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Pipe Aston

Dedication : St Giles            Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                             Principal Features : Norman carvings of “Hereford School”. Painted walls.

Tiny Pipe Aston Church serves a village of just 24 inhabitants. It is a two-cell church constructed in c12 and little changed since.

Its significance is that it has Romanesque carvings of the “Hereford School”. Whole books have been written on this subject, but it is a fact that Herefordshire has some of the finest Norman carving in England and that that the style is distinctive. The carvings at this church are definitely derivative from the Norman remains of Shobdon Church

The church has a quite remarkable painted interior. These are not paintings of saints and sinners but red flower motifs that look for all the world like mediaeval wallpaper. This is Norman decoration and far earlier than the elaborate wall paintings that we admire so much at places like Ickleton St Mary Magdalene (Cambs) and Corby Glen (Lincs) and which were designed to frighten the congregation!

The north doorway is the most significant feature. There is a wonderfully-preserved Norman tympanum. An “agnus dei” - lamb of God - is the centrepiece flanked by a winged eagle and a winged bull. In his book “The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture” (still in print and a “must-have for anyone interested in Romanesque architecture), Malcolm Thurlby describes the dragon as a “griffin”. The Church Guide, however, believes that it is the emblem of St John complementing the winged bull emblem of St Luke which has at the end of one of its forelegs a block that

 is assumed to be St Luke’s Gospel. I find the Church Guide’s theory much more convincing because the griffin is a traditional symbol of Jesus and I wonder if this would have been felt necessary when the centrepiece of the tympanum is itself a symbol of Christ? Still, it’s fun to speculate!

The left hand “impost” (which supports the tympanum, is decorated with a motif of intertwined dragons; the right hand one has a foliage design.Inside, the church is a simple one. Its main treasure is what looks like a stoup mounted on a column and which is used as a font! I took it to be a pillar piscina but close examination of the decoration proves that it is actually inverted. Thus it could not have been intended to hold water at all. One theory is that it was originally a base for a cross. Whatever, we do know that it was carved by the same man that was responsible for the rest of the church’s decoration. It has a lion’s head in profile. From the lion’s head and a double foliage stem emerges from his mouth. The lion is pursued by a dragon.

The chancel arch is c13. There are round headed Norman lancet windows in the nave and chancel walls. The east window is a classic Early English triple lancet of c13 when the chancel was rebuilt. The windows in the west and south walls of the nave, however, although Norman in appearance are modern.

The state of preservation of Pipe Aston’s tympanum and the crisp clarity of the carving is almost umparalleled. See above for a description of the main motifs. There are two unidentifiable creatures each to left and right of the central vignette. The top two spew foliage from their mouths. Charmingly, on the right hand side the foliage bears a small bird that in turn has a larger bird apparently pecking at its head! Please follow the link to Rock, St Peter & St Paul Church (specifically the footnote) for more about this motif which is unique to the Herefordshire School of Romanesque carving. See another example at Ribbesford, St Leonard.

Fascinatingly, the tympanum, impost blocks and chevron moulding all have different colour sandstones. The large stones to left and right of the door are also in a red or pink sandstone whereas the church structure is of yellow sandstone.

Looking towards the east. The painting means that few churches make quite such a visual impact when one enters. Note the deep splay to the Norman lancet window to the left and look at the top photograph to see how small the glazed area is! The splays to the right are for modern windows, albeit in sympathetic Norman style.

The impost blocks of the north doorway. To the left is a trio of dragons. One of the top pair is devouring the tail of the other while his own tail continues down to the lower course where his own body is nibbled at by a third dragon! This dragon, in turn, has a head at both ends and is not suffering the ignominy of cannibalism! The right hand impost is of intertwined foliage producing trefoil “flowers”.

This Norman west door now leads into a modern vestry.

To the right of the chancel arch is this course of double fleur-de-lys design which would have reached to the floor.

Detail of the wall painting. It was uncovered during restoration work in 1879.

The modern windows on the south wall of the nave.

Four views of the “stoup”. I have increased the “temperature” of some of these pictures to try to bring out the design a little more.

Looking towards the west end. Again, the west windows are modern but nobody could complain of the efforts made to make them sympathetic to the original church. One can only imagine how gloomy the church would be without them! The stoup is just below the right hand window.

The church from the south east. There is no tower, just a single bell cote that was rebuilt in 1883. The bell itself was cast in Worcester in 1691.

Footnote - Hugh de Mortimer and Oliver de Merlimond

The Mortimer family were very big cheeses indeed in these parts for many centuries.  Hugh Mortimer built Wigmore Abbey over the period of 1172 and 1179. Only ruins have remained since Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Aston (not then Pipe Aston) was mentioned in Domesday Book as the “ton” (farm) of a man named “Aese”, hence its name. The land belonged to the Mortimers. One Oliver de Merlimond was appointed Chief Steward to Hugh de Mortimer. Oliver undertook a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain - indelibly associated with St James - and on his return initiated the building of Shobdon Church using designs and motifs clearly derived from those at Santiago. It is likely that the master masons were French.

These designs were repeated at Pipe Aston, Brinsop (also Herefordshire), Ribbesford in Worcestershire and Alveley in Shropshire.

It is not known whether Hugh de Kilpeck ever met Hugh de Mortimer - they were political enemies; but it is certain that he used de Merlimond’s masons, and thus the same style, at the celebrated Kilpeck St Mary & St David Church in 1140.

This information was updated on 1 March 2012 with information provided by Paul Remfry, historian. Read about him here