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Monday 2 February 2015

Visiting the pretty village of Castle Combe; unnatural carvings, Hollywood locations and one of the oldest working clocks in Britain

Castle Combe is in the county of Wiltshire, on the edge of the Cotswold hills. It may be familiar to some of you even if you have never visited there, as its picturesque streets have been used as a location for many films and TV programmes including Doctor Doolittle, Stardust and War Horse.

The village looked particularly beautiful in the clear winter sunshine as we walked around with almost no one else there apart from the residents.

castle coombe

Of course, I couldn't resist dropping in to visit St Andrew's Church, just off the village square, to check out any carvings.

The church was originally built in the 13th century and later extended, with the nave built during the 14th century and the tower in the 16th. The church eventually fell into disrepair and a lot of work was subsequently done to it in the 19th century.

The gargoyles outside looked splendid in the clear winter light:

Inside, I noticed this (I assume) medieval carving...

If you look carefully at the bearded figure, it appears to be holding something - perhaps a rabbit?- as well as a crucifix. What looks like a rabbit's head is appearing between the man's legs. In the church guide, it says that the figure is giving birth to a demon.

I'm not sure about that explanation. A lot of medieval carvings do show unnatural things, often representing 'the world turned upside down' (you can see some of these in my post about Bristol cathedral). However, I think that this one is more likely to be a humorous warning against lust, with the associations that rabbits have! The guide also points out another light-hearted carving, of an unnatural beast situated right next to the church organ - perhaps the organ has itself been the source of many unnatural sounds over the years!

There are many other interesting carvings and paintings in the church. The chancel arch is beautifully carved:

In the wall off to one side, the tomb of Sir Walter de Dunstanville dates to 1270. According to a nearby sign, the fact that his feet rest on a lion and he is in the act of drawing his sword mean that he was killed in battle. His legs crossed at the knees mean that he went on two crusades. The figures below represent his children, including a priest, a man of letters, a farmer's wife and one woman who died in childbirth. The chainmail he wears is so well carved that the original mail can be identified as having come from smiths in Bristol.

The older carvings are not the only interesting ones. This scene of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, based on the famous mural painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, hangs on one wall.

If you look carefully it becomes clear that it was carved in the Far East, not only because of the wood used and some design touches. All of the figures also have facial features from that region.

There are a few nice nineteenth century carvings dotted about in the choir stalls too.

It's not only the decorations that are of interest in this church. It houses what is probably one of the oldest working clocks in Europe.

There's no definite date of manufacture for the clock, but parts of it's design are similar to others known to have been made in the 15th century. It used to sit in the belltower but was moved down into the church in the 1980s. The clock doesn't have a face to tell the time, instead it chimes to let people know the hour.

If you would like to see it chime be warned that, despite many parts having been changed and replaced over the years, it is very old and doesn't keep modern time very accurately; we gave up waiting after about half an hour!


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