Heads up, there are no ghosts in today’s blog! But this topic still falls under the Weird Wiltshire banner because I love all things history related too. And, it is at times, when you wander around a place and take a good look about, that you might spot something unusual. Something that piques your interest.
This is precisely what happened to me when I developed one of my short-lived mini-obsessions over some stone grotesques. If I see something on my travels or hear or read about a subject that draws me in, I tend to want to find out more.
And so it was, in a lovely Nadder valley village that I got drawn into another little detective hunt. Tisbury is in South West Wiltshire, near the Dorset border. It’s a rural farming community which has seen habitation there since the times of the Saxons. It’s an eclectic mix of houses but as you may expect, there are plenty of quaint little stone cottages dotted about. It is the smaller farm cottages that always draw my eye. I’ve lived in many little old dwellings and have a soft spot for them even though they can be damp, dark and cold at times. And haunted! See Sharing Spring Cottage for one of my stories about a farm cottage and some unusual goings on. Anyway, I digress.
The Grotesques of The Cross Inn
The cottages range in age, but many are 17th or 18th century. It is on some of these quaint little dwellings that you sometimes spot a stone face or two! The first ones I came across, ten years or so ago, were on the wall of a then-closed-down pub. The Cross Inn. The windows were boarded up, buddliea grew from the base of the walls and brambles, with seriously good blackberries, had taken over the car park. Three faces were staring down at me from the side of the rundown building. A man wearing a hat, a lady and in between them, a rather gnarly looking dog.
There sat the trio, looking out from their vantage point up on the wall on the first floor. I always looked at them and wondered why they were up there. Were they grotesques? They fall under that category but look like real people rather than the usual caricatures. I admit the dog seems a little devilish, though!
For a few years, I would walk past these faces staring down at me and then it occurred to me. I had seen other stone faces on the sides of other cottages around the village. Was this a normal thing in villages which I had just never noticed? Or was it a Tisbury thing? Hmmm. The cogs of the brain began to turn and so I made it my mission to find out more.
After asking around a bit and digging about in the library, I found some information. And since I was doing that, I thought I should go and take some photos. It was then I realised that although there are snippets about this collection of grotesques, no one had really documented them. I feel they are a special little bit of Tisbury history and they definitely deserve for someone to tell the story. That person, I decided, happens to be me!
Where did these grotesques come from?
For centuries, Tisbury’s industry had been based around quarrying, with local stone being used to build Salisbury Cathedral. Plenty of stone masons lived in the village through the Victorian years. One of those was James Rixon. He was part of a family of stonemasons stretching back generations. Born in 1837, James lived with his wife Isobella and bought up nine children in a little place known as Zion Hill Cottage. It’s a typical stone cottage built into the side of the hill. There’s a huge ammonite built into the stonework. It might be something to do with James and his stonemasonry! Maybe he found it in a big lump of rock.
Zion Hill Cottage
Anyway, back in 1881, the census year, I expect Zion Hill Cottage was far more dark and dank than it is today. The Census reports the nine children residing there. I expect it was jam-packed! It was James Nixon who, I found out, spent his spare time carving the faces of his family, fellow neighbours and village characters. I don’t know how many he cut, but there seem to be quite a few. An old photo of Zion Hill Cottage shows several rather macabre faces peeping out of the thick ivy.
Look at the photo above and outside the cottage is Isobella holding one of her many children. Look closely in the ivy at all the stone faces!
As you can see from the other photos of the cottage. There is no ivy there today. It is said, in the 1930s, someone decided to clear the ivy from the cottage and the stone faces fell off the wall and rolled down the hill. These were not the only ones though. There are others which have survived on their original placements, but others seem to have been relocated to newer properties.
Although there are literally only a few sentences recorded regarding James Nixon, I wanted to find as many locations of these grotesques as I could. I knew of several places already and headed off around the village, camera in hand.
Duck Street Farmhouse
Here is one character sitting serenely on Duck Street Farmhouse. I couldn’t say who he is, but perhaps the one-time farmer, I would imagine.
I found a couple more faces, but they were not James Rixon’s work. I’ve added them here anyway since this is a blog about grotesques or stone faces, as I prefer to call them! You’ll see more further down the page.
A Special Discovery in Fonthill Bishop
One lady called Cherry gave me the heads up about a stone face a little way from Tisbury in a small set of dwellings called Fonthill Bishop. This was not one of James Rixon’s but was, in fact, the owner’s father. The owner had left the army and inherited the property from his dad. While the owner was renovating, they found a niche on the house with his uncle’s face, made of stone, hidden away. Whatever the reason for him being tucked away, the present owner uncovered uncle so he could look out across the sheep-covered fields and onto the woods beyond.
Courtesy of the Tisbury History Society
I contacted the Tisbury History Society. They sent me several old photos of James Nixon’s stone faces. A couple of which I have failed to locate. They didn’t know who James carved from stone as records of things like that were just not recorded back then. Another dead information end, but I did get the photos.
The Postman of Tisbury Row
But then the owners of a cottage on Tisbury Row got in touch. They had a James Nixon stone face on the front of their cottage and invited me to take a photo. We think this guy is called Cappy Mould! What a great name!
“When we bought the cottage, a local said the head was an old Tisbury postman.” The owner told me. “When we got the Tisbury history book, my brother looked at the old photo of Zion cottage with a magnifier and he found our head amongst the others in the Ivy. Amazing story.”
A sea captain or a king?
The owners of a cottage on Hindon Lane sent me a message to tell me of a supposed stone face of an old sea captain. Supposedly he discovered Maine in the US but as Adam, the owner, explained, the house was not that old. When I tried to dig into the discovery of Maine, it seems the Portuguese discovered the state.
There is however a connection between Tisbury and Chilmark (a local village) and the East Coast of the US. More Massachusetts than Maine but hey, it’s just down the road isn’t it?! Note: For anyone reading this in the US, I know the two states are not ‘just down the coast’ but they do look like that when you look at a map!
If Tisbury is famous for anything notable it’s down to being the birth place of Thomas Meyhew in 1593. With the help of his father’s legacy his business as a mercer prospered so well he was able to purchase the development rights of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts. He and his family left the original Tisbury and helped to establish the new Chilmark and Tisbury, the popular holiday destinations for frazzled New Yorkers.
When I went to take photos, I found two smaller stone faces that looked like they were wearing crowns. They are a little tricky to see because my camera lens isn’t too good with a zoom! You can also see mournful-looking lady, gazing down at the road. Regardless of who these stone faces may be, I think they should have a place on this blog.
The little angel
As I walked further along this road, I spotted another stone face on yet another stone cottage. The owner said he had found the cherub-like head in the undergrowth and decided to hang him up on the wall. We were both in agreement it was more likely a more modern, mass-produced stone face, but what the heck. Here he is!
Grotesques on the bungalow
Another lady got in touch. Three James Rixon heads were attached to the wall on her mother’s bungalow. It turned out the bungalow owner’s late husband was a local builder. He had found these three stone faces while renovating village properties. Neither mother nor daughter knew where, though. The one of the left is looking very worn, giving him a rather creepy look!
Found on the cricket pitch?
My final hot lead came from a lovely lady just down the road from Zion Hill Cottage. Her late husband had acquired a stone baby head, I believe from a gardener. We think that, at some point this man had been mowing what was the cricket green, sometime before any houses had been built there. He had found the stone face of a baby and rescued it from an inevitable demise. The stone baby lived in her garden and I was able to go round and take a snap or two. She explained that the cricket field was below Zion Hill Cottage back in the 1950s, so it’s likely the stone baby head was one of the grotesques that rolled down the hill when the cottage was stripped of ivy.
Guardians of the pillars
Still, on this same road, I found two far more modern green man stone carvings. After some Twitter posting, and by total luck, a local stonemason called Harry Jonas got in touch. He was responsible for carving these two and had some more at his workshop. I do love a green man (just check out the Weird Wiltshire logo), so I am rather fond of these two guardians. I intend to buy one of Harry’s green man grotesques to stick on my house when and if we ever finish the building work!
Easter Island comes to Tisbury
This little stone carving is tucked up in the eaves of a lovely little cottage. The owner of the place is an artist and she is the one that carved this grotesque. He looks somewhat like Tisbury’s very own Easter Island statue!
The grandest of stone faces
Last but not least, have a look at these stone faces made from locally sourced flint. I only noticed them a couple of years ago but there they are, checking up on all the visitors coming to and fro. They live on the Fonthill estate’s rather grand entrance to the park.
So, that’s all of the stone faces of Tisbury. For now! I suspect some others will come out of the woodwork soon (or should that be stonework?!)
With thanks to all the people of Tisbury who took time out to email me leads, suggestions and information. It is much appreciated!
Don’t forget, I’m always on the look out for any strange or unusual stories from Wiltshire and the rest of the World. If you’ve got a little story you’d like to share I would be very interested in speaking to you!
You can get in touch with me here
References and Sources:
Tales of a Wiltshire Valley – The Nadder by Rex Sawyer
Tisbury and Nadder Valley Through Time – Rex Sawyer
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