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Garway

Dedication : St Michael    Simon Jenkins: *                                                            Principal Features : Original Templar church. Hospitaller modifications. Fortified tower. Norman and Early English elements. External wall graffiti.  Remote setting.

If I had to choose a “favourite” church it would be a toss-up between Garway and nearby Kilpeck. Simon Jenkins accords Garway a paltry single star which I find incomprehensible.

The first challenge for the visitor is to find it. This is a very remote area and your sat-nav will take you to Garway - such as it is - but you will still struggle to find the church. Persevere because there are few churches so steeped in historical atmosphere as this one. Garway truly does feel as if time has stood still. It is a place for quiet contemplation of our rich history.

Garway is one of only six churches in England built by the Knights Templar. Apart from the Temple in London, itself heavily restored after damage in the Blitz, Garway is the most substantial remains of a Templar church extant in England. The original nave would have been round but sadly there are only traces of this because, after the suppression of the Templars in 1307, in common with most of their property, Garway passed to the Knights of St John (the Hospitallers) in 1326. They replaced the nave with a more conventional rectangular one during c15. Speculation is that this was due to subsidence.

The most exciting remaining feature is the tower which dates from the 1180 when the Templar church was built to replace what was believed to be a wooden church dating back to as early as 600AD. Many English church towers have been made to look “fortified” by the addition of

 pseudo-battlements and there are plenty of places where the towers clearly had secondary military functionality, but the tower at Garway was originally separate from the rest of the church and designed for defensive purposes. Indeed, this is unmistakable from its massive dimensions, paucity of window openings especially in the lower stage and the palpable strength of the masonry. Sadly, this tower is no longer open to the casual visitor, although the interior is simple and conceals no exciting architectural features. Henry II granted this site to the Templars. There is nothing unusual in such an endowment, but we might speculate that it suited Henry very well to have a military order established so close to the lawless Welsh borders! The local area - known as Archenfield - was a relatively peaceful “buffer state” between the two countries, located in England but with the people Welsh-speaking. The site for the Templar preceptory was probably due to the springs rising from Garway Hilll and providing both drinking water and supplies for the fishponds.

The nave is c13. The font is c14 and features Hospitaller iconography of a serpent - associated with healing - twined around a cross. The chancel arch is Norman and dates to the Templar foundation. It has interesting capitals. The roof was constructed by the Hospitallers in around 1400. There is a c13 arcade that leads to the South Chapel which dates from the Templars but which was substantially reconstructed in c16 after the Hospitallers had relinquished the site during the dissolution of the monasteries. This is a church whose external walls are rich with carved figures and a plethora of informally scratched crosses.

The Norman chancel arch with zig-zag moulding. To the left is the top of the stairway to the long-disappeared rood screen.

The nave seen from the top of the rood-screen steps.

Chancel arch capitals, north side. These show “water leaves”, an eastern motif that surely owes itself to the Templars’ crusader origins.

The Hospitaller font with serpent and cross carving. The triangular motifs are later.

Intriguingly, there are at least 3 places in the church where old coffin lids from the Templar period have been incorporated into the structure. This one is above one of the small windows in the tower,

Capitals on the south side of the chancel arch. Some say the splendid right hand one is a form of “green man”. It looks more like a green cat to me!

Piscina in the south wall of the South Chapel. The chapel was rebuilt in c16 and I presume that this rather elaborate piscina is from that period. What, however, is one to make of the crude carvings of (from left to right) a fish, a cup with wings, and a serpent? One presumes from the serpent that these are Hospitaller carvings - but they seem to have been crudely scratched rather than carved.

Tower Interior. The depth of the masonry can clearly be seen by the window splays.

The tower.

The eastern exterior seems to be little-photographed, yet the configuration of two small lancet windows flanking a two-light window in the chancel is quite unusual. Are these c13 windows Norman or Early English in design? It seems to me that the builders in this remote spot neither knew nor cared! Garway is full of little mysteries and intrigues.

Dextra Dei (“Hand of God”) on the north wall of the nave.

The “Wall Art”

A winged fragon (or griffon) above the west door. This almost certainly is a Templar motif from the East where dragon images had benevolent connotations.

“Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) above the west window of the south chapel.

“Cross Crosslet”. Possibly used to represent the four gospels.

A “Cross Potent” (that is, with “T” shapes at each arm). Mainly a Roman Catholic symbol. Of course, prior to the Reformation catholicism was the only accepted form of Christianity in England. “Potent” in this context means “crutch”.

* Swastika. This emblem has, of course, been ostracised since its adoption by Germany’s National Socialist party. However, it is one of the most ancient cross-like devices and derives from India (and the Sanskrit language) where it was associated with the goddess Maia and represented fruitfulness and sacred fire. Again, its appearance in Garway Church is probably further evidence of the cosmopolitan cultures  of both the Templar and Hospitaller orders. It is sobering to reflect that such an ancient icon has been so devalued in the west - probably forever - over a period of only 80 years.

This is possibly a “patriarchal cross” much used in Orthodox Christianity where the shorter crossbar signifies the church patriarchs. Again, Templars and Hospitallers may well have been familiar with this symbolism, but the issue is confused by the addition of crosslets on both arms. Is this simply a freelance version meant to incorporate patriarchal and crosslet inconography? Another Garway engima!

“Swastika” on the south wall of the chapel. (* see below)

“Maltese” cross on the east wall of the chapel. We only know this as a Maltese cross because the Hospitallers themselves were exiled to and ruled Malta after the fall of the Holy Land. This form of cross is known in other heraldic contexts but we can safely assume that at Garway it is indeed a Hospitaller emblem.

Remains of the original circular nave on the north side. Note also the “corridor” that was constructed in c16 to link the church and what was originally the separate tower. At this point monasteries had been suppressed by Henry VIII and so Garway became a parish rather an monastic church.

Blocked c13 doorway and window on the north wall.

Garway is a “living” church supporting a modern community of 320 people, as well as an important historical monument. It provides access to visitors every day (except, for safety reasons, to the tower). To find out more about its activities and those of other churches in South West Herefordshire please visit its website at www.stw.org.uk/

My thanks to Richard Goddard (husband of the Vicar as the time of writing in February 2011) for feedback and additional historical background information.