Ah reader, when you point an old mare like Le Gringalet at an ancient road of the type which criss-crosses Hertfordshire, you are always sure to find a quiet surprise. And no more so than at the quiet village of Anstey in the north of the county. Well, a village now but in my time…
Sheltering below the great mound of the castle is a quite wonderful church. Here, as my anonymous friend wrote in his beautiful poem Pearl, we find something, “sette sengeley in synglere” (always one for the words, my Staffordshire friend!). Here at Anstey, we have the silent graffiti of long lost souls.
Of course, I knew him well whose hand turned point to stone – but to inform you who inscribed these scratchings would be telling. I don’t want to get them into trouble with the priest: the last person who was caught ended up losing his hand – hardly a fitting end for a friend talking to the future! And besides, Nicolas de Anstie lost a lot more when he sided against King John so I think it’s best to keep quiet on these matters…
So instead, dear reader, I’d just like to affect an introduction to what I see as some of our scribe’s more exquisite creations… Look around and you see some treasures of my age, perhaps the finest of which are some wonderful jousting helms carved into the pillar near the centre of the church.
While these helms may be unfamiliar to you, I can recall well the merry jousters who once played for sport on the fields outside this church – royally entertained by Sir Nicolas himself.
But these shields are somewhat newer – I would say perhaps around 1300. Look closely and you see no idle scratch but the work of someone who knows what he studies: the breathing holes on the helm face, the continental crest with its horse and reins, the flowing decoration to the rear.
If I’m not mistaken, one crest resembles the ragged staff of the Earls of Warwick but without the bear: I don’t recall the knights in question but perhaps he is one of the Balliol family – a long way from home if he is!
Elsewhere, there are scallops – the sign of pilgrims – and pleas for help from Our Lady.And look further, scattered around are wagons, merchants in padded clothes, a three-legged pot – and a curious inscription near the beautiful font with its mermen. Alas, since last I was this way someone has “restored” the church and painted over this writing – it is difficult to decipher now.
But these changes succeeded in preserving the best. Yes, I know the delightful wall paintings I once knew are long gone save for a few remains, but Anstey is a special place. Reader, should you need some time for quiet reflection, come upon Anstey on a lazy day and share its cool shade. You will be richly rewarded with a mirror onto a distant age.