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Medieval Bagpipe Carvings in Cheshire – an informal survey

Like many keen pipers I always keep an eye out for carvings or pictures of bagpipes on my travels, but recently thought I should try to find examples closer to home, which for me is Cheshire. Over the last year or so I have visited nearly all of the surviving medie- val churches in the county to explore them for images of bagpipers. Many of these me- dieval churches are now bare of carvings or paintings, following reformation, civil war and the heavy hand of Victorian restorers, but still I found eight examples in the area. There are two churches, not in regular use, which I have not been able to gain access to yet, and despite long explorations, I would not be so bold as to believe I have not missed any carvings in those churches I have visited. But I thought fellow Bagpipe Society members might be interested in the examples found so far, I’ve listed them here in al- phabetical order of their location.

Astbury, St Mary’s Church, (very close to Little Moreton Hall): Following a

discussion about bagpipes with Dr Jane Laughton, an expert in medieval Cheshire, I received an email from her recommending I visit St Mary’s church in Astbury and have a look in the porch. Before too long I was there, but unable to gain access, but not too disappointed as there were several interesting his- toric features on the outside of the building and in the churchyard. I discovered that, aside from services, the church was only open to visi- tors on a Sunday afternoon. I duly returned and was able to see the four figures in the 14th century porchway; one is unclear, perhaps a fool or a devil, but the others are mu- sicians, playing an oud, a harp and a bagpipe. The piper is very clear, there is a single chanter but no drone. In fact, as it turned out, most of the Cheshire examples are droneless. The piper seemed very well preserved to me, but I feel he has not been reworked, but has been cleaned and has been worked in millstone grit, unusual in this area, which may account for its preserva- tion.

Over in Bunbury is the 15th cen- tury church of St Boniface, also well worth a visit for its historic interest but in this case regularly open in daylight hours. On the columns of the north aisle are several angelic musicians, playing psaltery, rote, fiddle, shawm and bag- pipes. All survive intact, except the un- fortunate bagpiper which has had its head knocked off. My wife says she can understand why someone might have done this to the piper! Despite the de- capitation, the bag, single chanter and a single drone can still be seen.

At Chester Cathedral, which in

medieval times was the Abbey of St

Werburgh, are two bagpipers, both play-

ing double chanter bagpipes.

In one of the corners of the cloisters is a very worn sand-

stone carving of a piper playing a double chanter bagpipe. Although most of the features have been eroded since he was carved in the early 16th century, it is apparent that the bagpipe has two parallel chanters, but no drone nor even a blow- pipe, though his bag doesn’t seem to have de- flated over the centuries!

In the quire of the cathedral are some wonderful late 14th century misericords and bench end carv- ings. One of these depicts a piper with another double-chanter set being swallowed by a lion-like beast but boldly continuing to play as he slides down the beast’s gullet. I must here declare that I had despite examining the misericords many times, I had repeatedly missed the bagpiper, and it was finally brought to my attention by fellow piper Vanessa Ryall, who many of us will know from the Blowout kitchen. The appearance of the piper is strange, seemingly covered in feathers, or hair, or leaves – perhaps he is a wodwo or wild

man. The bagpipe itself is clearer, again without any drones, but with parallel chant- ers and the piper hugs the bag in front of his chest, rather than squeezing under the arm.

Gawsworth, St James’ Church: I have a suspicion that there may once have been paintings or carvings of musicians in- side this church, as such things are hinted at in a Vicar’s notes, but they are now lost after an overzealous restoration in 1851. On the exterior of the church is a carving of a piper, my favourite of all the Cheshire bagpipers on account of his vitality in playing with puffed up cheeks and seeming enjoyment. He plays a single chanter, droneless bagpipe. There is quite a bit of detail on the carving, including how the chanter stock fits to the bag, not just a loose merging as is more common else- where. The bagpiper frames a window with his companion playing pipe & tabor with equal enthusiasm, they both date to the late 15th century.

At the church of St

Mary & All Saints in Great Budworth is another piper I had seen several times, but he was tricky to photo- graph, being very high up on the south side of the nave, just below the clere- story. Ahelpfulchurch volunteer with a better cam- era took an image and emailed it to me, where I could see the piper’s face clearly for the first time. It seems, to me at least, that he is actually an ape. The carving is 15th century and shows a single chanter, dro- neless bagpipe.

In Nantwich, St Mary’s Church is well known for its quire stall carvings of mythical beasts and proverbs. There are also several musicians depicted, playing lute, organ, box fiddles, symphony/gurdy and two bagpipers. The pipers are mirror images of each other and play single chanter pipes, again without drones. All of the musicians here are depicted as angels with wings. Although I’d seen these carvings many times before, it was only when I was writing this article that I realised that all of the other musicians seem as heavenly angels with feathered wings, whilst the two pipers have leathery, bat- like wings, perhaps more suited to the other place! In a recent letter to Chanter, James Merryweather commented on associations with bagpipers and devils, and perhaps here we may have another example.

What can we conclude from all of this? Certainly not enough to reconstruct a medieval “Cheshire bagpipe” or tell us much about bagpipers in the county. But that wasn’t the point for me. I was simply very pleased to see just how many bagpipe carv- ings there were in my local area, in most cases unknown even to the volunteer guides in the churches. And, yes, I am still trying to get into those last couple of churches…