Happy New Year!
Medieval vine scroll motif with grapes along the arcading at St Faith's Church, Little Witchingham, Norfolk.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Thomas Hardy - The Darkling Thrush
It’s a grey winter’s day and I’m stood in one of the unholiest of places: the tram stop at Whitefield in Greater Manchester. The light is flat and monotone and the clouds are scrubbing the tops of the high-rise flats. There’s a bitter wind from the east. We all stand huddled, waiting. I observe those around me. Most find comfort in their devices. The blue cast of the screens lights their faces. The minutes are ticking down on the information board: four minutes until the tram arrives. I can feel my spirits sinking.
And then I see it out of the corner of my eye: an unexpected movement. A magpie hops onto the platform, shakes its head, and alights onto the track with a cackle. Looking one way and then the next, it ambles along the ballast and flits onto a sleeper. After two measured steps to one side it drops in-between the Bury bound sleepers.
I look up at the crowd around me - wan faces, caught in the time between - then I look back at the magpie. Its movements are more incremental now, focused on a small space around the ballast. The bird and I are in the starkest of places on the starkest of days.
'You’re not going to find anything there, my friend', I think to myself, until the bird comes to rest, arches its back, looks down, and picks up a large chunk of stone. It places the stone to one side and then pokes its beak into the recess and pulls out a grape as fresh as the day it was harvested.
The one for sorrow has brought me joy.
I look up at the information board - there’s just a minute left until the tram is here. I can see it in the distance: a jaundiced spec of yellow in the gloom. Just before the tram arrives, I take one last look at the people around me - they’re putting their devices away - intent on bagging the best spot on the tram.
I think to myself: “I shall hold the glow of the magpie and the grape for as long as I can remember, it’s a shame that nobody saw it’, until a woman across the platform catches my eye - she looks towards the ballast and then straight at me and mouths the word ‘Wow’.
How holy this unholy place has become.
Whitefield, Greater Manchester
I shall bring the memory of the magpie and the grape into 2024 with me. The knowledge that something so miraculous can drop into our lives out of the mundane, at any time, is what keeps me travelling and sharing my stories.
I'm driving through a bleak winter landscape. The season has de-saturated the colour in the fields. Bony fingered branches rise up towards me and then pass as I drive along the lane. The Mynd is a haze.
Then I can sense a shift in atmosphere. The van wheels are a portent: they change from a hum to a gravelly crunch. The lanes are getting narrower and just beyond the horizon I can see my destination.
This time I am the magpie and St. Mary and St. David's, Kilpeck is the grape. That such an exotic thing with Angkor Watt curves can be hidden within the ballast of a grim winter's day is quite remarkable.
'This time I am the magpie and St. Mary and St. David's, Kilpeck is the grape.'
Kilpeck is in Herefordshire, England but was originally a part of the Welsh kingdom of Ergyng and the Welsh language remained strong here until the C19th. This is a place between - between two cultures, two identities, two histories. It is from this unique co-mingling of identity that such a remarkable building has come about.
The church lies to the south of a deserted medieval village site. The remains of the motte and bailey of the castle are evident within the landscape to the west of the church.
Every time I visit this place, the air feels charged, my senses are piqued. More than the building, it is the Romanesque carvings that draw me in.
Caught around the perfect proportions of a three cell C12th Romanesque plan is a lavish and eclectic mix of carving that fire the imagination and defy one's preconceptions of a Christian church.
If there were the cultural equivelant of the health addage of 'having five a day' - the corbel table on the exterior of the church would be bounty enough. It is jam packed with visual and metaphorical nutrients.
Each one is divinely crafted, each one has a meaning and every one is rooted in the Bestiary's of the medieval world and, beyond that, into the texts of ancient Greece.
The most surprising addition is the Shela-na-Gig.
The south door is one of the best preserved in the country. Full of exotic carving depicting beasts and warriors.
And there it is on the tympanum - a grape.
The tympanum has depictions of, amongst others - an angel, a phoenix, a dragon and birds, plus beakheads with an overbite.
I see connections with Norse tradition with the Celtic world, with Santiago de Compostela and the Byzantine. What a melting pot.
The interior also has some wonderful carving to the chancel arch. The carvings depict martyrs or saints, including one carving of St. Peter.
Members get to see some immersive extra content on Kilpeck including VR's of the exterior and interior and a wonderful aerial video that shows Kilpeck in context. Click the boxes below for more:
For this very special place I've brought a very special camera - my Rolleflex film camera.
The Rollei is a process in itself, and being supplicant to its needs, gives me the time to absorb the atmosphere around me. It helps bring about a creative space.
Firstly, I take time to load up the film in the pub the week before I visit Kilpeck.
Then, later at Kilpeck, with a little reverence, I remove it from the bag in the van with an air of anticipation.
I take it into the nave, carefully set up the composition, and set about my work.
I take a light reading and then plumb the information into the camera. The dials are mechanical and tactile with a sweetness of sound that is reminiscent of when the camera was made in the 1950's.
I stand and wait for the light to move around to the chancel arch and then take another reading until the sweet spot of the day comes about.
I press the shutter release and wait for three seconds until I hear it close.
I feel like a connosieur, at the peak of my game - a magician with light, until a week later I develop the film.
"What a knob." I think to myself.
I can't express my gratitude for the support I've had with memberships since the Genius Loci Digest started. I never imagined it possible that the Digest would reach 100 paid memberships.
The membership community has taken on a life of its own which folds itself into my wellbeing (I'm grateful for lots of messages of support), my travels (I'm visiting some remarkable places recommended by members), my photography (members are enabling Member Powered Photography), my writing (members have helped me develop my style), and my vocation (memberships are allowing me to build a new future).
In return, I will continue to give the best of myself and my work.
Andy (and Woody)
Found the perfect spot at Kilpeck to park up Woody. Brewed a coffee, made a sandwich and then set about my work.
Met a lovely couple who were visiting the church. They were lodging out in this van which had a remarkably cosy interior.
Recent Digest Sponsors:
Member Powered Photography (MPP) is helping me offer my professional services for free to historic locations in Britain. I've set up an MPP status page which is updated regularly here:
I put my heart and soul into the Genius Loci Digest and it takes a day a week to produce. With your support, I’m able to keep this digest free and public facing. 📸🏛🚐
Photographs and words by Andy Marshall (unless otherwise stated). Most photographs are taken with Iphone 14 Pro and DJI Mini 3 Pro.