“What do you think’s over there?”
Steve Birkbeck and I were doing a 44km training ride on our bikes today, stopping at Chenonceaux for lunch. On the way, in the middle of the countryside, Steve said “Get off your bike and lean it on that telegraph pole over there.” I did as Badger Coach bade, according to the tacit laws of Badgerdom, and then he pointed to a square copse in the middle of a field, a short distance from the road, and said “What do you think’s over there?”
Well, I hadn’t got a clue, had I? So he took me over. There was an open space in the fencing around the copse and we went in, fighting through tangled undergrowth. Then suddenly, looking down, we saw an archway and a steep flight of stone steps descending into the darkness. It was very slippery, but we managed to pick our way along the perilous declivity. And there, deep below field level, was an amazing underground church, with a nave, an apse and four transepts, all beautifully carved out of the living rock. Steve knew it was there because the deputy mayor of Genillé had told his wife about it, but otherwise there was no indication – not even a little signpost beside the road.
When was it constructed and why should people want to build an underground church? The Catholics weren’t persecuted in France, though the Protestants were. But this came from another age. Was it palaeo-Christian, or even pagan?
An Internet search for ‘underground churches in France” comes up primarily with The St-Jean church at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne which is the tallest underground church in Europe. It was discovered in 1961 when a passing truck collapsed through the roof of a pre-Christian necropolis and revealed the huge space used for sacrifices and burials since the 3rd century. It is said that in the 4th century people were inspired by Turkey’s Cappadocia where cave dwellers built homes and churches beneath the rock.
Touraine is very rich in troglodytic habitations and even underground refuges where entire villages and all their livestock hid for months on end from marauding enemies in the Middle Ages. But this church was unique in my experience, and a total mystery. There is no mention of it whatsoever on the Internet, and apparently no effort to preserve it – given the condition we found it in.
Though perhaps, ironically, the absence of signposting, the absence of even a path leading to it, and the absence of all mention of it in the conventional media will serve just that purpose – to preserve it from human degradation. And really it will be nobody’s loss, for what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over, does it?