The Secret Watcher

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 ย 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.

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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.

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32 thoughts on “The Secret Watcher

  1. I never knew where “eavesdroppers” came from, either. I love words and their history. Those watchers’ expressions are so fanciful and imaginative. The wooden carvings seem to be part human, part animal. Beautiful stuff. There’s a picture of a circular stone concoction. I pick out a curving arm and hand, a rooster without a head, all mixed together in a ball.

    1. Thanks, Nancy: it was sheer joy walking round. So many of our churches were ‘improved’ and priceless art lost because of it, But Norfolk has so many churches that some, I suppose, have been preserved.

  2. I always wonder who those faces were. They had to be modeled after people the craftsmen knew. Even the gargoyles………I can hear them now. “I don’t like you, so I’m going to carve you into a gargoyle for all time.”

    There is a cyclorama in Atlanta (one of only a few circular paintings in the world.) It depicts the Battle of Atlanta from the US Civil War. (In case readers don’t know, a cyclorama is part painting and part diorama.) The face of every soldier in the diorama, whether Confederate or Yankee, is Clark Gable. The room spins, and endless Clark Gables scroll by.

    1. That sounds fantastic, Andra! Like our Stanley Spencer who incorporated all the villagers in Cookham in his paintings. What a shock it must be to see oneself immortalised like that!

  3. Great portraits, Kate, and I can see why this is a Grade 1 listed building. These are all wonderfully atmospheric, but just think what they might have been like when painted (as probably most were, from the bosses to the corbels and maybe even the outside finials) — even more chilling! It’s easy to forget how colourful these buildings once were before Puritanism or mistaken Victorian ‘restoration’ or just the ravages of time hid or removed the paint.

    I love carved heads, as you can guess from my MyNewShy blog; the concept of a disembodied head has such a long human history, doesn’t it.

    1. Hello Jackie, thanks for commenting! These were some of the most beautiful grotesques I have ever seen. The Victorians replaced so many of them and to find original work like this, so fresh and tucked away in this little church, was incredible. I love what Oxford has sone with its grotesques though; there are even 21st century faces looking down, there. It’s still a living art.

      1. I’ve learned something interesting by looking at all the interesting little stone faces: all gargoyles are grotesques, but not all grotesques are gargoyles. ๐Ÿ™‚ Gargoyles usually have some kind of water spout.

    1. After almost 700 years in the same place with your head at the same angle, I imagine even the unexpected entry of a fly belonging to the cows outside might prove diverting, Virginia.

  4. What a keen eye you have to spot all those watchers. I think I’d feel absolutely paranoid in that place. But then, isn’t that what church leaders want … to keep their parishioners in line by convincing them they are always being watched?

  5. Spectacular watchers, Kate. I’m so glad you were able to take the time to really get to know them. Another very sad story…the Black Death and the death of Mason William Ramsay and his son. I don’t know that I can find any gargoyles that wouldn’t qualify as “modern”–but I’m going to be more aware of them in the future! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. LOVE this post, Kate. How utterly intriguing, all that strange detail, which you’ve captured so well in your photos – the odd, almost comic, faces. A marvellous architectural place with a fascinating history. (Wouldn’t like to sleep there alone, though :-))

  7. Is that where the word “eavesdroppers” came from? Cool! I learn something new every day. Love your “watchers.” Even though I’m fascinated by the gargoyles and chimeras of Notre Dame Cathedral, they also kind of creep me out.

    Thanks for sharing the photos.

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