A stiff-leaf capital is a distinctive English style of carving from the early 13th century, a decorative flourish of foliage to top off a column. But although it originated in a specific time and place, its curling fronds reveal a whole history of cultural exchange and influence. Classical acanthus leaves come to symbolise both the Christian promise of resurrection and more ancient pagan beliefs in the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Is it possible to enter the mind of the designers of these decorations, to summon up a glimpse of their thinking and their world? This is what Andrew Ziminski attempts in The Stonemason, as he sets about repairing and re-creating their work. ‘Teasing out the first lobe is the most satisfying moment of all,’ he writes, ‘and from then on it all seemed to flow. Electricity courses through my veins as what is locked away within the stone is released. From the first lobe, fronds and stems seem to sprout and unfurl as in real life.’ The ‘dead stone’ lives, as does a pattern eight centuries old.
There are few reading pleasures that compare with a passionate expert describing their work, and Ziminski stands proudly in this field. He is a mason working in the West Country, repairing and restoring prehistoric tombs, stone circles, Roman fragments and Christian churches, all the time trying to adopt the techniques used by the builders of these places. This has allowed him to construct an fascinating and idiosyncratic picture of English history. He travels by bicycle and boat and his mind wanders as he works, conjuring up with remarkable deftness disappeared English worlds and the ordinary people who lived in them. Envisaging the lives of forgotten builders – why they made the choices they did, how they lived, where they went – naturally entails a good deal of supposition, imagination and ‘must have beens’. But Ziminski’s speculations carry unusual authority, as he takes himself to the same places as them, performing the same tasks with the same tools and materials and facing the same problems.
He has a gentle way of teasing out how the past and the present rhyme and a knack – perhaps this is a by-product of haunting churchyards and out-of-the-way places – for coming across oddly timeless characters. One, ‘the finest example of a vagabond I was ever likely to encounter’, he discovers cooking a hedgehog, and he gets this advice: ‘If you want to cook the hotchi-witch, first drop him in a trough and kill him, makes him easier to cook, see.’ ‘Er, OK,’ Ziminski answers, and asks if the meat tastes like chicken. ‘No, you daft’un, it tastes of hedgehog.’
At the church of St Peter and St Paul in Kilmersdon, Somerset, Ziminski is charged with repairing eroded grotesques or, as they are called in the local dialect, ‘hunky punks’. Writing with the sympathy of a veterinarian, Ziminski notes their ‘painful-looking blisters’, and that their underbellies are blackened ‘like burnt bacon’. But little escapes his eye, from lichens ‘like painted Chinese silk’ to the busy life of the village below: ‘possibly shady hydroponic activity in greenhouses, rabbit-hutch cleaning, and the crafty painter heading to the inn while the Dulux dried. In a now grassless orchard a woman gathered eggs in the mud, with a quartet of terriers tied in a knot at her heels.’
One particularly badly decayed creature reminds Ziminski of the carvings he has seen at another church on the other side of Somerset, perhaps made by the same band of roving medieval artisans, so he heads off to see if the better-preserved versions there can be copied in Kilmersdon. But that part of the county is flooded, and he must travel by his trusty boat through a landscape that has ‘rediscovered some of its prehistoric self’, with ancient pools refilled and medieval drainage undone. He thinks of the Iron Age folk who once travelled by dugout canoe – some examples of which have been found so miraculously well preserved that they can still be used. Reaching the church after a day and a night of travel, he examines the hunky punks and realises where he has seen their clawed, leering features before: they seem to be descended from the pipistrelle bats that nest in the church towers.
This whole sequence takes up ten pages but I hope my summary of it conveys the remarkable way that Ziminski weaves together architecture, craft, landscape, archaeology and natural history, all the time keeping a sharp eye on modern everyday life around him. His sentences sometimes clamber a bit further than they should: ‘The limbs of an adjacent alder sag under a platoon of preening starlings as a solitary big-eyed field pigeon stares knowingly down from what may have been the top of the first stone to have gone up.’ As he glides from place to task to thought to past and back to present, it can be easy to lose the thread of exactly where he is and what he’s doing. But he is never dull and never tendentious. And for all his antiquarianism, Ziminski is never needlessly archaic: he praises power tools and recommends Technotronic’s ‘Pump Up the Jam’ as the perfect track to get the right rhythm of mallet on chisel.