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Walsall faces with stony stares

By john workman  |  Posted: January 23, 2013

The bloke with the squint and the cheeky grin.

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Walsall was the chosen destination to cherish the p r e - C h r i s t m a s atmosphere at the town's ancient parish church of St Matthew's. But unfortunately the cold, damp December weather was matched by a sign of the times; the church door was locked, barring entry, the chance of theft and vandalism too great a risk to take by church officials to warrant leaving the doors open to valid visitors.

In the mind's eye the lights on the Christmas tree in the church nave were sadly switched off, the glow of the candles extinguished, and perhaps the sight of the crib embellished with holly and ivy, never enjoyed. Only the gloomy, grey sky overhead, the persistent rain making the cobbled walkway shine like a polished mirror, and the stark outline of headstones in the churchyard, were present to arrest the senses.

But a stony face came into view, looking down from one of the church walls, wearing an expression etched with contentment, perhaps a little whimsical, and a head covering that wound around the neck, perhaps a character drawn from Walsall's past by a master mason from an unknown era.

This parish church has stood upon its high prominence, commanding an extensive view of the town, for many centuries (the oldest monument within the church is a recumbent effigy in 14th century armour of Sir Roger Hillary which dates from 1399).

But it was rebuilt in 1820 with the exception of the tower, spire and chancel, so whether the stony face was fashioned by a chisel and hammer in the early years of the 19th century, or is the work of a medieval mason, is not known.

The journey to St Matthew's lofty vantage point had therefore not been in vain, and despite the rain increasing in intensity, more faces appeared through the camera lens. At this juncture it has to be said that the stone face carvings on the church walls are difficult to study without a camera, and therefore the pictures that feature in this story are the result of several magnifications.

Put all together on one page they look like members of an ancient Walsall family, or alternatively the mugshots of a criminal gang wanted for questioning. You can imagine the bloke at the top of the page, who has unfortunately lost his nose, had a squint in his left eye, but was a loveable rogue, always laughing and joking.

Then there's the buxom young wench with a wondrous look on her face. Perhaps she used to work on Walsall market in days of yore, possibly a fruit seller? There is a girl with plaited hair that hangs long, twisted and falls down at the front, surely a youngster who the master mason decided deserved to have her youthful character reproduced in stone? The red paint on her face remains a mystery.

Another young wench seems to be surprising someone, almost saying boo! from inside a cone of some description.

The last two stony faces represent men of perhaps superior standing. Dressed similar to a Greek senator, the one could be the mason's interpretation of an ancient king, or even a Greek god, with toga to match, and the final face could easily be a self portrait of the master mason himself, dressed in garb not dissimilar to a style worn by the Tudors. With air pollution almost eradicated in the Black Country, the weather seems to be the only threat to these stony faces looking down on Walsall folk for many years to come.

jworkman@ blackcountrybugle.


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