Friday, May 16, 2008

Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

With its green hills, apple orchards, and unspoilt villages, Herefordshire is what a lot of us think of as typical England. How surprising, then, to come across the parish church of Hoarwithy, its Romanesque belfry clinging to the hilltop like a North Italian campanile. This wonderful landmark, a reworking and expansion of an earlier church, was designed by J P Seddon in the 1870s, and a visit is a succession of revelatory experiences through spaces and past works of art that are like little else in the history of the English country church.

You enter up a sloping path towards the bell tower, entering through the round-headed doorway. This leads through the base of the tower into a cloister walk that runs along one side of the church, its arches offering shelter from the rain, shade from the sunshine, and occasional views of the churchyard and the green landscape beyond. The arches are supported on twin shafts, like cloister arches in Italy or France, and have carved sandstone capitals with intertwining abstract designs that are worthy of the 12th-century Herefordshire school of sculptors that created churches like Castle Frome or Kilpeck. Beyond is the doorway through which you enter the church proper.Inside the eye is led eastwards past rows of windows and pews to a quartet of columns supporting a small dome. Here the sculpture has an intricacy that takes us south again – but this time to Constantinople or Ravenna, where the churches of the Byzantine empire have just such delicate carving.

At the visual climax, in a semi-dome above the altar, is a mosaic of Christ Pantokrator – again, just what you would expect to see in a Byzantine church. The hand of God reaches down from the clouds and the sunlight catches the golden tesserae of the mosaic, as Seddon, and the Byzantine builders who inspired him, intended. Hoarwithy contains many other delights – carved stalls, a pulpit like one at Fiesole, Venetian hanging lamps. Altogether, this is a magical place, a testimony to Seddon’s vision, the skills of the craftsmen, local and from further afield, who built it, and the capacity of the English landscape to accommodate happily a building that is in many ways so foreign.

1 comment:

Peter Ashley said...

In the incredibly hot summer of 1976, with its parched fields and skies of the deepest blue, Michael Winner shot Italian scenes for his film The Sentinel here.