These Ancient Walls

Sometimes, I walk into the building and I can smell the centuries.

It is ludicrous to imply that the air in an ancient chamber remains unchanged. Yet there it is, a musty conviction in every molecule. Here we have been for hundreds of years, they whisper.

Occasionally, I smell a millennium. The tiny eddies rasp a thousand years. And on some occasions that can be a great assurance, and on other occasions it can be a dormant terror.

It all depends on the building.

We were passing through Exeter a short while ago and somewhere between the multi storey car park and the cathedral a flamboyant red tower caught my eye on a street corner.

The church of St Petrock, it is called. And it is so old that no-one knows when the first foundations were laid. Possibly it was St Petrock himself, in the 500s.

Its fate was altered by murder: the result of a feud between the Dean of the Cathedral and the Bishop of Exeter back in 1282. In a power struggle for the Dean’s position the Bishop’s protegé, Walter Lechlade, was brutally murdered in the cathedral precincts by a gang organised by the Dean and the city mayor.

The shockwaves from the murder resulted in a seismic shift for St Petrock’s: it moved from one side of the street to the other. The cathedral authorities subsumed St Petrock’s into the very walls of an inner fortress which would surround the cathedral precinct.

Thus they moved the high street outwards, away from the cathedral, to the other side of St Petroch’s. It was pinned on either side by buildings, its front to the worldly city and its back facing the sanctity of the cathedral.

A hotch-potch of centuries of alteration, part of it houses an organisation for the homeless now, but services still go on.

A strange building, squeezed by time into the oddest shape, it is partitioned off with modern clapboard which brazenly blocks beautiful old gothic arches. Beneath our feet lie ancient flagstones; on the walls a set of monuments which might have been designed to unsettle.

It was not the skulls, which gape down at foolish tourists on entry, which cause unease. Rather, it is a woman on the wall.

Mary Hooper died in childbirth having her tenth child in 1658.

Her name appears in the annals of parliament supporting an MP; she is the wife of a clearly successful local merchant. I can find little about her.

Yet her gaze is as cold as the grave.

The two busts sit on the wall, husband and wife, part of a lavish black granite memorial. The latin inscription praises Mary as chaste wife, prudent mother, a woman who fears the Lord.

Her husband looks to have been a royalist: she died just days after Oliver Cromwell relinquished his grasp on England. And while her husband’s dress flies in the face of it, I wonder if this woman had puritan leanings.

Under her gaze it was all I could do to gather my customary intelligence; dates, memorials, marriages and deaths, bells and spells.

The silence becomes every more accusing. The very dust seems to rise up and say, Take your camera, tourist: take it and get out of here, away from my resting place, which is for pure men who seek God.

I do not have as many photographs of St Petrock’s as you might think.

Mary made her intentions very clear, and one felt most uncomfortable, gathering what is, after all, ancient tittle-tattle about long dead folks.

Involuntarily, as I held the door open to leave, I looked up and nodded to thank her.

And then scurried away from her icy glare into the sunshine of a bustling city in the West Country of England.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


40 thoughts on “These Ancient Walls

  1. The first thing I did was to enlarge the picture to full screen. The fact that the busts have painted eyes is immediately disturbing and very moving. The flippant side of me, never far beneath the surface, says that her look and leather corset lead me to believe that she may well have been a celebrated dominatrix, though God knows how she had the time between the 10 children ( 9 actually).

  2. Fierce! Isn’t it interesting to note what qualities were deemed worthy of preserving for centuries? How would they represent me or thee?

  3. Really spooky eyes. You’re right, she really doesn’t look at all is if she welcomes tourists being there.
    I love the fact that she was “a chaste wife” and had ten kids.

  4. “I can smell the centuries.” We don’t have that in the US. Our ancient is a mere two or three hundred years. So I think a national identity is less entrenched and perhaps diluted by massive immigration. There is only surface cultural common denominators. But I still think there may be a sense of Americaness but its definition is unique to each individual. Events like 9/11 bring it out.

  5. Incredible, the mastery of the craftsman at that time, yet they just did not know how to portray the eye ball -which probably adds to the gaunt expressions -stone zombies.

    A great post -a fleeting moment and reaction; observations and a cool photograph to boot.

  6. I felt a chill just looking at her likeness, Kate. It is a bit eerie. I think there is something quite real about centuries-old places, and I don’t doubt for a moment that there’s a bit of an “other worldly” air proving a challenge. I move in and out of taking many photos in cemeteries and other resting spots. Sometimes I’m free to do so, and other times I just can’t seem to feel it’s right. I’m not going to forget Mary’s gaze for quite awhile myself! Debra

    1. I know what you mean, Debra: it can feel awkward sometimes.the Big Seven – HIghgate and so forth – are huge tourist attractions here now. And I haven’t been there yet!

  7. Like you, I always wonder about the stories of these people whose personalities were strong enough to reach through marble or granite and grab me.

  8. The cold thoughts of the long since departed. I wonder how much they are amplified by the building in which they are placed. There are some very old memorials in St. Mary-at-Finchley yet everything seems serene.

  9. Ooh, she is a stern woman. One sense she wore the trousers in the marriage, as it were. And I still think you should be writing the curious traveler’s guide to England.

  10. I also would have made a quick exit to escape Mary’s chilly gaze. Your writing, as always, is informative and a great read.

    Kate, do you know why the skulls are there? Was it the same as with the gargoyles in France? To scare the populace into scurrying into church to evade eternal damnation? Intriguing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s