I had read about the Shobden Arches, and seen photos too, before I visited this extraordinary structure in the course of my pilgrimage around Herefordshire earlier this year. However, it’s a place where no amount of prior knowledge or planning in advance can steal the impact, and also the poignancy, of what is certainly a unique eighteenth century ‘folly’.
Situated in a country estate and placed near the top of a gently-rising hill, the Shobden Arches consist of several key features of the locality’s twelfth century church reconstructed about a quarter of a mile from the building which replaced it in the eighteenth century (and which can still be seen today.) With the then lord of the manor, Lord Bateman, tiring of the earlier Norman and Romanesque place of worship, in the 1750s he had a new church constructed in a novel Rococo style with an elegant all-white interior. And although much of the previous church was lost during the course of these ‘improvements’, Lord Bateman seems to have sufficient regard for the artistic and architectural value of the Norman place of worship to take some of its components to make a picturesque addition to his scenic country property. Sadly, though, over the passing centuries the once beautiful stonework has deteriorated greatly.
The Shobden Arches comprise a large central arch, which would have separated the nave from the chancel in the medieval church, with this being flanked by two more narrow and yet richly-ornamented arches which appear to have come from the main doorways into the earlier building. However, it is the semi-circular panels, known as tympana, above these arches, that are of particular interest with the right hand one being a representation of Christ seated in majesty. Wearing a knee-length pleated robe the Lord of Lords holds his right hand up in judgment whilst in his left he holds, for all to see, a stone tablet.
When people went into the Norman church in the Middle Ages, they would have repeatedly seen this carving in stone and been reminded that Christ would one day return in glory as the judge of all the earth. Such an idea, and such a belief and hope, would have been familiar to them in their medieval world, re-enforced by images such as at Shobden.
Today, Christians still hold this belief and, during the Advent season, we not only anticipate the joy of Christmas but also look forward to that second and final coming of Christ. However, as twenty-first century believers, for all sorts of reasons-just one of which is the passing of nearly 2000 years since the first Advent- we can find this difficult, something which the Shobden Arches seem to illustrate. Isolated from their original setting in the older church, the visitor or passing pilgrim has to make a special effort to see what is now much weathered stonework. But it is still there to be found!
The words of the fourth century Nicene creed, compiled by Christian leaders of the time reminds us: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. If we find ourselves rather out of touch with this belief, perhaps a visit to the Shobden Arches, in all their faded majesty, would be recommended.