Newbon Manor occupies a lonely vantage point on north Yorkshire moorland, overlooking the hamlet of Little Sarling. The building is orientated peculiarly; it stands half turned away from the settlement, wilfully aloof amidst matted continents of dismal, aubergine-coloured heather that soak up the shadows of the passing clouds. The desolation of the surroundings is mirrored in the stark appearance of the hall itself; the sheer stone walls, blackened by centuries of windblown peat, and the austere, vacant windows, which reflect portions of the leaden skies and confer upon the property the forsaken air of a derelict.
The architect, Anthony Tyte, is a distant ancestor of mine. When I was a child, his portrait, evidently painted when he was long past his prime, was a disquieting presence in the residual gloom of the wood-panelled hallway. After dark I did my utmost to avoid moving unaccompanied within sight of its sunken, hollowed-out gaze. Under daylight, flared markings, resembling the beginnings and endings of engraved lettering, were visible upon his bare arms, which he had posed crossed over against his chest. It was my grandfather’s assumption that these vestige characters had once formed part of a family motto, perhaps applied to the painting after it was finished, and long since flaked off.
While studying divinity at Findlay College, in Oxford, I was surprised to encounter Tyte’s name recorded in a bound registry, held in the library collection at Christ Church Cathedral. Here he is listed as a founding member of a defunct order of stone masons and church builders known as The Cult of Weight, whose activities are briefly summarised in an accompanying footnote. Further illumination on the order has been provided to me by my mentor, Professor Victor Weston, to whom I wish to extend my deepest gratitude.
The sect first appears in records dating from the late 1600s. Most likely it was formed between 1672 and 1675, apparently in response to the discovery of a substantial stone relic that was uncovered following a landslip, outside the village of Woolweir, in the county of Devon. The find was described by an early eye-witness, Father Martin Ward, as a hollowed-out cone of calloused, coarse-grained marble, eleven yards long, the outer surface bearing a mottled pattern of worn-down bumps that were uniform enough in distribution to have been the work of a craftsman. A subsequent report, again originating from Ward, observed what appeared to be a garland of overlapping angel wings, carved close to the base of the object where it emerged from the mud. This had only been revealed after a heavy shower of rain. News of the discovery reached the ears of the church who thought it of enough note to warrant a visitation by a delegation of senior clergy, headed by an envoy of the Bishop of London. Among the party was my ancestor, Anthony Tyte; a man of puritanical zeal who claimed that, on multiple occasions, he had been taken from his bed by an angel and carried up to heaven. He had made attempts to replicate elements of the celestial architecture he had laid eyes upon, in the designs of a trinity of churches constructed in the capital, on the south bank of the river Thames. Sadly none of these buildings have survived into into modernity.
The landslip had covered a seldom-used cart track that ran along the foot of a steep natural embankment, and connected a pair of outlying farms with the village. From the top of the mound of disturbed earth and uprooted trees, the stone object projected like a spire on an upright slant. William Docking, who was steward to the Bishop of London, wrote in a letter to his master:
‘The farmer who showed us the way was keen that we should help him to free his wagon, which was trapped beneath the deluge of loose soil. Alas, when we uncovered it, the conveyance was crushed beyond repair under the weight of all that had come to rest on top of it. Laying eyes upon the wreckage, the man begged that alms be provided by the church as charitable restitution for the act of god that had deprived him of one of the tools of his livelihood. Some form of recompense was agreed upon, under condition that he would assist in the removal of the object when the time came.”
Following a careful inspection of the carvings on the stone, Tyte declared it to be a fragment of the celestial masonry that had tumbled from heaven to earth during the great battle between good and evil, that climaxed in Lucifer being cast down into hell. He ignored the locals who insisted that you could find stones of similar size and shape, and with similar markings, strewn throughout the region.
At this time, the foundations for Barnstaple Cathedral had just been put to ground. Tyte was friends with the principle architect, John Brightwell, and convinced him to incorporate his new-found holy relic into the bell tower as a steeple.
He remained on the site of the cathedral throughout the summer of 1672, and possibly all the way through to 1675. During this time the cult assembled around him, Brightwell, and another man named Neville Drewer, drawing its ranks from the masons and carpenters who were working on the building. Their stated intent, documented in a damaged copy of their charter, was to restore stone and metal objects, thought to be of divine provenance, to their rightful positions in the heavens, by incorporating them within the upper echelons of places of Christian worship.
The cult grew quickly, spreading rapidly across England, its members distinguishing themselves from the disparates ranks of artisans who converge upon any large-scale architectural project. Acolytes of the order were well-versed in the practicalities of structural engineering. They were renowned crane builders, meticulously crafting winches carved into the detailed likenesses of angels, upon which every filament of each feather was individually etched into solid oak. During a construction, these cranes ascended along with the rising walls; the pathways of their upward journeys having been pre-determined by the architects in their plans. At a point where an angel had scaled to the zenith of its usefulness, it would be incorporated into the walls of the cathedral, with the winches facing either internally or externally, according to the design. Henceforth, they might occasionally be deployed in the transportation of heavy loads into the upper reaches of the building.
As engravers, the cultists worked at such a frenetic pace that the ends of their chisels would glow red hot from the friction. Every so often a tool would ricochet from the stone and burn through clothing to brand the skin of an arm or a leg. This is the likely cause of the markings in Tyte’s portrait, his body having been permanently scored with the off-cuts of the sentences he had engraved into the walls of churches and cathedrals.
In exchange for their materials and services, the masons requested that burial chambers be built within the eaves and spires, where members of the sect could be interred upon death. When Anthony Tyte passed from this world in 1733, his earthly remains were lain to rest in a lofty crypt of his own design, sequestered within the steeple of Barnstaple Cathedral; the holy relic that was the foundation stone of The Cult of Weight.
Two decades prior to his demise he oversaw the construction of my childhood home on the site of Barnley Manor, which had been destroyed by fire. Its successor was deliberately rotated upon the old foundation, a few degrees towards the west, banishing almost from sight the nearby village of Little Sarling, which Tyte believed to be over-run by impious souls. In 1757, the population was almost entirely wiped out by an outbreak of pneumonic plague and the settlement permanently reduced to no more than a quarter of its former size, comprising no more than five cottage dwellings.
The Cult of Weight, latterly known as The Worshipful Company of Weight, disbanded abruptly in 1849. A brief disclosure announcing the winding-up of its affairs was posted in the business pages of The London Fairlead, but no further explanation was given.
In the same year, a journal article by John Hammerton, who was Anglican Bishop of Masham, observed that cathedrals which had assimilated pieces of divine masonry supplied by the cult, appeared more prone to drawing down unfavourable weather and suffering from structural damage. Hammerton was a rational man and attributed the phenomenon to quirks in the architecture influencing weather patterns “perhaps by the shaping of the winds that continually buffet the upper extremities of these prominent buildings.”
In October, 1987, a hurricane rampaged across Great Britain. The gusts caused catastrophic damage to Barnstaple Cathedral. Eye witnesses claim to have seen the stone spire wrenched clean away from the bell tower and lifted high into the air where it was swallowed up by the roiling clouds. In the aftermath, no trace of it could be found.
I visited the cathedral in 1993, while on holiday in Dartmoor. It was not long after the unveiling of the new bell tower and steeple. While I was there, I spoke with one of the volunteer guides and asked him his opinion on the fate of the missing original.
He replied that it had most-likely been torn apart in the storm and the pieces scattered by the winds along the bed of the River Taw.
Image: Bernhard Stärck