The Secret Commonwealth

By Jane Stevenson

History and folklore collide when a 17th century alchemist discovers there are supernatural forces at work as England slides towards Civil War

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Dark corners of the land

A few days ago, I had a chance to visit the Wye valley, which is where an important part of this novel is set, heading for Hay on Wye. In the seventeenth century, it really must have been incredibly remote, because it’s extremely remote even now. It’s one of the most secretive counties in England, because it’s hilly, with huge, tall old trees. Most of the time you can’t see where you’re going. The Wye is twisty, and has carved a deep valley; we were off the main road a lot looking for churches, which took us through some wonderfully deep and dark country. Kilpeck was one of them, a church which I already knew; indeed, I use it as a site in The Secret Commonwealth.  If you haven’t been, it’s a small twelfth-century building which is lavishly decorated. The south door is surrounded by exquisite carvings in a heavily Viking-influenced style, including two sinuous warriors climbing about in a tangle of vegetation on one side, and dragons on the other. There are also dragonish gargoyles, and Green Men with vegetation pouring from their mouths. Just beneath the roof are corbels all the way round, some of them Christian, such as a lamb and flag, some not very Christian at all, a Sheela-na-gig, and some cheerful, like a dog with a rabbit. It’s a wonderful place altogether. The friend we were travelling with also took us to another church called Partrishow, which involved about four miles of single track road sunk deep between banks, with bracken-tangled hedges on top, praying we wouldn’t meet anything coming the other way. That’s what I mean about Herefordshire feeling remote, though in point of fact we were on the other side of Offa’s Dyke by then. This is so hard to find that its founding saint, a sixth century hermit called Issui, is still tucked up there, and it’s the only church in the country to have a medieval rood screen which survived the Reformation intact. It’s not hard to think back to a world where the carrier’s carts stopped coming in winter because the roads were so bad, and the county sank back into its own introverted life for four months.

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