A few weeks ago I was waiting in my local church to collect one of my daughters from choir practice. I was a bit early and had time for a look around. When we moved to the town in 1999 one of the first things I did was explore the church for any bagpipe carvings that might be there and was disappointed to find nothing, either in stone, wood or stained glass. I was back in well know territory and didn’t expect to find anything new.
So there I was, looking at the usual display of guide books and post cards, and this one caught my eye.
Bagpipes! I turned the card over and read “St Mary The Virgin Bruton, West door screen detail, 17th C” A quick “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” and I realised that I was standing about ten feet from the carving!
At this point I took a closer
look at the image, the player’s hair-
style reminded me of the heads of an-
gels I’d seen on a 17th C tombstone in
Cornwall, the pipes are a standard West European single drone medieval/renaissance type instrument. Things get rather strange when you look at the player’s legs - they be- long to a goat!
I located the piper on the screen, (I assume “he”) is about 8” tall and in shadow just above the door. Looking along the screen he has a companion playing a drum, vari- ous leaves , vines and green men etc and then in the middle a name and a date! “JOHN SAMPSON H I CHVRCHWARD 1620”
So this would appear to be a dated carving of a bagpiper (with the legs of a goat) in an English church- I couldn’t have asked for more!
Wanting to get some further information about the screen and the name on it, I called on local historian John Bishton. It took a while to find a time that suited us both but this morning we finally met up in the church in front of the screen. According to John things are not as clean cut as they first appear - firstly the screen has been moved many times over the centuries reaching it’s current location in 1872 when it moved 20’ to the West and the two doors were fitted. In it’s earlier position it also had the church organ incorporated into it! Looking more carefully it does appear to be made up of bits of woodwork from several craftsmen and even eras. John tells me that he believes the earliest parts (towards the centre at the base) once formed part of a rood screen that until the reformation stood in front of the altar at the other end on the church and date to the 1560s. At some point after 1560 the rood screen was taken down and the timbers stored. Some of it found it’s way into the chapel of the nearby Sexey’s Hospital (alms houses built around 1630) who’s interior is strikingly similar. The next phase would appear to be a re-building of the rood screen using recycled , revamped and new timbers and probably including timbers from a house belonging to the Berkley family that once stood in the area.
By 1840 the rood screen has once(?) more been taken down and that’s when the West screen was first built , primarily as a wind-break to keep draughts out of the church. Other timbers were used to make two magnificent chairs that sit either side of the altar. The more you look at the screen the more it becomes a total hotch-potch of wood work. Every generation has modified, improved, added to or removed bits from it, with varying degrees of skill and care. While the name on the plaque is that of a local family, some of whom served as church wardens, the plaque itself is probably the most suspect part. While it’s
very close to the piper,
it’s a separate piece of
wood, stuck on and
clearly not carved by the
same hand. It’s rather
amateurish in quality
compared to any of the
other parts. Certain parts
of the screen are very
obviously Victorian re-
placements or made to fit the style of earlier work but not quite matching. This may be a replacement for an original plaque damaged during one of the many re-modelings the screen has been through. We’ll never know. Personally I’m inclined to think that the goat like figure was once part of the Berkley residence owing to it’s rather non-Christian subject. A few people that I’ve shown the picture to have said that it could be the god Pan: quite what a pagan god who’s appearance is only a step away from the Devil is doing in a church is a mystery but he’s there, in my local church , playing the pipes.
To see the carving for yourself enter the church through the main entrance and take the right hand door through the screen. Turn around and its just to the right of the top of the door frame. The lighting is poor so the post card really is your best view!
More information about the church can be found here : http://www.stmarysbruton.org. A book on the church by John Bishton is due to be published soon and will be available via the church website.