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Cerne

So two days ago I went here (to lecture the locals on Chinese art, as it happens): Cerne Abbas in deepest Dorset. And the first thing to say about it is that there is a very large (ahem) image of a giant with an erection prominent on the hillside above the village; a thing that makes me proud to live on an island where such sites are not only possible, but have been happily standing there for centuries.
But there’s more to Cerne than that. There’s a very attractive village, a nice church, and the remains of an abbey. And the whole place turns out to be an example of a thing that England does particularly well: superficially bucolic, yet charged on further inspection with a series of rather powerful qualities, held in balance: traumatic change and continuity; a concatenation of places and structures that give the whole shebang an almost spiritual undertow; qualities that fall apart if one tries to pin them down or analyse them too rigorously.


The giant is a unique example of that remarkable genre, the chalk hill figure: taking advantage of the combination of green, close-cropped grass, thin soil, and bright white rock to create a charged open-air art form. Recently securely dated for the first time, he turns out to be early medieval, though his proud member may yet turn out be a C17 addition. This means it joins the Uffington white horse as among the very few of these figures known to be genuinely old.


It’s also a very interesting date, and its position in the landscape is interesting, too. The Cerne river carves a steep, north-south valley here; the giant sits on a promontory in the valley-side carved by a great scoop back into the chalk, the kind of landform typical of this smooth-edged, easily eroded rock. It is located not only in the most prominent location in the vicinity, but apparently as close as possible to the site which for centuries dominated the valley, in spite of the priapic giant above: Cerne abbey.
Cerne abbey has effectively vanished. Valued at just over £575 just before it was dissolved, in 1539, it had the wealth to build a church easily on the scale of Milton or Sherborne abbeys, both of which survive. We know absolutely nothing, as far as I know, of this once-grand church, but the surviving remains of its outbuildings suggest a lot of work was going on here in the C15, an era when it sometimes seems half of Dorset is being rebuilt.


What we can say is that it would have outdone anything else in the vicinity in scale and presence, not only architecturally but also as a focus for political, economic and spiritual power. And that it was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, probably in 987AD; which begs the question of whether the giant was created after or before it. tTe picture is further muddied by the fact that by the C12 the abbey believed itself to have been founded by St Augustine, apostle to the English, four hundred years before the documented date; he conjured a miraculous well into being, which came to be the site of the hermitage of Edwold, brother of king/saint Edmund of East Anglia, a kind of holy refugee from the Vikings who was shown the site in a vision; he died here in 871. A small religious house or chapel next to a verdant spring is evoked; but this makes it all the harder to say which erection came first, fnarr fnarr. I start to get images of abbey and giant as Vivienne Westwood’s punk kissing cowboys. Let’s move swiftly on.
The abbey site is the great disjuncture in the Cerne landscape. The village – originally more a town — with its church, sits just beyond, further away from the giant and once very much in the shadow of this walled and gated religious compound which must have dominated it.


So there is an absent presence at Cerne: one cannot understand the place without factoring in a structure that is today evidenced by a large, bumpy field, a few stray ancillary sites, and a graveyard in an odd location, detached from the parish church it serves; a gap which now serves to separate the village from the giant, but which was once the heart of this place.


This is a story repeated across the land, and often such absent presences gets filled in interesting ways. It is impossible to understand the layout of Bury St Edmunds until one realises the whole town is laid around the axis on which Edwold’s brother Edmund’s arrow-punctured body and wolf-curated head lay, the climax of one of the greatest churches in the land: it’s ruins are today a municipal park. Another church on a comparable scale stood at Glastonbury, and here the shattered remnants of the great church became part of a manor house garden and is now a heritage site; while some of its peripheral structures survived, and centuries later came to be sucked in a range of newfangled spins on its ancient traditions, ignoring some and adding to others until it morphed into a kind of Somerset version of Haight-Ashbury, a sacred place for the ‘New Age.’ Such peripheral structures are a fascinating and overlooked aspect of monastic landscapes, especially ripe for charging with new significance when the monastery itself has disappeared.


So there is something interesting here, about what happens when you destroy a religious ‘main show’ and leave chunks of its setting intact. At Glastonbury St Michael’s church, the Chalice Well and Wearyall hill, with its storied thorn tree, were all features of just such a wider monastic ‘sacred landscape’, peripheral and preparatory to the church itself, with its many shrines; there were other sites too, now lost, or overlooked because more recent cultures have chosen to privilege some over others; and beneath it all there is a remarkable landform: a near-island, a dramatic tor: a ‘thin place’ at any era.


It’s all reminiscent of what happened in the churches that remained after the Dissolution of the monasteries, only to experience a wave of iconoclasms. As a result, in these buildings, the main images — the statuary and stained glass and wall paintings, focused on saints, and biblical stories — have gone; but, along with secular effigies, their peripheries and margins: green men, mermaids, carved bosses, foliage and the like, remain: and attract attention disproportionate to their original significance, attention which can rapidly spin off into new myths of its own.


Often, ironically, these myths seek to play down the richness of the Christian culture which created them in favour of an imagined and rather one-dimensional vision of a pre-Christian paganism. This may be bad history, but perhaps it is an over-simplified shorthand for ‘this place has a power, and that power is a mixture of the landform itself and centuries of human response to it’, a reaction with I share.
All this works at Cerne. Monastic remains include two gateways, each a threshold between the mundane and the sacred, the open and the enclosed: one has been reconfigured into a handsome C17 or later manor house, one source of power replacing another; the other stands like a disjointed C15 tower block in the manor house garden. What may have been its guest hall seems to have been repurposed as an agricultural building; a tithe barn is now a home. There is the stump of a processional or ‘preaching’ cross in the graveyard, once perhaps a key focus of Palm Sunday rites. There was a chapel of St Catherine outside the abbey; it has gone, but something like it survives at Abbotsbury, and at Milton abbey, both on hilltop locations, both memorable outbursts of the ‘sacred feminine’ as understood by medieval Christianity. And there is St Augustine’s Well.


Here, fresh water, still drinkable when running clear and fresh, pours into a series of post-Reformation pools largely made of recycled bits of the abbey, perhaps especially of the chapel of St Augustine of Canterbury – a rare dedication, only repeated as far as I know Canterbury and Bristol — known to have stood around it. This a delightful place; healing and calm, the trees bearing traces of a belated rebirth as a clootie well, doubtless all very recent. But it bears witness to remarkable stories: of the power to cure eye problems; of new born babies, dipped in the well at sunrise; of girls turning three times as they ask St Catherine for a husband.


And of course these waters, and this sight, is draining the fresh water that flows below the chalk and the giant just 200 metres away from the abbey site, and just without the monastic enclosure.


So here we have it: village, parish church (largely C15), lost monastery, with surviving sites that veer from the mundane to the numinous, which were once a commonplace at such complexes, and which are marginalia compared to the church itself, which has gone: but which has left a certain liminal, creative wonder intact; and an obscene giant scratched into the Cretaceous geology.


How do we tease this all apart? What came when, and how did the site develop? The abbey is reasonably securely dated; many of the legends associated with it are only recorded from the C12 and, in the case of the well, the C17. Do any of them reflect ancient, pagan traditions reconfigured by Christian missionaries, or Benedictine reformers — or are they merely products of the culturally fecund and fevered centuries after the Dissolution? It is impossible to know. The former is romantically attractive, the latter is all that history has to say.


And much the same is true of our giant, the only feature of this place that can have competed visually with the abbey church, and which had to be regularly scoured and thus cannot have survived the millennium and more since it was carved without regular attention and the blessing of the monks who lived in its shadow, celibate to a man.

There he stands, his ribs and nipples emphatic, his erect penis even more so. The iconography is Hercules, but that might be part of his later reinvention. His most eye-catching feature is permanently aroused, permanently unsatiated, possibly a ‘late coming’ (sorry) to the artwork of which he forms a part. An erection that is also a suitable cipher for the landscape itself, filled with politics, power, traumatic change and continuities layered so that they meld together like the alluvium, sandstone and chalk that surround the river Cerne, as strange and quietly extraordinary as England itself.

I hope to do more of these following on from my ‘coming out’ about cancer on Facebook a week ago. Some will relate to my current condition, others won’t, though nothing is unconnected to it in my own head. The may come in dribs and drabs until my next book is out of my hair, but I hope people will enjoy them.

The Cerne giant

The parish church: mostly C15, fine tower, odd doorways either side of it, remarkable wall-like stone rood screen and very good consecration cross.

St Augustine’s well
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