This is North Woodchester, about two miles from my home in Stroud. The old church has gone, its neat and tidy Victorian replacement some little distance away. But its graveyard is still consecrated, and still maintained. Happily, it is not overly manicured. There is room for nature and imaginative freedom. It feels like a place of many dimensions. I have long enjoyed spending time here, and first wrote about it seven years ago (1).
To the left of the path above, there is an extensive stretch of rough grass with nothing built over it. For there is another world below, a Romano-British mosaic made around 325 CE for the villa then on this site. The mosaic is now known as the Woodchester Orpheus. It originally covered the main reception room.
At that time, the city of Corinium (Cirencester) had about 20,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in Britain apart from Londinium (London). The region was prosperous enough for Corinium to have a specialist workshop for making Orphic themed mosaics. Orpheus was popular with the Romano-British aristocracy of the day. He was, after all, an archetypal Bard. He could charm all forms of life, as shown in the Woodchester mosaic. He caused trees to dance and energised the very stones. He was a walker between the worlds, destined ultimately to become a talking head speaking prophecies. He spoke to a sensibility both Romanised and steeped in older Celtic tradition.
The mosaic was uncovered in 1793 by the Gloucestershire born antiquarian and engraver Samuel Lysons, His dig can be seen as an early move in the development of modern archaeology. The illustration above is his own, and he enjoyed a reputation for accuracy in an age notable for painstaking illustration.
Archaeology was still far from being a science and the dig itself caused damage. But Lysons was a recognised pioneer, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society and an antiquary professor at the Royal Academy. The mosaic continued to be uncovered and re-covered over the years – seven times since 1880, the last time in 1973. By then there were serious worries about the damage being caused, and there are no plans to reveal it again. A replica was made over a painstaking ten year period and for a while placed on public display at the nearby Prinknash Abbey. But it was sold overseas in 2010.
I like seeing the mosaic through Lysons’ eyes, because for me the experience as a whole involves multiple layers of history and culture. When I look at his illustration, I see something of the late Roman empire, with a hint of something wilder from Orpheus’s archaic Thracian home, and I enjoy the lens of the later eighteenth century, combining both rational and romantic elements in the manner of that time. I appreciate these different layers of cultural ancestry and their enduring influence. For me the early modern one has some predominance – in this half-deserted graveyard with its ruins, the sleeping dead, and the mythic art of the ancients buried under my feet.
Indeed my experience of the graveyard is not all about Orpheus. I sense a spirit of place that accommodates all of these influences in a natural way. It is a place at home with loss and death and ancient memory. My personal experience varies, and can be edgy at times. But I do not find it particularly spooky. For me, it is a suggestive, multi-dimensional space simply being itself and not greatly concerned with what I bring or how I respond.
There are corners of the graveyard that seem actively gentle. Below, we see a now disused gateway sitting among trees. Not yet decaying, it nonetheless feels that it is being reclaimed by the land, rather than asserting itself as part of a built environment. An autumnal sun warms all. This corner, at this time, is a simple place of peace.