norman in 1086. But the story hid a deeper truth.

A black cat ushers us into the twelfth-century church. Up and down the columns of the south door, stone snakes writhe; arching over the door is a bizarre menagerie—a basilisk, a lion, a man-eating mantichore. Here, in Kilpeck Church, a Green Man stands guard. A serpentine monster flicks out its tongue at the tree branches that brush against the west end. Among the corbels, a wide-eyed, open-legged Sheela-Na-Gig flashes us; a Disneyesque dog and rabbit keep each other company; an almost extraterrestrial Martian musician plays a stringed instrument with a bow that could almost be a sword.

Kilpeck is wonderful in its strangeness. Once within the independent Welsh border kingdom of Ergyng (“Archenfield” to the English), its church was so deeply immersed in Celtic culture that it almost escaped the confines of the Anglo-Norman regime. It escapes us too, hinting at how much we mis-imagine when we think about the medieval past. The Church at Kilpeck rattles the bars of the cell in which we place that past, and its many meanings slip away.