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Bristol , United Kingdom
I'm co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy, which provides advice for poets on writing, editing and publishing, as well as qualified counselling support for those exploring personal issues in their work - https://theleapingword.com. My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, is now available from Indigo Dreams or directly from me.

Tuesday 15 August 2023

On the Question of Evil (and a Very Lovely Garden)

We didn't feel as confident as we looked returning to the 15th century church in deepest, darkest Somerset we'd fled from fourteen and a half years earlier

Well, Cathy might have but I felt more like this:

The reason being, this was the Church where not just I, the suggestible poet and one-time watcher of 'Most Haunted', but also my companion, the uber-sceptical and very sensible former nurse, simultaneously detected a presence so evil in the chancel that we only ventured a few steps inside before rushing back out through the door.

Yes, we were very brave and went back.  I suppose it helped that it wasn't a dark afternoon in late January this time, and the familiar red sandstone of the church looked warm and welcoming. 

I'd contacted the church authorities in advance to check whether it would be open - no point lugging all that anxious anticipation about unnecessarily - and as it happened, we were met by one of the members of the congregation, who told us about the church and its links with the local school, her imminent holiday in the Caribbean, how she prefers to eat the figs from her garden (grilled with goat's cheese and honey), and the old woman who knitted the figures from the story of Noah's Ark. She even led us right through the chancel to the altar, the area where that unspeakable emanance seemed to be coming from, to show off the restoration of the stencilled tiles, of which she was very proud. 

I would say that this chattiness helped, except that as soon as we'd set foot inside, it had been clear that whatever was there last time was gone. The interior of the church was just as unforbidding as its exterior.

Before she left, our welcomer asked if we had any questions, which obviously we did, pressing ones of a theological nature, but we just looked at each other and decided not to mention our previous visit for fear of causing offence. 

As soon as we were alone, we started to work out what had happened all those years earlier. Once through the door, we must have headed in different directions. I remembered glancing at the table where the guide books and parish magazines would have been kept, if there were any, but not picking anything up. I'd imagined over the years that this was because I was already on my way out of the building, but Cathy said I'd walked past it and gone further into the church than her, almost as far as the central aisle, and actually, I do recall an impression of light ahead and to my right, which contrasted with the gloom of the nave and seemed more abundant, and more golden, than any natural light coming through the east window at that time of day in January. So, maybe there was a light switched on, I don't know. Anyway, it was there in the chancel, somewhere near the altar, that this feeling of evil was lurking. When I think now of words that might describe it, I get 'obscene', 'waiting', 'dark', 'golden' and 'hideous', which don't really help. Plus 'terrifying', of course. 

Cathy, meanwhile, had stayed closer to the table. As I turned, swiftly, to leave, I remember her hurrying towards me at an angle. In my head the distances are far greater than they could have been in reality; it was just a few steps - a few seconds - before we were back outside again, but the fact neither of us could get out of there quickly enough made the church seem vast in my recollection. 

I'd run through scenarios in my head during the week or so our revisit was in the planning. My biggest fear had been that we'd go back and the evil would still be there, and I reasoned that would mean it somehow had something to do with (one of) us, if a whole congregation and village school could use the building without noticing anything that vile. I'd also wondered whether finding the church 'normal' would make us realise that actually what we'd experienced - and remembered - hadn't been a big deal at all, just some slightly strange spookery, possibly something even caused by my mental state. (I was panicky and emotionally very fragile at the time, my difficult, damaging marriage having ended, abruptly, just a week earlier.) Which are both ways of saying maybe it had something to do with (one of) us, rather than the building and its purpose.

We wandered around the church. It was so very 'normal'. The only thing that wasn't was that my photos weren't coming out very well (but it was quite dark).

Perpendicular, possibly mid-16th century font

the wonky, early to mid-16th century south aisle

Monument to William Bacon and his wife, Joane, who died in 1663 and 1669 respectively

This very chipper angel tooting a trumpet on the gravestone of one of the members of the de Haviland family ... 

... and this gorgeous badger kneeler from a Millennium project added to the cheery atmosphere. 

There was even a poetry moment, my first such in all my years of church-crawling, only I had none of my collections to leave there as we'd come down in Cathy's car. 

In the end we left more convinced than ever of the nature of our earlier encounter in that church, and it troubles me as a someone who believes we have souls, who hopes very much for some sort of consciousness after death, and whose notion of a presiding spirit, shall we say, is inherently benign. I've seen that evil exists in the world, in the things people do and say, but I've also grown used to thinking that hell, with all its accoutrements, is a mediaeval construct to frighten the peasantry - ie me. So what is this entity we encountered back in 2009, and where does it fit in? I think maybe I need to consult a theologian. 

We carried on with our journey through Somerset. Brilliantly - though it might not have been deliberately - Cathy had selected Hestercombe Gardens as our next destination, for where better than a garden to deliberate the existence of evil (except for over our delicious and very reasonably priced lunch in the former stables of Hestercombe House)? 

We pondered some more while wandering around the 18th century landscape garden, followed by the formal Arts and Crafts garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens. 

Actually, 18th century landscape gardens really aren't my or Cathy's thing. We were there for Jekyll and Lutyens, but it would have been rude not explore the whole of the site, plus we had Bakewell tart with clotted cream and lemon and blackberry posset to walk off. 

an ingenious bug hotel with a slate roof

a view of the Blackdown Hills

'the Great Cascade'

I managed to free this green-veined butterfly from a  spider's web without damaging it, and it hung around for a while afterwards, recovering.

Cathy proved to be fully prepared to brave the possibility of an encounter with evil, but not a mute swan, so we turned back at this point.

'the Sibyl's Temple' (yawn)

'the Pope's Urn'

These ducks - and more - came hurtling towards us expecting duck food but alas, we didn't have any.

An earthball -  I think it's a Leopard's Earthball but not entirely certain

Down by the Arts and Crafts garden, we sat on a Lutyens-designed bench under the next best things to an apple tree in this Eden, which was a fig tree and a vine. (Figs seemed to be the theme of the day, as Cathy had brought a bagful with her when she came to pick me up - though this particular tree wasn't in fruit.)

Common Darter

It's a bit of a feat to have a garden looking anything approaching good in August but the gardeners at Hestercombe have managed it ...  

... although, of course, it does have the most beautiful bones, in the form of stone-lined rills and pools, spouts and cascades, steps seeded with Mexican fleabane, portholes and gates opening onto sudden vistas. 

We sat at the end of the garden, facing the house, which is 16th century with 18th century additions hidden behind a 19th century frontage. I didn't find it very pleasing, and couldn't help wishing whoever commissioned the Jekyll/Lutyens gardens had got Lutyens to pop one of his houses there too.

a moulting robin

And then suddenly it was getting on for five o'clock and time to go home, with one last look over the Blackdowns. We agreed it had been a good and very necessary day out, but one that left us with more questions than answers. 

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