St Peter’s of Peterchurch
St Peter’s Church has stood on the banks of the River Dore in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley since before Norman times. It is probable that there was a Celtic Christian community here from as early as the 6th Century, but what is certain is that there was a Saxon church at Peterchurch – the undercroft and walls have traces of Saxon stonework from the 9th Century or thereabouts. When the Normans came they built the three stunning arches and left a unique Norman font. Showing typical Norman skills, the building has an interesting perspective, appearing longer from inside than outside.
There are four partitions in this church – nave, two chancels and sanctuary. No-one knows why the first chancel was built. It is possible that there was once a large wooden tower above here, accessed by the spiral staircase which emerges high up on the left at the front of the nave.
The 13th Century Stone Tower
The Tower with its ring of six bells has an unusual ringing chamber doors in to the church and in the outer wall. In fact the only access to the first stage of the tower has always been by ladder – initially outside, now inside. Presumably this, and the great thickness of the tower walls, was for defensive reasons. For centuries this area had been subject to raids by the Welsh/Celts on one side and the Saxons/Normans on the other. Once in the ringing chamber, there is a spiral staircase the rest of the way up the tower.
The Sanctuary Apse (altar area)
The rounded apse has a painted ‘firmament’ ceiling which is much admired by worshippers here. Receiving Communion is like going on a journey from the plain West end of the nave to the ‘heavenly’ sanctuary.
The Saxon Stone alter (with five incised crosses)
It is rare for an ancient stone altar to have survived the Reformation: after this, the large oak table in the choir area was probably used as the Communion table. Nowadays we use both!
The original stone spire was built in 1320. Unfortunately, in the 1940s this was found to be unsafe and the top two thirds were removed. Funds were painstakingly collected over the next 20 years. However, as the money came in, the cost ‘spiralled’ until it was obvious that a stone re-build was not viable and by this time the ‘stump’ had decayed. So in 1972 a fibreglass copy of the original, complete with its re-gilded original weathercock, was put in place by a 240ft crane, at the time the largest crane in Europe. Unfortunately the weather cock later blew off in a gale!
The spire can be seen up and down the valley for miles and stands, as originally intended, to lift our eyes upward to remind us of the greatness of God.
Grave of Robert Jones VC: 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot; Battle of Rorkes Drift, Zulu War, South Africa, 1879. Following his childhood in South Wales and his traumatic time under service of his Queen, Robert Jones (with his wife and children) settled in Peterchurch to work as a gardener at Crossways House for Major De la Hay. He died as a result of gunshot wounds sustained when he slipped on a path during his work. An inquest held at the Boughton Arms Hotel concluded that he had intentionally taken his own life. He was buried here in the peace and quiet of the churchyard adjoining the path leading from the church and the ancient yew tree into the village. His descendants still live locally and his grave is cared for by them and by his old regiment. There is more about Robert Jones in the scrap books and photo albums in church.
The Yew Tree
The yew tree in St Peter’s Church churchyard has long been known for its great age. Historically it was understood to be 750 years old, but a recent re dating carried out by Alun Meredith has put it, incredibly, at over 3,000 years old! It is believed that there are around 300 Yew trees in the UK that are 1000 yearsold, but yew trees that are 3000 years old and over are extremely rare with only 12 recorded in the country. Such specimens are consequently of particular importance, scientifically, ecologically, historically and culturally.
Yew trees have always been surrounded by mythology. To the ancient Celts they were called the Tree Of Life and they have been viewed as sacred and magical across many cultures. In Celtic paganism they were considered a portal to ancestors and a means of communicating with the dead and were therefor planted on sacred sights. A common more recent explanation to the presence of yew trees in churchyards was that they were planted for their wood which makes excellent long bows, but this theory has now been abandoned as the volume of yew wood needed for war archery during the middle ages was far too great to be in proportion to the wood which could have been grown in churchyards. It is now known that the trees were there long before the churches and are the result of the early Christians adopting certain aspects of the pre-existing Pagan beliefs into their own, so that churches developed naturally on pre-Christian sites where yews had long been revered.
The ancient yew tree at St Peter’s Church tells us that people have been worshiping on the site where St Peters Church was built thousands of years before its existence.
We encourage all visitors to come and enjoy our church, and to explore the wider Golden Valley where you can experience the beauty and peace of the churches at Vowchurch and Turnastone, only 300 yards apart. Over the hill in the Wye Valley, are our sister churches of Madley and Tyberton. Madley is cathedral-like and a pilgrim place since the 6th Century. There are wall paintings from about 1300AD and stained glass from even earlier. Tyberton is a typical estate church and is a delight inside, where the box pews remain in their original form.
Almost all the churches locally richly repay a visit, from the small and secluded Bacton church, to Dore Abbey, the remains of a great Cistercian Abbey, or Betjeman’s favourite St. Margaret’s, tucked away in the hills with a wonderful screen.
The living Church
St Peter’s Church remains a functioning church, a place of weekly worship for young and old, and somewhere many in our community find peace, strength, security and the presence of God.
St Peter’s Centre hopes to ensure the survival of this wonderful building for many years to come, by encouraging more and more of the community to make use of the inspirational space it provides.