Ancient presences

These four heads hold up the roof of Cowbit church, above the altar. They are probably the oldest carved stones in the building and they didn’t start out where they are now, though they were always made to support a roof, probably for a church built in the 1100s. They are crudely made – at least in comparison with the skillful carving you can see at, say, Pinchbeck – but they are full of life. Their wild, untamed faces, seem either threatening or fearful.

They speak of an older world, far more insecure than ours, where suffering and death could strike from a blue sky, without understandable cause and therefore without the possibility of mitigation. In such times, the church’s protection must have seemed a vital defence against the randomness of life.

These heads belong in Cowbit church. As sculptures in a white-walled museum, surrounded by unrelated treasures, they would be prisoners of an alien culture. It’s good to see them where they have always been, rooted in the place they were made, their eyes meeting the descendants of those who made them.

An elephant in Gosberton

The steeple of St Peter and St Paul’s in Gosberton reaches 160 feet into the Lincolnshire sky. Stone spires are a special feature of churches in the East Midlands, and Gosberton’s is one of the loveliest. Each angle of the octagon is decorated with little crockets, while four exceedingly thin – and structurally useless – flying buttresses connect it with the tower corners. The whole elegant construction dates from about 1300.

Gosbert Elephant Gargoyle (AA 1963)

But the most surprising thing about this spire is the elephant carved on the east side of the tower. This drawing, which I found in the 1963 AA Book of the Road, is very evocative, though there’s a modern photograph in this recent story about the church repairs in the Spalding Guardian. The elephant is a gargoyle, a sculptured stone spout used in the Middle Ages to throw rain water away from the building, and its trunk is made of lead that needs to be renewed.

Whoever carved the elephant, probably a jobbing mason who would follow the work from site to site, was very unlikely to have seen an elephant so the accuracy of the representation is remarkable. This image, from a 15th century herbal held in the British Library, is characteristic how medieval artists imagined the strange creatures travellers told stories about. Perhaps the Gosberton sculptor had encountered a real elephant in his journeyman life.

Elephant from a herbal (Italy, c.1440) British Library