Sunday, 25 March 2012

Kilpeck Church and Sheela Na Gig

Just outside Thomas Traherne’s Hereford, in the heart of the Welsh Marches, lies the tiny village of Kilpeck. You could miss it in a blink if you are driving into or out of Wales. However, the area known as the Welsh Marches is a strange and magical hinterland. Like many borderland areas, it is rich in its history and mythology. “The Battle of Evermore”, written and performed by Led Zeppelin and accompanied by Sandy Denny, truly captures the in-between nature of this part of Britain in a way that only few other artist have been able to. Cheltenham singer song-writer Johnny Coppin also managed to nail it with some of his music.

Kilpeck is perhaps best known for its 900 year-old church which hosts the world’s most famous Sheela Na Gig. While there is little evidence to support the view, for many Sheela Na Gig represents an aspect of the pagan goddess, in full control of sex and birth, unbridled by the controlling influence of Abrahamic patriarchy. This sheela, set high up on wall of the church at Kilpeck, is arguably the most famous sheela image, although there are a number of other interesting examples at Church Stretton, Tugford and Holdgate. Kilpeck’s Sheela Na Gig is usually the one talked about and used as a photograph. 

Interestingly, the name “Kilpeck” is thought to come from from Kil and the name of an early Christian hermit called Pedic. In terms of dedication, the church is given to Saints Mary and David. However, this David is not the patron saint of Wales but another more local Saint David that little seems to be known about.

Archaeologically, Kilpeck Church is intriguing in it’s own right irrespective of it’s Sheela Na Gig. As visitors approach the church they can’t help but be impressed by the ornately carved main doorway. The surrounding archway contains various beautiful elements of Saxon, Celtic and even a smattering of Viking art styles. For many it is lauded as the epitome of the Herefordshire school of sculpture.

Strangely, the church is built upon a seven-sided mound, indicating that the site was probably used in long before the current church building stood there. Around the top of outer wall of the church are 89 corbels ornately carved. The Sheela Na Gig is the 28th corbel on the church’s south facing side. Unfortunately some of the corbels were reputedly removed by an overly zealous Victorian women who felt that they were unbecoming for Christ’s church. However, that story should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, for, if it was true, why then did she leave the Sheela Na Gig intact? A local belief is that the image is not one of a pagan goddess or even a lecherous woman illustrating one of the mortal deadly sins, but rather that the image depicts a fool opening his heart to either Christ or the devil...depending who you listen to! I’m not sure I buy that one.


Many of the other corbels are of interest. Some depict monsters with human heads in their mouths while another depicts a man playing a musical instrument. Of particular note is an image of the Agnus Dei carrying a Maltese Cross. By itself, this worn down image is rather unremarkable, however, when seen in the wider context of the land surrounding it becomes far more interesting. The local area was Templar land. Nearby is Garway with its Templar dovecote with 666 holes. Indeed, Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, visited Garway in 1294, some 20 years before he was burned at the stake.   

If you are looking for an interesting day's excursion Kilpeck and Garway will certainly offer you an adventure.

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