Reverend Francis Kilvert (1840-1879)

Francis Kilvert, the Victorian diarist, was curate at Bredwardine during this period and his grave is at Bredwardine. Revd Sir George Cornewall was his patron, and they shared a number of interests, especially music. Moccas Church, Sir George Cornewall and the Moccas deer park all appear in Kilvert’s diaries, which are a powerful evocation of the people, nature and landscapes of the Welsh Borders.

A well-known passage about Moccas Park is his diary entry for April 22nd, 1876:

“A lovely summer morning which I spent in sauntering round the lawn at Monnington Rectory watching the waving of the birch tresses, listening to the sighing of the firs in the great solemn avenue, that vast Cathedral, and reading Robert Browning’s “ In a Gondola” and thinking of dear Ettie. Today there was a luncheon party consisting of Andrew and Mary Pope from Blakemere, Mr and Mrs Phillpott from Staunton on Wye, Houseman, and Mr Robinson from Norton Canon. After they had left William and I walked up to the top of Moccas Park, whence we had a glorious view of the Golden Valley shining in the evening sunlight with the white houses of Dorstone scattered about the green hillsides “ like a handful of pearls in a cup of emerald” and the noble spire of Peterchurch rising from out of the heart of the beautiful rich valley which was closed below by the Sugar Loaf and the Skyrrid blue above Abergavenny. We came tumbling and plunging down the steep hillside of Moccas Park, slipping, tearing and sliding through oak and birch and fallow wood of which there seemed to be underfoot an accumulation of several feet, the gathering ruin and decay probably of centuries. As we came down the lower slopes of the wooded hillside into the glades of the park the herds of deer were moving under the brown oaks and the brilliant green hawthorns, and we came upon the tallest largest stateliest ash I ever saw and what seemed at first in the dusk to be a great ruined grey tower, but which proved to be the vast ruin of the king oak of Moccas Park, hollow and broken but still alive and vigorous in parts and actually pushing out new shoots and branches. That tree may be 2000 years old. It measured roughly 33 feet round by arm stretching.
I fear those grey old men of Moccas, those grey, gnarled, low-browed, knock-kneed, bowed, bent, huge, strange, long armed, deformed, hunch-backed misshapen oak men that stand waiting and watching century after century biding God’s time with both feet in the grave and yet tiring down and seeing out generation after generation, with such takes to tell, as when they whisper them to each other in the midsummer nights, make the silver birches weep and the poplars and aspens shiver and the long ears of the hares and rabbits stand on end. No human hand set those oaks, They are “the trees which the Lord hath planted”. They look as if they had been at the beginning and making of the world, and they will probably see its end”.

Kilvert refers in passing to the 1870-71 restoration of Moccas Church several times; in April 1875 for example, as the diarist approached the east lodge leading down to the church and court, he was met by some wandering singers “with voices matched like bells”. He could not understand what they sang but, in the distance, he could hear the strains of the organ coming from St Michael’s church. On coming closer he was hailed from the churchyard by James Atalay, Bishop of Hereford (1868-95), who offered to show him the church. Kilvert was reluctant to interrupt his patron in full flight but the bishop hustled him into the chancel and when Sir George had finished, he showed his visitors “the beautiful little Norman church with its apse and stone altar”. Kilvert noted in his diary that Sir Reginald de Fresne, whose tomb was now set in the middle of the chancel, may well have been an ancestor of his (but this is unlikely).

26th February 1878:

“ At 10am when on the box of Miss Newton’s brougham to the reopening of Mansell Grange Church after a good restoration. More than 25 clergy in surplices. The Bishop preached in the morning, the Archdeacon, Lord Saye and Sele, in the afternoon. It was difficult to say which was the worse sermon. The former was a screed, the latter a rigmarole, but the rigmarole was more appropriate and more to the purpose than a screed. A nice luncheon at the Stanhopes’ at Byford Rectory. I was with a small party at a table in the study at which Miss Stanhope presided. The large party was in the dining room. Good congregations and the offertories amounted to nearly £50 and cleared off the debt on the church. The weather dry and the roads good, a satisfactory day. Many people laugh at the old Baron’s sermons, but the cottagers like them for his plain and homely and speaks of names and places that they know. When Moccas Church was restored and reopened, Lord Saye and Sele preached in the afternoon and told the people that Moccas was so called from “the badgers which come down to the river to eat the fish.” It is supposed he meant otters, and that he had in some strange confused way mixed up together otters, badgers and pigs, for Moccas is so called from the swine (Welsh Moch) which used to feed on the acorns in the great oak forest. “

Friday 20 December 1878:

“ Hard frost. I reached the school with great difficulty owing to the icy state of the roads especially on the hillside. Called at the Cottage. Miss Newton has given a text to Bredwardine Church for Christmas and an I.H.S. banner to Brobury. Advent service in Bredwardine Church at 7pm. Sir George Cornewall walked over from Moccas to preach, coming through the field and supporting himself in the slippery places with a spud walking stick. Between 30 and 40 people in church which we though a fair congregation considering the weather and icy roads.”

For more information on Francis Kilvert visit the Kilvert Society website using the link at the bottom of this page.

Text kindly provided by Doctor Rachel Jenkins.

Source Material

Lumby J., 2017 Poems and Paintings of Herefordshire and the neighbouring Marches. Logaston Press.
Plomer W., 1992 (Ed) Kilvert’s Diary 1870-1879. Life in the English Countryside in Mid-Victorian Times. London: Bracken Books
Toman J., 2001. Kilvert: the Homeless Heart. Herefordshire: Logaston Press.