A day in the life of a grave-hunter (lighthearted!)

Easter Monday, very promising weather forecast, so why not go out grave-hunting?  We studied the map and drew out a rough sketch of the route for the target churches for the day, made some sandwiches, and two bottles of orange squash, found a chocolate bar and bag of crisps each and set out at 8.20 a.m.

As usual Martin drove to the first church of the day, which was 43 miles from home (we have already visited all the churches closer to home, so it is over an hour’s drive now to find the first “new” church).  This one was at Hampton Bishop, just east of the city of Hereford.  For our non-British speakers of English, Hereford is pronounced “Herry-fud”, not “Her-ford” or “Hear-ford”.  The grass was still very wet, so we were glad of our Wellington boots.  This church was begun in the twelfth century, and has been added to over the succeeding centuries.

The next three churches were all within a circle of diameter about two miles.  Unusually, there was another couple visiting a family grave at the first one at Fownhope – often we visit churches all day and hardly see another soul at them.  This church had its porch on the north side instead of the more usual south side. The next one at Brockhampton was a surprise because it was thatched, which is extremely unusual.  It was only just over 100 years old, having been consecrated in 1902.  We also met other visitors at this church.

The approach to the fourth church was down a lane with grass growing in the middle – a good clue to how isolated it was.  There was a farm and two houses near it, and we were spotted by a distant large black dog which announced our arrival to its owners by barking at us.

We did well for animals on this trip.  We earlier heard a woodpecker hammering on a tree, saw some rabbits, and passed a dead badger on the road.  The church at How Caple was memorable for some really handsome cattle with very long horns in the adjacent field.  It was nice to see an unusual breed, and we were also greeted by the screeches of peacocks nearby.  One sounded overhead – peering up into the big conifer near the church entrance revealed a white peacock complete with enormous tail feathers.  It would have been lovely to see it close up on the ground.  This church also had the “memorial plaque of the day”.  It referred to a man who had been killed in 1921 while a prisoner as a reprisal by Sinn Fein, the Northern Ireland political group who fought for many years for independence.

The time was approaching noon, and Martin was ready for his lunch.  We surveyed Yatton churchyard, and tried the church door handle, but this was the first church that was locked.  There was a bench at the end of the churchyard in a lovely peaceful spot with a good view, so we sat there for our lunch.  As we left another couple arrived who proved to be the parents of the young man whose grave we had admired in front of the bench as we ate our lunch.  They pointed out their house about half a mile away, and said that they had chosen their son’s resting place so that they could see it from their home.

Much Marcle church proved to be the “grandest” of the day.  The big yew tree in the churchyard is apparently over 1500 years old, and has a hollow trunk inside which seats have been fitted.  Inside the church were some spectacular tombs.  There was a wooden effigy of a landowner dated 1360.  His legs were crossed indicating the reputation he had earned among his relatives for the piety of his life.  There is only one other cross-legged effigy of a civilian in Herefordshire, the other is at Clifford near Hay-on-Wye.  There was also a splendid alabaster tomb of Sir John Kyrle and his wife, who died in 1660 and 1637.  The quality of the carving of their elaborate costumes, and of their curled hair was remarkable.   

On this trip we had our book about the stained glass windows created by the Kempe studios in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Much Marcle church had six windows by this studio, which we could identify with the aid of our book – we surprise ourselves with what we have learned since we began our graveyard surveys.  Do you all know about piscinas, sedilas, sheela-na-gigs and baldacinos? 

When we arrived at the last-but-one church of the day we thought that there must be an event in progress because there were about six other cars parked in the lane outside.  This was St Mary’s church at Kempley, just over the county border in Gloucestershire.  The church was begun by the Normans in 1130, and the reason for the “crowds” was the stunning old wall paintings inside the church.  We have learned to recognise Norman arches over doorways by their zig-zag carvings. At this church the original paint colours on the archways were still obvious.  The decoration must have been spectacular when it was new. 

There was one more church in Herefordshire on our way home, at Storridge. We did not find any gravestones of interest at this church, but over the course of the day we took about 50 photographs which will find their way onto our website www.grave-mistakes.info.  One of the exterior church views might well be selected as the cover picture when we compile our next book on “Gravestones of Herefordshire”, the companion one to our recent book on the “Gravestones of Shropshire”. 

Claire did most of the driving between the churches while Martin did an admirable job of navigating along the country lanes.  We then shared the return drive, making a total of about 126 miles before reaching home at 4.45 p.m.  A lovely and successful day out.  Judging by the number of other people we met, church-visiting on a lovely day is popular, but we are probably the only ones who look at the gravestones as well as the church itself. 

Tally for the day:
9 churchyards surveyed.
7 churchyards with gravestones of interest to photograph.
20 gravestones photographed.
16 plaques, memorials or monuments inside churches photographed.
8 stained glass windows photographed.
126 miles driven.

Nearly 8 hours away from home.