Travel: In search of little Green Men

What hidden secrets lurk in ecclesiastical details on hallowed ground?
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IT WAS in Troyes, in France, that I first met the Green Man. I was examining the detail on a fine 14th-century rood when I looked up. And there he was, high above, watching. Leaves flowed from his mouth and nose, and leaves issued from the corners of his eyes. He seemed extraordinarily alive: though he was wholly of stone, I could have sworn he winked.

Once met, never forgotten. I began to see him everywhere. It is a common phenomenon among Green Man enthusiasts, as the scholar Ruth Wylie confirms. "Once you notice him, he's all over the place," she says. "Some foliate heads are very old: the oldest known instance is on a fourth-century tomb in Poitiers. You find them across Europe, from Russia to France. There are Green Men in India, in Mexico. And two are never the same."

Like Mike Harding, featured in this afternoon's Radio 4 introduction to the Green Man, she keeps a database of foliate heads that shows no sign of reaching completion. "Once you get hooked, there's no resisting him," she chuckles. "No one can ever find them all: new ones crop up every day."

If you want to find him yourself, it is easy. We headed for the unbelievably pretty old market town of Axbridge on the A371 towards Wells in Somerset. St John the Baptist's is a handsome 15th-century church, lovingly kept; and it doesn't take us long to find our first foliate head. The choir stalls are Victorian (the Victorians, it seems, were rather taken with Green Men), and though most are simply leafy, one has a small and distinct face among the leaves, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

There's something startling about a piece of ecclesiastical decoration suddenly coming to life: almost as though it is done for a joke, I think, raising my eyes to the top of a pillar and immediately seeing another, much older and more sombre gentleman with leaves streaming out of his mouth. What is he saying, I wonder? What is the point of these vegetative faces?

No one knows. In the north aisle, there is a medieval wooden ceiling; and, sure enough, we spot two more foliate heads up there, one mischievous, the other stern. It is a good idea to take a torch on your Green Man searches; their faces are easily overlooked. The Green Man is nothing if not discreet.

A mile out of Axbridge lies Cheddar, home to cheese, caves, good walks, and the post-holes of a fine Anglo-Saxon palace, dating from a time when the entire area was covered in forest, a favourite royal hunting-ground. So it is not surprising to find more Green Men here, in the ceiling of the parish church of St Andrew, on the A371 itself. There's a foliate head on a choir stall here, too; but going up the nave until you reach a step, you look up to see a different Green Man: heavily gilded, even menacing, with ears of a deer or goat, issuing a tumbled profusion of leaves and fruit and twigs. The huge yew tree outside speaks of an ancient time; a time, perhaps, when there were devils to tame. And how better to tame them than by bringing them into the church itself?

Here, medieval bench-ends depict heads and creatures full of animation; but you have to go to Wells - not the cathedral, but the more modest Church of St Cuthbert - to see foliate heads carved into the Jacobean oak of the pulpit itself.

Little satyrs, all endowed with very English-looking leafy heads, flank lively scenes from the Old Testament. Step behind this wood carving, and you'll spot some much older work in stone: on the pillar behind the pulpit, two medieval foliate heads swim up out of their nest of leaves, perfectly formed, each no bigger than a walnut.

Then, when you step to the right, look up to the capital of a window arch and see, tucked away, a more primitive face still, with a look of brooding intensity, oak leaves pouring from his mouth and nostrils; while through the window, real green leaves dance in the breeze outside.

Rumour has it that Wells Cathedral contains 44 Green Men. We found five: two in the roof bosses of the chapterhouse; two in the south nave aisle, on the capital of the fifth pillar from the west end; and a splendid example, with oak leaves for ears, on a capital in the passage to the Lady Chapel. "Maybe it was a way of tipping the hat to the old religion," says Pene Howard, a cathedral guide. "You know, a belt-and-braces thing: better not leave the old gods out completely, just in case."

The leafy heads watch, and keep their secret; we will never know what they really mean. But to see them in so many forms and places is to begin to understand the story of an age of fear, when the forest concealed watching eyes; when you were never quite sure who or what was hiding, just out of view.

Directions: Take the A38 south from Bristol, or north from Junction 22 of the M5; then A371 to Wells. Other South Mendip churches with Green Men: St Michael's, Brent Knoll; St John the Baptist's, Glastonbury; and St John the Baptist's, Pilton.

`The Green Man Companion and Gazetteer' by Ronald Millar, is pounds 5.99 (SB Publications), and `The Green Man' is on Radio 4 today, at 2.30pm