The enduring lure of dressed blocks of stone

My first real love in medieval history and archaeology was ecclesiastical architecture. Time has passed and my tastes have shifted, to the point where I found it a little tricky to do justice to my reinterpretation of the early fabric of the church at Thursley (leading me into a spot of bother with one stuffy local historian), although my recent presentations on the churches of St Nicholas, Compton and St Martha’s have got me most of the way back to mental match fitness. Nevertheless, I have continued to see churches as much more than just a nave, a chancel and assorted other elements. What I love about them is encapsulated by Betjeman’s description of them as (and excuse me if I’m paraphrasing here) “England’s history wrought in glass, wood and stone”. One often-encountered, though easily-missed, embodiment of this is graffiti carved on the many stone, wooden or even glass surfaces found in them.

It was my visit to Winchester Cathedral last summer that first got me thinking about graffiti in ecclesiastical settings and the extent to which it contributes to – or detracts from – the historic patina of the buildings. Consider the following, Exhibit A if you like, which is somewhere at the eastern end of the cathedral:

Kids these days, eh? No respect for anything etc. etc. Well, perhaps you’d care to suspend judgement until you consider Exhibit B from very close by:

The works of Mel + Sam and the young (or maybe not so young?) Nicko may have been created 244 years apart, but the results are essentially the same and can hardly be said to mark a decline in moral standards – nor in the quality of the lettering of impromptu name carvings. Both add an additional facet to the architectural and social history of the cathedral, whose origins and purposes are inscrutable to a day tripper like me but which might be found through careful research.

Recent years have seen the spotlight turned on church graffiti (and that can be read in a literal sense) for the extraordinarily rich testimony it provides about the religious and secular activities/interests of both laity and clergy alike. Inspired by the hugely successful Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, Surrey’s churches are being visited and recorded by the Surrey Medieval Graffiti Survey. Though its name may echo that of this here site, the SMGS is entirely unconnected to it, being the brainchild of Richard Neville, who gave a fascinating introductory talk on the project to the SyAS Medieval Studies Forum in late 2011. Things have progressed apace since then, with full or partial surveys conducted and reported at 17 churches as of mid-April 2013. What follows is not an attempt to steal a march on the SMGS by formally reporting graffiti from another Surrey church, rather to set down some thoughts on certain amateur “embellishments” to a part of one such building which fall within and outside of the stated temporal scope of the survey (that is, all graffiti of demonstrable or probable pre-1945 date).

Crosses, caricatures and the initials of persons forgotten – the western jamb of the south doorway of Peper Harow church

Yesterday, taking advantage of a glorious and near-cloudless spring day, I walked from home into Godalming. On the way, I passed through Peper Harow. I’ve written about the restoration and reopening of its church following a serious fire before but hadn’t been inside the church since then. Sadly/inevitably, the door was locked, but that gave me the chance to take a closer look at the south doorway. It’s the oldest surviving part of the church, a smallish portal formed of dressed blocks of clunch chalk and a smaller amount of local sandstone. On the basis of its plain design, the portal probably dates from the middle decades of the twelfth century when the first (stone) church was built. More to the point, it is covered in graffiti. I think I had spotted or at least read about the circular scratch dial on the east jamb of the doorway previously. As you can see from the photo below, it was very crudely realised, clearly without the use of a pair of dividers, making me wonder whether the concentric semicircles incised into the block below was commenced as a slightly more accomplished replacement – one that was aborted for some reason. (The SMGS website has an excellent discussion of why there are so many divider-drawn circular graffiti to be found in churches.)

Smaller in size but larger in number are crosses, which are to be found predominantly on the insides of the jambs rather than the “outward”, i.e. southward facing, surfaces of the constituent blocks. The presumption is that these are medieval (and pre-Reformation?) in origin but otherwise they are hard to date with any great exactitude. There are a couple of faint examples on the northern jamb of the fifteenth-century tower arch at Puttenham, though these are of a different design to the Peper Harow examples. It is interesting to note that they differ from the cross pommée, the types the SMGS adjudges to be the most common design in Surrey (they look more like the crux potent, if this extensive typology of heraldic crosses is anything to go by). Indeed, it might be noted that their design is not all that different to the letters and numerals of the earliest dated bit of graffiti on the doorway, an enigmatic inscription “I S 1731” contained within a quadrilateral border. Could some of the crosses be the products of “folk” religious practices which lingered into the eighteenth century?

From the above there’s a considerable leap forward in time to the twentieth century and the graffiti that really captured my imagination. Two bits, one on each side of the doorway, are dated 1944; both appear to be the work of one W (B) Wood. According to the brilliant village website, Peper Harow House was used during the Second World War as the headquarters for the Royal Canadian Ordinance Corps – there’s a photo on the showing vehicles of the lined up on the parkland around the village ahead of D Day in June 1944. Did one of their number, having remained behind after the Normandy landings, decide to mark his presence at Peper Harow by carving his initials on the doorway, perhaps on the day of his departure so as to avoid any repercussions from committing an act of vandalism?

1944 was also the year in which the Peper Harow estate was broken up and sold at auction following the death of Earl Middleton. This led to the establishment of an approved school in the mansion a few years later, which was succeeded in 1970 by a noted juvenile therapeutic community founded by Melvyn Rose (a large part of my very early years were spent in Peper Harow, playing with friends from the local Playgroup whose parents worked in the community). The latter lasted until 1993, when it was closed following a fire started by one of the children, after which the mansion house was bought by a developer and converted into apartments. Grafitti on the doorway provide valuable reminders of the former existence of both educational institutions. A number include dates, mostly only a particular year, but in one wonderful case the dates of when a certain P. Maxwell came and left Peper Harow are given. Scarcely any less remarkable are the pencil-written graffiti which have survived erasure by rubber or whitewash, in one case since 1951 (see photo above).

However innocent and charming the more modern graffiti may appear, it should not be forgotten that they are reminders of very troubled young lives. It is perhaps for this reason that at least one of the larger inscriptions, made on the western impost of the door arch, has been filled in with what looks like Polyfilla and now is all but illegible. (Less defensible is the separate decision to fill the gnomon hole of the medieval scratch dial with mortar.)

Peper Harow filling in

It is fascinating to ruminate on the way(s) in which the graffiti which has been suffered to remain possesses an agency to invite others to scratch their names and so forth onto the surface of the stone (most exotically a 1977 visitor from Poland, and most recently in 2011, quite possibly when the church was still being restored after the 2007 fire). I would never dream of adding my name or initials to the fabric of an historic building (or any building for that matter) and, contradictory as it might seem in light of the above, I do not condone anyone doing so. However, for a multitude of different reasons, some individuals choose to leave their mark in this way. There is a certain irony that the graffiti left on the doorway at Peper Harow, whether they bespeak of a lingering or fleeting connection with the place, will almost certainly outlive these words you are reading. From the twelfth century to the twenty-first, there’s something enormously satisfying about what the south doorway at Peper Harow bears witness to. With the church having been given a new lease of life, here’s hoping it continues to act as an unofficial, material social history of the church, its village and parish.

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Architecture, Art, Church, graffiti, History, Peper Harow, Place and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The enduring lure of dressed blocks of stone

  1. Pingback: Mapping the Medieval Countryside | Surrey Medieval

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