Monday, 29 December 2014
It was on a sharp, blue-skied autumn day that I set out to hunt down the demons of Ashcombe. I’d seen pictures of the strange, distorted faces carved into the dark oak of 17th century bench ends in Todd Gray’s fine book on the subject, Devon’s Ancient Bench Ends. These were like nothing else I’d come across in my explorations of old Devon churches. They were emanations from the shadowy undergrowth of the rural imagination, monsters from the night side, the impenetrable gloom of the surrounding forest depths. They seemed to display no evident religious symbolism. Demons tended to be relegated to the exterior of churches, reminders of the evils from which the interior would provide sanctuary. But here they have invaded the space of the nave, settling themselves down right beside the congregation. This demanded closer inspection. But they proved frustratingly elusive. On my first visit I found the church locked, even though it was remote and unlikely to attract the attentions of all but the most dedicated and well-informed vandal. I returned on a Sunday, but discovered that services were few and far between, parcelled out between several other small churches in the parish. Perhaps this journey would prove more fruitful. There was a sense of anticipation in the air, a sense of immanence which augured well (or maybe ill).
The road to Ashcombe from Dawlish wound along the side of a valley, following the rippling contours of the gently folded hills. The hedgerows were rich with bright berries and late blooms. Bees sucked on pin-headed stamen clusters which looked like they were dipped in sugary sherbet. A fiery ball of robin’s pincushion tangled itself wirily around a pink-thorned rose bush, dewdrops caught in its threads and glinting with jewelled sunlight luminescence. A kestrel hovered over an open field, wings arched back in tense suspension, perfectly poised to plummet onto its pinpointed prey. Look out down below! Buzzards circle lazily on invisible currents, landing on bare, blasted branches and adding hunched, slightly sulky silhouettes to the tree’s skeletal outline. Raptor cries screech across the echoing valley. This is an edgeless landscape, defined by its curving horizons and sinuous roads. Woodland copses cresting undulant fields warp beneath contrasting cloud masses. Abstract compositions are drawn by tractors and harvesters, tramlines and long wavelengths etched through dry wheat. They are like energy patterns, circling in concentric ripples around the metal trees of pylons. Pylons, with their geometric grids, break up the non-linearity of the landscape. Only human constructs are linear here: Gates, greenhouses (there is a rose growing farm down by the river in the valley) and telegraph poles.
Arriving at the edge of the hamlet of Ashcombe, the prospect of the 12th century church tower, elevated by the rise of the slope on which it is planted, is framed by trees, chimneys and a telegraph pole. The pole sprouts a solid junction box and the brown ceramic discs of insulators, which are strung from the sky-raking wires like sleek mushroom caps. The Norman tower is ancient, but the telegraph technology it is juxtaposed with also looks outmoded, redolent of a redundant post-war moment. An old church filled with strange carvings and the crackling energies of 50s technology; this could be the setting for a Nigel Kneale TV drama in which the supernatural is confronted with the modern apparatus of scientific rationalism.
The church lies on the lower slopes of a steep hill which marks the southern end of the Haldon ridge. It’s a forested spine of land which extends a fair few miles, a rainshadow divider separating the Exe Valley from the Teign Valley and the rise of the moor beyond. Ashcombe is tucked into a fold in the lee of the range. It catches the sun on its path from the east, but the shadows can fall quickly and prematurely as the Haldons impose their looming gloom. It’s a short but sharply inclined trudge upwards from the trough of the bell-curve the road traces through the Ashcombe dell to the church’s hunched stone outline which broods above it. The graveyard is mounded up like the rounded back of a surfacing leviathan. Tilting crosses and gravestone arches stand out starkly against the sky, their dark contrast already beginning to dispel the brightness of the afternoon, to whisper intimations of a more chill atmosphere.
But there is brightness and life in the graveyard still. The efflorescing fruits of a tree produce vulgar, blushing pinks and glisteningly succulent oranges, nature’s vivid colour contrast to sombre grey stone. Violets cluster in the leaning shadow of granite slabs. Moss and lichen bloom across flat stone planes, forming their own expanding universes. Snails add their slimy script to etched lines, a spiral punctuation mark emphasising the letter or word where they take their fastened rest. Some find shelter in the sharp-angled armpit of a cross. Berries sprayed across a hardy shrub throw hard buttons of primary red against neutral granite, blood on fossilised bone.
The church is locked. Frustrated, I rattle the door a few times, as if this will do any good. I walk back down to the lychgate, its paint peeling in flakes of dark green, harmonising with the shedding of autumn tumbling all around it. Looking at the notices for hints as to when the next service might find it open and filled with sound and light. A postcard with faded felt-tip writing, half-hidden by other pinned pieces of paper, is just about legible. It tells me that there is a key held in the yellow cottage at the bottom of the hill for any who wish to explore the church. A large black dog greets me there, letting me know that somebody is in, whilst not exactly encouraging me to make myself known to them. The woman who answers is friendly and trusting, however, handing me the key without hesitation. She apologises for the state of the interior. Renovation work is being carried out, and she inhaled some dust when she was last in there. As a result, she has not been well enough to clear away the harvest festival decorations and offerings. I sympathise but wonder if I will be similarly infected. How old is this ‘dust’? From what part of the church has it been excavated or disturbed? But I have come this far. I must not falter in my resolve.
Disappointingly, the key is an ordinary front door variety rather than the large black iron affair I had hoped for. It fitted into a small yale lock inserted above the large hole which would have required an object ten times its size. The latch lifts with a pleasingly firm clack when I turn the circular iron door handle, however, and the heavy door creaks open. I walk through into the hushed interior, the outside world immediately receding, distanced by the airlock of the porch. The first thing I notice is the font, whose wooden cover is woven with strands of corn, grass and hedgerow berries. All are now withered and dessicated, their decorative arrangement falling into desuetude and disrepair. A heady scent of apples fills the church, overripe and on the verge of rotting fermentation. A neglected harvest offering left to mark the passing of autumn’s fecund riches and the advent of winter’s barren scarcity.
A green man with an amiable, placid face, broad and flat and topped with pointed porcine ears, looks out on the font from a capital atop a pillar at the back of the nave. Over the altar rail a golden foliate head peers down on the apples, grain and vegetables presented on the border of the sacred space of the sacristy. It is at the conjunction of roof joists painted a vibrant black, green, red and gold; a strange echo of Jamaican national colours in this rural English church. The joists also connect with what looks like a lion’s head wrapped in a turban. The Lion of Judah? More lions jut nobly from the arm rests of an oak throne beside the altar, the nub of their manes designed for a palm to rest at ease on, to stroke the woody nap of the tamed beasts’ head. On the back of the chair, two pot-bellied cherubs stand atop piles of rock or coal and bend beneath baskets of the same strapped to their backs. It’s a heavy load for such diminutive creatures to bear – child labour, essentially. A perky lectern eagle looks brightly out to the nave, its alert gaze surveying the three ranks of benches filling the space. It dates from the time of Elizabeth I and its noble, benevolent visage, beak crinkling into a knowing smile, bears the wisdom of the centuries, just as its back has borne the weight of the Word, the opened book.
The restoration and repair work being carried out in the church is made evident by the scaffolding at the back of the north aisle. The organ by the entrance in the north aisle is shrouded in a curtain of smoky plastic. The pipes are visible as spectral formations, seen as if through a billowing fog. I imagine the music they would make, muffled and diffuse, sounds drifting through from a dimly perceived distance. The window in the south transept has been boarded over, the direct southerly sun streaming around the edges in sharp-edged, haloing spears of light.
That same low, dazzling late Autumn light lends mocking haloes to the St Nectan demons. They rest on the bench ends like wicked Chads, or wedge themselves into the corner angles. With their lolling tongues, sharp-edged grins, curving tusks and pointed ears, they are like anti-cherubs, exuding abandoned glee at their own grotesque natures. One has serpentine wings, its flapping lips parted in a rubbery, toothless groan. Hooded, sunken eyes stare out with blank, pupil-less depth. Its neckline is a ragged gouge, as if the head had been crudely torn off by a savage force. A close cousin of this creature retains two teeth, protruding loosely and squarely from its upper lip (which looks as if it has the jellied consistency of a rock pool anemone), inverted echoes of the tombstones outside. If anything, the teeth make it look even worse than its gummy kin. A moaning spectre wraps its thin, vaporous face around the scrolled top of a bench end. It is impaled on the spearheads of Gothic arches. An arc of tongue darts out of the gaping, downturned mouth. It looks a little like the ghostly alien which made a regular appearance in the final end title of the original Star Trek series.
A squashed head seems to labouring under dense local gravity, and gurns around its two prominent teeth. A squirrel and a lizard nuzzle against it, whether familiars or tormentors it’s not wholly clear. Almond-eyed serpents spiral up the side of the bench, living, writhing vines. The distinction between human and animal becomes blurred with many of the figures here. There is a head which is part human, part…cat? It certainly has a cat’s alert, radar ears and long, flat nose. And its tongue hangs in the way that cat’s tongues do when they get distracted in the middle of a preen. But it also has wings scrolling back behind it (feathered or scaled rather than furred). Flying cats? It doesn’t bear thinking about. A head with two arms emerging from its base appears to be crawling, advancing with a crablike scuttle. The upper face is like a chitinous mask fixed above mouth and chin. It resembles a devolved form of humanity, or a Moreauvian experiment in vivisected hybridisation. Halfway to the crablike creatures of HG Wells’ terminal beach in The Time Machine, it is retreating back to the ocean. It also brings to mind the spider-head from John Carpenter’s version of The Thing.
A goofy, big-nosed simpleton looks up with dull, sleepy eyes sunken in lazy folds of flesh, its face pockmarked by woodworm. Its mouth hangs vacantly open in a buck-toothed, slack-jawed yokel half-smile, thick ox’s tongue rolled out beneath three slab-like pegs. Two peasants lean out from opposite sides of a bench end, their soft craniums moulded, squeezed and straightened into corner points. Their chins rest in cupped hands. One leers lasciviously, the other seems to be yawning, or perhaps he is boorishly bellowing some choice insult. Or maybe he just has really bad toothache, and is yelling in pain.
Two more corner figures come in the form of toothless angels (angels of the angles). They are round-cheeked and bullet-headed, celestial beings of a very Earthly cast, incarnations of ordinary local folk. Their faces are the theatrical happy/sad masks with the upward and downward curve of the mouth reflecting the comic and tragic poles of experience. The ‘sad’ angel’s eyes bug out with worry, and a night cap hints at early hours anxiety and circling, sleepless thoughts. The ‘happy’ angel looks at ease beneath relaxed, thickset brows. Its smile looks a little self-satisfied, a little self-satisfied, a little secretive, wolfish. A little….evil. Between the two angels rests a swinish demon, not showing the least concern at their proximity. Indeed, it is the angels which appear the more affected by its presence; the one fearfully so, the other sensing the possibilities an alliance might offer, the potential for power and personal worldly influence.
Another demon roosts nearby. This one is a creature of appetite, omnivorous and ravenous. It is bat-winged and tusked, with four-clawed hands ready to clutch at unwary prey. Its cross-eyed gaze by no means suggests limited vision and its tongue lolls out with panting hunger. In the far corner of the church, another serpent winds up the side of a bench-end, its pointed head nearly reaching the top. It is lightly dusted with plaster, a white powder like ash or the finest fall of snow (or some of that bee sherbet).
My first instinct is to wipe it clean. But no. On no account must I touch any of these creatures. What manner of dreadful curse might be unleashed I fear even to contemplate (perhaps the holder of the key might enlighten me). I’ve read my M.R.James. I know that the curious must be cautious, lest their studies uncover things best left to the darkness of ignorance. I have no wish to share the experiences of Archdeacon Haynes in The Stalls of Barchester. He feels the oaken carving of a cat on a choir stall come to life beneath his hand (‘I was startled by what seemed a softness, a feeling as of rather rough and coarse fur, and a sudden movement, as if the creature were twisting round its head to bite me’), and that of a cowled, deathly monk changes so that ‘the wood seemed to become chilly and soft as if made of wet linen’. I have observed from a safe distance and made no contact whatsoever. I feel assured that no terrifying, malevolent spirits will be made manifest from the ancient wood, released to haunt and torment me like the unfortunate archdeacon. I leave the shadows of the church behind, along with whatever might inhabit them, the scent of autumn decay and damp, sifting plaster and walk out into the light, to the sound of birdsong in the graveyard.
I lock the door behind me. And that flicker of darkness flapping out from the tower? A trick of the light, an illusory spectre of the peripheral vision. The dry, snickering whisper in the air above my left shoulder? Nothing but a breath of wind through the leaves. I hasten my step and swiftly close the graveyard gate behind me, striding down the hill to return the key to its guardian in the cottage in the pit of the valley with a brisk word of thanks. And then I jump onto my bike and cycle out of Ashcombe with much haste before the light begins to fail. The demons recede behind me, remaining on their benches, locked into the time-polished wooden expressions and poses of the centuries. The chittering noises, the half-perceived feeling of shadowing presence, the sweet, rotting odour and the occasional brush of something flitting past – they are all in my head, I know. I must remain strong. I must.