Carved stones connect us to landscapes. Through the material, they connect us to a physical one; through the technique of its production and where it is placed, a human one; through the image itself, often a spiritual one. They are points in time and through time that allow us to sense the past and allow the past to leak into the present. Over time, these records of human interaction with the land become more and more precious, documents of moments lived hundreds of years ago. In turn, they, like the medieval churches where they are often found, become part of the landscape themselves, weathering back into it, taking the secrets of the centuries with them. Stone sculpture and landscape are inextricably linked.
Today feels like the first day of winter. I’m by Castle Beach, Tintagel, on the north coast of Cornwall, and the sky is driving clouds at a ferocious speed. I’m trying to write down these thoughts about carved stones that have just popped into my head, of course now, and am struggling to work my fingers into a suitable claw to hold a pen and notebook but there is water everywhere: a stream falls the last twenty feet onto the beach and is blown upward into spray, mingling with the vapourised waves and tendrils of rain that threaten a sustained downpour. I look for shelter, perhaps behind a rock on the beach? But the steps down are piles of rubble and everything is roped or fenced off, all destroyed by the sea. I scribble something, hope I can remember the rest. The caves on the shore, below the castle, draw the dark from the folded rock above.
I’m here to look in the church of St Materiana, on top of the cliffs, which is home to a few carved stones from the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, one of which I want to draw. I remember it as a triangular stone carved with a six-petalled circle design, set on the front of an altar. It’s a Romanesque carving and in excellent condition, or at least it was the last time I saw it. Climbing the hairpins of the path up the side of the valley, past the remains of the castle, I pick up the coast path and lean into the wind as the sea grinds the cliffs below. Rills of quartz thread the slate underfoot. Over a wall the silhouette of the church comes into view, alone on the high cliff. Blasts of wind flatten the gorse, comb the long grasses smooth.
I’m reaching for my notebook again. I huddle over it and try to write something like the following: in looking at a stone carving we are viewing a past moment in time from our own moment in time, and in acknowledging it are connected to it, and through it to the land itself. Sometimes it is in the wilder places where this connection feels most powerful. They are part of the distinct pattern of a region.
Inside the church it is surprisingly loud: sections of the floor are up, and two men are working on the screen that divides the chancel from the nave. There is a Romanesque font, each corner carved with staring heads. In the chancel are fragments of capitals carved with chevrons and star ornament. The triangular stone is still attached to its altar. I take a picture as the wind rattles around the tower.