A church with strange and beautiful carvings, a ruined castle and a lost village: Kilpeck is a place of story-telling, remembering, and forgetting.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
Kilpeck is the archetypal borderland location.
This area was part of the Welsh kingdom of Ergyng, until it fell under the control of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia from the ninth century. After the Norman Conquest, Kilpeck was in the Welsh Marches – the border region controlled by Anglo-Norman lords – and became a part of Herefordshire in the sixteenth century.
The most impressive medieval survival here is the magnificent Norman church of St Mary and St David, decorated with some of the very finest examples of what’s now known as the ‘Herefordshire School’ of Romanesque sculpture.
You’ll find wonderful carvings of knights, mythical beasts and interlaced vinescrolls around the main doorway (south side), and other stunning details throughout the church. While some of these carvings depict saints and angels, others suggest folk traditions and memories which stretch back beyond Christianity to earlier, pagan beliefs. For example, scholars today still don’t know quite what to make of the famous ‘Sheela Na Gig’ corbel on the south side of the church. This strange and explicit carving of a female figure pulling apart her vulva could be a fertility symbol, a depiction of a goddess, or just a comic motif. The full meaning of this medieval image is now forgotten. 85 corbels survive around the walls of the church – each one is well worth a closer look.
Other landmarks in Kilpeck include the ruined motte-and-bailey castle with its earthworks. This was probably first established around 1090, as the administrative centre of the surrounding area of Archenfield. There are also traces of a lost medieval village immediately to the east of the church, with the tell-tale remnants of ridge-and-furrow farming and lines of enclosures visible in aerial photography (and, in some cases, on the ground). This village may once have been home to a community of 600 people, and by 1259 held a weekly market and annual fair. Why it was abandoned is now forgotten.
The Hanged Man’s Journey
The carvings at Kilpeck church suggest that magic was a real part of medieval people’s lives.
Magical stories, images, and memories from pagan traditions were clearly still lively elements in the medieval imagination.
When the Pope sent inquisitors to investigate the hanging – and apparently miraculous revival – of William Cragh in medieval Swansea, they took seriously the possibility that magic had played a role in these strange events.
Each of the witnesses to Cragh’s hanging and strange recovery were asked a series of set questions. Answering one of these questions, Lord William de Briouze junior (the son of the Lord William who had ordered the execution), replies that: ‘neither herbs, nor stones or even other natural things or medicines, nor enchantments, nor superstitions, nor trickery or other intervened in the operation of the said miracle’. For the inquisitors, it’s obviously important to rule out that Cragh’s recovery was the result of a spell or magical charm, rather than a saintly miracle.
William de Briouze junior goes further in reassuring the papal inquisitors that magic or trickery was not involved.
He tells them of a custom in his father’s Marcher lordship:
‘If somehow trickery intervenes in the hanging, by means of which a hanged man is able to prolong his life, the executioner who did the hanging is hanged himself.’
Clearly a strong incentive for the hangman to ensure that his job was done correctly…
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
Sometimes, in the medieval sources, there’s a fine line between magic and miracle.
One of the recipients of a miracle of St Thomas of Hereford was a man from Kilpeck: a certain Thomas de Kilpek, who had been blind for twelve years in one of his eyes, and had his sight restored.
The miracle of William Cragh is altogether more impressive and striking: these so-called ‘resuscitation miracles’ were rare and attracted particular scrutiny by the church authorities.
The revival of William Cragh isn’t the only resuscitation miracle in the St Thomas of Hereford collection. Another is the revival of a small boy, Roger of Conwy, in 1303. Roger’s parents had gone out, leaving the toddler sleeping in their home near Conwy Castle. But Roger had left the house and fallen into the ditch surrounding the Castle – about 28 feet deep, according to witnesses. He was found the next morning, lifeless, but the intercession of St Thomas restored him to life.
The dead returning to life was a persistent preoccupation in medieval culture: not just in stories of the bible and saints, but also expressed in more magical folk tales and beliefs.
Walter Map, a medieval historian from the Welsh Marches, is famous for his accounts of revenants – essentially medieval zombie stories. In one instance, an English knight called William Laudun seeks the help of Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of Hereford (1148-63). A local Welshman has died, William explains, but continues to return to the village each night, calling fellow-villagers by name. These villagers then fall sick and die within three days. The Bishop advises William to exhume the body, cut off its head, and sprinkle the grave with holy water. William does this, and also cuts the head off the ghostly apparition. Only then do the visits of this undead Welshman cease.
A place that celebrates the wonder of life
As we draw near to Hereford Cathedral we find strong links between it and the communities around it. The masons who created Kilpeck’s striking carvings were trained in the masons’ yard at the cathedral. Their carvings weave together Christian and pre-Christian themes and images so that stone is brought to vigorous life. We see this especially around the main door of the church, where sinuous stems, foliage and flowers emerge from the mouth of a green man, and a tree of life surmounts the doorway. It all speaks of the abundance of nature, and of the exuberance of life. Work of this quantity and quality was very expensive, so it speaks too of the generosity and vision of the church’s Norman founders.
Lord, the life force of your creation is around me on every side, in earth and sea and sky; it is within me too. May that power daily transform my heart of stone into a heart of flesh, so that I bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in much love and joy and peace.
Legendary Creatures and Fantastic Beasts
The Church of St David and St Mary at Kilpeck is renowned for its beautiful Romanesque carvings. Inside the church, the carvings are largely conventional religious motifs, but outside the stonework becomes more fantastical, showing legendary and mythical beasts alongside real-world creatures.
In a sense, these carvings place Kilpeck within the medieval tradition of illustrated bestiaries. These volumes described and depicted various animals, both real and imaged, and often ascribed to them some sort of moral lesson.
The South Door
The elaborate south door shows a wealth of natural imagery. Above the door arch is the Tree of Life, representing the Cross.
There is also an abundance of serpent-like dragons craved around the doorway, some being slayed by knights in armour, possibly representing Christian knights triumphing over the devil and the battle of good and evil.
Mythical alongside the real
The exterior of Kilpeck Church is decorated with corbels. On the south side you can find the Hare and Hound, which represented friendship, faithfulness and the fear of God, as well as doves, representing innocence.
However, around the south door you will also find mythical creatures, such as the Persian man-eating Manticore, with the head of a man and the body of a lion, and the Greek Phoenix, the regenerating bird associated with the sun and resurrection.
Specially-chosen music for this location, a medieval marketplace soundscape, and present-day ambient sound from Kilpeck churchyard.
Distance: Approx. 6.5 miles
Time: Approx. 3.5-4 miles
Access: Moderate to hard difficulty; mostly footpaths through fields and woodland; some steep uphill walks; some minor roads and stiles; not suitable for wheelchairs and buggies; walking boots or other suitable footwear recommended, along with long trousers, depending on season.
N.B. As this walk passes through both arable and grazing land, please respect the boundaries put in place by farmers and stick to the public right of way. Occasionally, ways through field boundaries will be temporarily altered, but alternative access can always be found nearby
- Start your walk at the Church of St Mary and St David. The church dates from around 1140, and contains some of the finest Romanesque sculpture in Europe. To the left of the church you will find the remains of a Norman motte and bailey Castle. With the church on your left, follow the road. On your left, shortly after the church you will see the site of a deserted medieval village.Follow the road on until you reach a crossroads.
- At the crossroads, turn right. Follow this road until you reach a track leading onto farmland ahead of you (to your right, the road will bend back towards the village). Take the track, which runs between two fields and leads uphill towards the footpath. Depending on the season, you can either follow the public right of way through the field or follow the field boundaries to the left, alongside a wire fence and past a large oak tree. – try to keep the white cottage (Nash Hill Cottage) up ahead in view as a guide. At the far side of the field, follow the field boundary round the top of the field until you reach Nash Hill Cottage, then exit the field through a gate onto the road.
- When you reach the road and Nash Hill Cottage turn left on the road and almost immediately on the right you will see some steps passing around the back of the cottage. Passing over a stile into the field, follow the hedge, which forms a boundary to the house. When the hedge ends carry straight on downhill to the trees, stream and bridge.
- Take the footbridge over the stream and walk diagonally to the top right hand corner of the field and cross the gate into the next field. Walk diagonally left across the next field to a gate in the hedge.. Pass through the gate in the hedge and continue ahead towards the woodland and follow round the edge towards another bridge in the corner of the field. Cross the bridge and follow the field edge right, until you reach the edge of the woodland and a gate that leads onto the road.
- Cross the road and go over the stile, following the edge of the woodland to your right. Climb over another stile near a house and walk around the property, keeping it to your right. Cross another stile to the left and enter a field. Follow the field boundary on your left. The Mynde, the seventeenth century home of the Pye family, will come into view ahead. Follow the track that leads downhill towards the Mynde, passing to the left of two ponds and around the side of the house. Cross a cattle grid on your left and walk through between the house on your left and the farm on your right. Cross a second cattle grid and turn immediately right towards Woodland House. Walk through the range of buildings to enter the field ahead. Follow the boundary across the field, to the right of a tennis court, to enter the woodland through a small gate. The path through the woods is well waymarked and ascends a steep slope, with a small number of steps. Leave the woods via a stile.
- Continue along roughly the same line, following the boundary to your right, crossing over another stile and passing some farm buildings on your right. Follow the public right of way around the field edge and over another stile onto the road, turning left up the road, which will soon start to go downhill around Orcop Hill. Follow this down until you reach the road. Turn right onto the road and follow it for half a mile, passing below the slopes of Cole’s Tump on your right. You will pass by houses to your right. When you reach a fork in the road, take the minor road that branches off to the right.
- When the road turns sharp right, take the lane straight ahead marked with a no-throughway sign. This lane bends to the left and then to the right towards some old barns and a house. Take the path to the right of the barn and enter the Holloway that runs along the boundary between two fields. Take the gate into the next field and continue ahead. At the end of this field, go through the gate and follow the field boundary to the right. Follow the path on through the next gate and then follow the left hand edge of the next field. Keep the field edge on your left as you carry on. When you reach the furthest corner of the field, turn left through a waymarked stile and follow the fenceline on your left to a farm. Go through the farmyard to the tarmacked lane.
- Keep on the lane until you come to a junction after about a quarter of a mile, which will lead you back to Kilpeck. At the next junction, turn right and this will lead you past the village hall and to the Kilpeck Inn and the end of your walk.