“It’s something to become a bore,
And more than that, at twenty-four.
It’s something too to know your wants
And go full pelt for Norman fonts.”
– Sir John Betjeman
What a wonderful example of a Norman font it is, lying eternally undisturbed in its ancient home: the tiny church of St Peter. Sat merrily upon a gentle mound next to the popular gallery at Kettle’s Yard, hidden from the busy road with a line of private, bushy trees, and ravaged by the turbulent forces of war and Reformation, the church is now bare and plain; the white plaster wash covering all its internal walls.
Yet, by some minor miracle, the font itself survived, and with the doorway, is one of the last vestiges of the church’s 12th century origins – but there is something bizarre in the artistry of the font. It is ringed by a string of four mermen, each grasping at the other’s tail, their strange bodies forming each corner. So, as these mystical faces peer out, surveying their alien surroundings with the same incredulity by which a viewer might address them; oriental in shape and repetition, as much a pattern as a portrait, they are a strange choice to adorn the tool of the first sacrament.
Perhaps it can be thought that an arcane corner of the Norman English mind had not abandoned the pagan visions of their barbarian ancestors. For Christian belief does not have to preclude the existence of a further coterie of metaphysical beings. Instead, the artist has sought not only to show his fears, for the devil and his beasts, the false creatures of other imagined worlds, but also to tame them, capturing their bodily shape into a permanent stone prison. So also, baptism may lock out these foul mongrels from our lives; the font simultaneously warns us of what lurks in the shadows and mirrors, in its creation, the defence against them all.