Dark Matters – Sites of Interest (August 2018)
THE GROTESQUES OF GRANGE COURT
Visited by DOMINIC KILDARE
GRANGE COURT in the old wool town of Leominster in the county of Herefordshire, on England’s rural western edge, is perhaps best come upon during snow.
To catch sight of it at any time is a privilege but to see it in snow, when the park that lies before it is white and still and silent, is to find oneself truly enchanted.
It is, indeed, fairy-like.
And, as with so many dwellings in fairy tales, there is more to Grange Court than first meets the eye.
Step near, raise your gaze and you will, I strongly suspect, find yourself taken aback by what confronts you – carvings of startling strangeness and horror.
Suddenly, the mind of the observer is cast from the picturesque and innocent to the darker, nightmarish side of so many of those dwellings described in the tales of the Brothers Grimm.
Fanged, bug-eyed and wretched faces laugh, grimace and glare from the black beams.
Protruding from one end is the particularly evil-looking head of a fierce, toothed ‘bird’.
Gargolyes on sacred buildings are familiar. But the presence of these wood-hewn horrors – so well-preserved and emphatically unblunted (unlike their often weathered stone counterparts) – is something else.
Historian Nikolaus Pevsner described the building as “quite prodigiously decorated.”
The property has overlooked Leominster’s Grange park since the 1850s, both as a family home and as the site of civic offices.
Its history, however, goes back much further. It was built in 1633 by John Abel, who was known as ‘the King’s Carpenter’.
Its original purpose may explain the carvings. The building served as Leominster’s Market House: a pillared property under which the town’s twice-weekly ‘butter market’ took place. The upper part accommodated the Pie Powder court, the system of justice that dealt with market-related crimes and misdemeanours: underweight loaves, short measures, pick-pocketing and the like.
Today, having been moved from its original site in Leominster’s Broad Street, the property is open to the public and is protected with a Grade Two* listing.
Who knows what was in the minds of the carvers? Their adornments may have been mere entertainment: cartoons commemorating those who laboured in the property’s construction.
But perhaps the gallery of grotesques had another meaning. In 1688 some fifty crimes on the statute book of England carried the death penalty. And Leominster was certainly no stranger to punishment. The town’s Priory church houses a ducking stool (see pictures below) once used to humiliate offenders in the River Kenwater. A framed text in the church states that the device – a contraption that perhaps resembles a siege weapon – was for use for the punishment of traders who employed underhand tricks at market, as well as for the sousing of “scolds”.
Carved texts in Latin and English – entablature – above the pillars of The Grange warn readers to lead lives ‘clean from sin’: ‘… that you may live hereafter.’
A painting by John Scarlett Davis (1804-1845), which hangs inside the court, shows the property as it once stood in the centre of Leominster (the correct pronunciation of which is ‘Lemster’).
Less well-known than the south Shropshire town of Ludlow (its near-neighbour), Leominster (population 12,000) lies approximately 16 miles north of the cathedral city of Hereford; it and Grange Court are worth a rural ride.
All photographs copyright of Horla.