Ancient tiny church in western England a keeper of history

Aug 8, 2017

St Mary's Church, in Kempley, in Gloucestershire, western England, is a hidden gem

KEMPLEY, England — I'm lost in a world of hedges. The narrow lanes crowd in. I drive ever slower, looking for a signpost. Just as I think I'm lost, a squat, square tower and a weather vane peep above the greenery.

St. Mary's Church, in Kempley, in Gloucestershire, western England, is a hidden gem. The hidden, I've realized. The gem I'm about to discover.

I push open the door and the first thing I notice is how cool it is inside. Then I freeze. But it's nothing to do with the temperature.

Painted on the bare, stone wall opposite is a large circular pattern. It's so unexpected that for a second I wonder if it's graffiti. Then I see another design, then another, and more, off to my right, in the chancel. It isn't immediately clear what they are: the reds, ochres and yellows are muted, the paint faded.

Many of the paintings have adorned this ancient, tiny church, just 30 paces from altar to back wall of the tower, for about 900 years. Experts from the United Kingdom's Courtauld Institute of Art say they're among the most complete and best preserved medieval wall paintings in Northern Europe.

I'm standing in what amounts to one of the finest art galleries you've never heard of.

As I walk around, conscious of the echo off the stone walls, I start to make sense of what I'm seeing: Bible scenes, saints, the apostles, Christ and the Apocalypse.

It's remarkable they've survived so long, and lucky. During the Reformation, that tumultuous period of doctrinal strife ushered in by Henry VIII, an estimated 90 percent of English religious art was destroyed. As part of that widespread iconoclasm the Kempley murals were whitewashed. They were not rediscovered or restored for centuries.

Pausing, I imagine the artists, probably monks, working painstakingly on wooden scaffolding, stretching up into the barrel-vaulted ceiling, brushes in hand, sometime around the year 1130. I think too of the congregation — illiterate peasants for whom the Latin church service would have been little more than gobbledygook, and of how important the images would have been in teaching them the Christian story.

It's easy to think about this because there's no one around to disturb me. St. Mary's Church is truly off the beaten path. I sit on one of the plain, wooden pews, gaze at the walls, and soak in the delicious, heavy silence.

You don't have to be religious to be enthralled by old churches. I'm not. What I love is their role as the keepers of history, written there in their stones, carvings and paintings. A thousand years of clues, stretching back to the Normans and before.

And that reminds me. As well as its paintings, St. Mary's has the oldest timber roof, and one of the oldest wooden doors still in use, in the country.

Not bad for a small church, hidden away among hedges, on the edge of England.


If You Go...

ST. MARY'S CHURCH: . Located in Kempley, Gloucestershire, in western England. Open through Oct. 31, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Winter visits can be made by appointment. Free.