Stone Drone - some Bagpiper Imagery in Cheshire Churches

Regular readers of our blog will realise that there are many connections between pilgrims and bagpipes.  The instrument is a great passion of mine.  Like many keen pipers, I always keep an eye out for carvings or pictures of bagpipes on my travels, but I've made an attempt to try to find examples closer to home, which for me is Cheshire.  In recent years I have visited nearly all of the surviving medieval churches in the county to explore them for images of bagpipers.  Many of these medieval churches are now bare of carvings or paintings, following reformation, civil war and the heavy hand of Victorian restorers, but still I found eight examples in the area.  There are two churches, not in regular use, which I have not been able to gain access to yet, and despite long explorations, I would not be so bold as to believe I have not missed any carvings in those churches I have visited.  

Following a discussion about bagpipes with Dr Jane Laughton, an expert in medieval Cheshire, I received an email from her recommending I visit St Mary’s church in Astbury and have a look in the porch.  Before too long I was there, but unable to gain access, but not too disappointed as there were several interesting historic features on the outside of the building and in the churchyard.  I discovered that, aside from services, the church was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon.  I duly returned and was able to see the four figures in the 15th century porchway; one is unclear, perhaps a fool or a devil, but the others are musicians, playing an oud, a harp and a bagpipe.  The piper is very clear, there is a single chanter but no drone.  In fact, as it turned out, most of the Cheshire examples are droneless.  

The piper seemed very well preserved to me, but I feel he has not been reworked, but has been cleaned and has been worked in millstone grit, unusual in this area, which may account for its preservation.  Though the porch itself is late 15th century, the musician figures are quite different in style and of a different stone.  The churchwarden and historian of the building believes that these were reclaimed from an earlier building and he thinks them to be early 14th century.  If this is the case, this is a very early example of a bagpiper stone carving.  And there are many other fascinating features at this wonderful church, well worth popping into, they are open on Sunday afternoons from 2-4pm and the ladies there make you welcome with tea and cake!

Over in Bunbury is the 15th century church of St Boniface, also well worth a visit for its historic interest but in this case regular open in daylight hours.  On the columns of the north aisle are several angelic musicians, playing psaltery, rote, fiddle, shawm and bagpipes.  All survive intact, except the unfortunate bagpiper which has had its head knocked off.  Sue says she can understand why someone might have done this to the piper!  Despite the decapitation, the bag, single chanter and a single drone can still be seen.  

At Chester Cathedral, which in medieval times was the Abbey of St Werburgh, are two bagpipers, both playing double chanter bagpipes.  In one of the corners of the cloisters is a very worn sandstone carving of a piper playing a double chanter bagpipe.  Although most of the features have been eroded since he was carved in the early 16th century, it is apparent that the bagpipe has two parallel chanters, but no drone nor even a blowpipe, though his bag hasn’t doesn’t seem to have deflated over the centuries!

In the quire of the cathedral are some wonderful late 14th century misericords and bench end carvings.  One of these depicts a piper with another double-chanter set being swallowed by a lion-like beast but boldly continuing to play as he slides down the beast’s gullet.  I must here declare that I had despite examining the misericords many times, I had repeatedly missed the bagpiper, and it was finally brought to my attention by a friend and fellow piper Vanessa Ryall.  The appearance of the piper is strange, seemingly covered in feathers, or hair, or leaves – perhaps he is a wodwo or wild man.  The bagpipe itself is clearer, again without any drones, but with parallel chanters and the piper hugs the bag in front of his chest, rather than squeezing under the arm. 

The church of St James at Gawsworth has many detailed carvings of a range of characters on the exterior.  I have a suspicion that there may once have been paintings or carvings of musicians inside this church, as such things are hinted at in a Vicar’s notes, but they are now lost after an overzealous restoration in 1851.  On the exterior of the church is a carving of a piper, my favourite of all the Cheshire bagpipers on account of his vitality in playing with puffed up cheeks and seeming enjoyment.  He plays a single chanter, droneless bagpipe.  There is quite a bit of detail on the carving, including how the chanter stock fits to the bag, not just a loose merging as is more common elsewhere.  The bagpiper frames a window with his companion playing pipe & tabor with equal enthusiasm, they both date to the late 15th century.
At the church of St Mary & All Saints in Great Budworth is another piper I had seen several times, but was tricky to photograph, being very high up on the south side of the nave, just below the clerestory.  A helpful church volunteer with a better camera took an image and emailed it to me, where I could see the piper’s face clearly for the first time.  It seems, to me at least, that this he is actually an ape.  The carving is 15th century and shows a single chanter, droneless bagpipe.
In Nantwich, St Mary’s Church is well known for its quire stall carvings of mythical beasts and proverbs.  There are also several musicians depicted, playing lute, organ, box fiddles, symphony/gurdy and two bagpipers.  The pipers are mirror images of each other and play single chanter pipes, again without drones.  All of the musicians here are depicted as angels with wings.  Although I’d seen these carvings many times before, it was only when I was flicking quickly through these photos that I realised that all of the other musicians seem as heavenly angels with feathered wings, whilst the two pipers have leathery, bat-like wings, perhaps more suited to the other place! 
At St Bridget's, West Kirby, on the Wirral, (modern Merseyside, but historically Cheshire), the stone carvings include a fine Viking 'hogback' tombstone and many Victorian carvings of musicians, though no bagpiper amongst them.  But a stained glass window depicting the nativity shows a shepherd with bagpipes.  This is one of many by the studio of Charles Kempe who seemed to have a specialism for the nativity and usually gave bagpipes to his shepherds.  The presence of bagpipes in Victorian art and the shape of these pipes suggests he had a medieval or Renaissance source to base them on.  However those in the window at St Bridget's were not accurately observed as they have two drones but no chanter, maybe not much of a challenge to play, but not too much fun to listen to.

What can we conclude from all of this?  Certainly not enough to reconstruct a medieval “Cheshire bagpipe” or tell us much about bagpipers in the county.  But that wasn’t the point for me.  I was simply very pleased to see just how many bagpipe carvings there were in my local area, in most cases unknown even to the volunteer guides in the churches.  And, yes, I am still trying to get into those last couple of churches…