Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Duntisbourne Rouse, Gloucestershire
Backward glance (4): On the green hill
Another backward glance, and another building that left a lasting impression...
It's not far from the A417 (formerly the Roman Ermin Street) that roars its way between Gloucester and Cirencester, but you could be in another world. You drive along a remote lane past dry-stone walls and sloping sheep pastures. Here and there a still narrower lane branches off to a farm or a couple of houses, but there is little hint of a community that might support a church, indeed little hint of a church, if you miss the discreet sign and gateway. But for those who see the sign and stop, there’s something very special. A path of grass, the quietest of approaches, leads down to the church, and as you gasp at the tiny tower, you realise that the land slopes steeply away towards one of the streams that cuts its way into the limestone hereabouts. You make a sharp right turn after the second gate at the end of the grass path, and take in the way this little building clings to the slope.
The walls have fragments of herringbone masonry – the angled arrangement of stones favoured by the Saxons – suggesting that this building was put up before the Norman conquest. The minute round-headed window in the chancel may well be Saxon, whereas the two slightly larger, taller lancets to the right of the porch were cut into the existing wall in the 13th century. The Saxon builders took advantage of the slope to build a tiny barrel-vaulted crypt beneath the chancel, and a later generation, probably in the 12th century, decorated the walls of that chancel with a simple pattern resembling masonry blocks, semicircular arches, and stylized flowers.
The porch and tiny tower are later though. The tower actually bears an inscription telling us that it was built in 1587 by a mason called John Haden. It’s unusual for a church of this date to bear the name of its mason, and this is a far cry from the grander architect-designed “signed” buildings of later centuries. Part of the satisfaction of this place, indeed, comes form its very modesty and simplicity. And continuity. The idea that people have been coming hear for maybe 900 years to worship on the slope of the green hill, or to contemplate the cutting of stone and the passing of time.
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These reprises are partly about my personal responses to buildings when I first came upon them. From this point of view Duntisbourne Rouse is important to me as one of the very first parish churches I looked more than casually. It showed me how a humble building, low on architectural pretension, could still be aesthetically satisfying; that buildings (especially when as old as this one) are made up of historical layers – they are historical palimpsests, if you like, that repay attempts to read them; that site can be a major contributor to the form and effect of a building; and that it is worth peering through holes in hedges.
Buildings like this also taught me lessons about atmosphere. Take time in a place, listen to what it is saying, absorb the scenery and the texture of the stone – then its atmosphere, and something of its history, will become clearer. Listen to the locals, too. On one early visit, at dusk in summer, I think, flies were still active at the end of the warm day, their wings caught by the dipping light of the sun. A young man could be discerned, raking grass clippings, in a corner of the churchyard. I and my female companion talked to him about the place, his liking for it, and his coming time at university (to read Geography, I think – I recall first hearing the phrase 'historical geog' on his lips). The memory is faint now, but I remember his pale figure and old-fashioned clothes. Perhaps it was these clothes (Did he wear gaiters? Or even plus fours?) and the fact that he seemed engaged in an unlikely gap-year occupation that made the encounter somehow intangibly odd. Later, I said to my companion that in the greying dusk among the shadows of grave stones and crosses and trees he seemed like a ghost. Naturally, she laughed, scornfully.