Poor carpentry, disgruntled architect or work of the Devil? Jay Collier tracks down twisted church spires in France and England.
Above: Le Vieil-Baugé, Maine-et-Loire
Our Derbyshire market town of Chesterfield boasts a major claim to fame in the shape of its famous Crooked Spire. Our suspicions that this oddity might not be unique were first confirmed on a drive through France, with the chance discovery of a picturesque twisted spire at Saint-Come-d’Olt in Aveyron. An immediate camaraderie was established with the village newsagent when we told him where we came from and bought postcards of the spire to send home.
When planning subsequent trips, we earmarked any references to other French crooked spires. Meanwhile, there were other interests to pursue and these included exploring the ‘pays du meteorite’ at Rochechouart in Limousin. Reaching the town in late afternoon, we made straight for the Office de Tourisme for advice on what an evening walk might reveal, geologically speaking.
Suddenly the meteorite expedition had competition. It turned out that the local church boasted an eye-catching twisted spire. In fact the Office de Tourisme was apparently in the throes of preparing a welcome especially for us. There in the doorway stood a huge photograph of ‘our’ Chesterfield parish church in all its contorted glory, and stacked around the room were large display boards showing a weird assortment of twisted and bent spires. It transpired(!) that our familiar Derbyshire landmark was one of a rare breed united under L’Association les Clochers Tors d’Europe. And representatives from Chesterfield were shortly to arrive in Rochechouart for its general assembly.
L’Association les Clochers Tors d’Europe promotes the cultural heritage of member towns and villages, with obvious benefits to tourism. Twinning links were established – as between Sérignac-sur-Garonne and Niedermorschwihr in Alsace – each boasting a skewed spire. The association’s first general assembly was hosted by Chesterfield in 1995. Almost 50 delegates were entertained and taken on outings during their three-day stay with local residents, setting the pattern for annual reunions at different member towns.
Above left: the famous crooked spire at Chesterfield; right: Fontaine-Guérin
Strange facts unravel
Around 70 French twisted spires are known to the association. There are examples clad in wood – chestnut shingles in particular – stone, slate and various metals. Some lean, some tilt and several exist in regional clusters.
A number were built with a deliberate twist, evidenced by a perfectly symmetrical supporting roof, and even decorated to add to the effect.
Unintentional deformities are blamed on poor carpentry, unseasoned wood, heat from the sun, lightning storms and all sorts of supernatural interference. A more sensible theory suggests that ambitious construction design was often subject to available funds when employing a master craftsman was not an option.
Strange facts unravel. About twice as many spires turn left to right as right to left. We were particularly impressed with a dramatic example of the latter at Fontaine-Guérin, Maine-et-Loire. Its beautiful church of Saint Martin dates in part to the 11th century and is rich in marble and painted frescoes. Just one of a cluster of twisted-spire churches in the Baugeois region, it is within easy driving distance of others at Le Vieil-Baugé, Cheffes, Distré, and Mouliherne. Distré is a particularly attractive village with rows of vines right up to the churchyard and generous parking on the village outskirts.
Once in a while we felt like VIPs. On hearing our British accents at Le Vieil-Baugé, one elderly villager made sure that we noticed a plaque on the church wall, commemorating a battle fought hereabouts during the Hundred Years War.
The Bataille du Vieil-Baugé was a blood-soaked meleé of 1421, when a 5,000-strong Franco-Scottish alliance was challenged by a far smaller English army commanded by the Duke of Clarence, brother to England’s Henry V. The outnumbered English were virtually wiped out and Clarence was one of the first to be killed.
As well as a bloody past and a crooked spire, Le Vieil-Baugé offers a pretty circular walk that passes the communal lavoir, one of those picturesque roofed pools where generations of women came to wash and scrub their laundry. Nowadays the only activity comes from a clutch of frogs ‘gribbiting’ in a feeder pool.
Left the straight and narrow
Legends frequently attest as to why a spire left the straight and narrow. At Mesley-du-Maine in the Mayenne, they say that the spire was deliberately built out of true by the disgruntled underpaid architect. One recurring theme –
common to Le Vieil-Baugé and Distré – asserts that the upright edifice was so surprised at seeing a virgin bride that it leaned over, either for a better look or to pay homage. It will straighten up if and when it sees another such paragon ... some spires have been waiting for hundreds of years! This legend has echoes at Ermington in Devon (see below).
From Saint-Outrille in Cher comes a lovers’ tale telling how Mathilde was unfaithful to Phalier while he was away on the Crusades. On his return, the unsuspecting Phalier arranged their marriage in the Collégiale Saint Outrille – but during the ceremony Mathilde disappeared in a cloud of brimstone. The spire was distorted for good measure.
As might be expected, the Devil takes much of the blame for wreaking havoc on religious buildings – not just our Chesterfield parish church but at least half a dozen in Germany. One French tale claims that the bells at Sérignac-sur-Garonne so irritated Satan that he destroyed the spire – three times. The last replacement was built with a twist to ‘screw it into heaven’ for divine protection – that seemed to do the trick.
Clochers Tors are a source of local pride and it was rare to find a member church unlocked.
Almost buried by sand dunes
In England there are at least four other twisted spires to keep Chesterfield company. The lead-clad broach spire of Barnstaple parish church owes its deformity to lightning storms and arson; a restoration of 1910 didn’t correct the twist.
Ermington church in South Devon has a 15th-century crooked spire, blamed on the weight of stone on unseasoned wood. They do say that the spire will remain crooked until a virtuous bride comes to be married at Ermington — and bridegrooms always look up hopefully as they leave the church!
Above: Lavoir, Le Vieil-Baugé
By the middle of the 19th century, the small Cornish church of St Enodoc at Trebetherick had become almost buried by sand dunes. When its stumpy broach spire was exposed during restoration, it was found to be out of true.
Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate, is buried in St Enodoc churchyard, so in 1994 it seemed rather fitting that the Sir John Betjeman Award – conferred by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings – was presented for re-shingling work on the decidedly crooked spire of St Mary the Virgin at Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire. Cleobury Mortimer was subsequently admitted to L’Association les Clochers Tors d’Europe.
The Association holds details of twisted spires in other European countries. An English translation of Clochers Tors D’Europe (authors Messieurs J.M.Barmes, J.C.Clément and J.C.Pompée) may be available though your local library – just the thing to add an interesting twist to explorations on both sides of the Channel.
Green Adventures August 2015