Graffiti goes up in the world

roof-imageHave you ever run cheekily across wet cement or pressed your hand into soft sand? It seems irresistible to want to leave your mark and it appears that we’re not the only ones. 219 footprints and hand impressions have been discovered in the lead roof tiles during restoration work on the tower at St Margaret’s Church in Wetton, Derbyshire. They covered a period from 1781-1913 and their ‘story’ is proudly shown in the church if you visit today.

The preservations include this wonderful map (cropped here) of where the hand and foot prints were found. It looks like dance notation  – as if the roofers were actually dancing, not roofing, for a living. It’s fascinating to see where the feet overlap as roofer after roofer tried to find his little bit of space. The marks of the feet help historians to understand map-of-rooffashions of the time and the carved initials (see shots below) help them to locate the local roofers in the graveyard of the church. The style of the hands and feet are all quite similar – pointy shoes and wide-set hands. They look like hands that have worked hard. The shapes made are beautifully naïve and the text accompanying the display in the church ponders over the role of the common motif of the heart in the sole of the shoe – perhaps the graffiti was an ode to a loved one?

Interestingly, the current show at Tate Britain ‘British Folk Art’ features enormous leather shoes (two of which can be seen here: One shoe in the show (there are no pairs as they were designed as in-shop promotions) is stood high on perspex so we can look at the beautiful sole underneath and there, similar to the ones made at Wetton, are patterns of hearts and of rough studs around the perimeter. It seems then that the heart was a traditional design on the sole of the shoe -we left signs of affection everywhere we walked and our hearts helped us grip the land.

hand1I’m also reminded when I look at the marks, carefully punched into the lead with roofing tools, how determined the roofers were to leave something behind that only fellow roofers could see – so different to today’s world of seemingly sharing everything with everybody.

It’s also a lovely gesture to include just hands and feet. Hands stand for the things we make and the people we hold close. Feet represent where we go, our movements in the world. So both shapes are symbolic of something deeper than just graffiti, to me at least.

I love accidental discoveries like this – a country walk revealed more than muddy footprints that day. They leave a greater testimony to life than the graveyard they look down on and I’m so grateful for opening that church door and stepping inside.


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