Ever had that feeling? The two eyes on you that you can’t see, the unshakeable conviction that someone is watching?
There are those who have used this to their advantage. Look at Henry VIII and his eaves droppers: the wooden faces carved into the ornate eaves of his great hall at Hampton Court. They were created, the story goes, to give the diners the feeling they were under constant surveillance.
My favourite silent watchers have to be grotesques and gargoyles. But I am gargoyle snob. I do not place the same value on Victorian gargoyles as I do on more ancient ones.
We were driving along the coast road in deepest Norfolk when we passed a church. And I knew that, before the week was out, I must see it, though the children do not enjoy trailing about old churches. So when our daily trip was done, on the last day, I took my bag and headed off, alone, towards the village of Cley-Next-The Sea, to its most magnificent church: St Margaret’s.
The church was a thing of power, built by those with new money from a thriving mediaeval port. It dominates the village green, looking out across the flats to what was once the sea. Building began on it in the 1320s under the hand of master mason William Ramsay, the same hand that carved the old Westminster Palace. It is now a grade I listed building.
And the moment you walk toward it, it becomes clear that this place is special; because it has so very many watchers.
At the apex of the roof on each end there is a figure. One is a monkey, I think; the other looks like a Saracen. They sit high, silhouetted by the sun, and provide an ever watchful presence.
And from then on, looking down from every conceivable place, there is a pair of eyes. Carved with a fluid sense of movement, a playful artistry, the figures at the top of pillars and at the end of church pews and higher still, are exhilarating. After almost 700 years, the excitement and passion which brought them to life remain.
It was an entrancing afternoon, watching the watchers.
The black death arrived at the port of Cley in 1348. Mason William Ramsay and his son both died, and this extraordinary carving halted. The incredible north and south transepts, with windows of sumptuously intricate design, are roofless now and the windows appear never to have held glass.
But the watchers have continued to provide many pairs of eyes for centuries.
Written in response to Side View’s Weekend theme, The Secret Watcher, which you can find here.