OXFORDSHIRE, MARCH 2020

ASTHALL, SWINBROOK & WIDFORD.

After leaving Burford, church number 1001 to be photographed was at nearby Asthall, the church of St Nicholas. By this time the sun had broken through properly; it was a glorious early spring morning, and the light quality was superb.

There has been a church here since the 11th century but this was enlarged during the 13th and 14th centuries, with the west tower being added during the 15th century. What a glorious sight, looking at the church from the south, with large early 17th century manor house to the north west. A sight that will have remained unchanged over the centuries!

The structure that we see today is west tower, nave with north aisle, south porch, and chancel with north chapel. The chapel was added during the 14th century, and was a chantry chapel to Lady Joan Cornwall.  The tower is battlemented, and has a stair turret to the south east corner. There is no clerestory.

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The church was open to visitors, which was pretty much the way of it for most of the churches in this area. The light quality inside was beautiful. Box pews lead up to the chancel arch; beyond that the chancel is highly victorianised, with characters from the Old Testament painted on the walls throughout. Some of these are handily named so that we know who we are looking at, the more obvious ones are not, King David, for example playing his harp is not identified.

 There is about 800 year’s difference between the Victorian work here and the Norman tub font at the west end of the nave!

The alter is plain and simple with just a cross on it. The east window has stained glass, showing Christ in majesty, hand raised in blessing, with angels around Him worshiping.

Other stained glass here includes a depiction of the risen Christ on Easter morning, crucifixion wounds visible on hands and feet; angels worshiping to either side; text below reading “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen as he said” Below this, Jesus breaks bread with Cleopas and his friend, after Jesus had met them on the road to Emmaus.

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Just one other item with regards stained glass here; anyone having their I Spy book of saint symbols with them might identify a panel with St Nicholas, after who the church is dedicated. He is often shown carrying three golden balls, as is the case here; with this symbol going on to be the universal symbol for the pawnbrokers trade.

A recumbent effigy of a female figure at prayer can be seen in a recess in the north chapel. It is suggested that this could be Lady Cornwall, who paid for the chantry chapel to be set up, where a priest would be employed to sing masses for her and her family, to help lessen the time that they would spend in purgatory. At this time, the religion of England was Catholic.

The church grounds are a delight, with beautifully carved graves dating back to the late 17th century, bathed in sunlight and framed by daffodils in full bloom. Several graves and tombs here have a Grade II listing in their own right.

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The church of St Nicholas, Asthall.

We travelled a mile or two on to Swinbrook, and the church of St Mary, as we continued to work through the churches in the Burford Benefice.

Entrance was through a well used path which led to the south porch. The path made its way through a selection of late 17th to mid 18th century tombs and headstones, with some beautiful old cottages straight in front of me. A delightful sight!

   The church here has its origins back as far as the 11th century. St Mary consists of nave, with north and south aisles, chancel, south porch, clerestory and west tower. The slender, battlemented tower is carried on projecting buttresses, and was added as recently as 1822. There are four, very small clerestory windows to north and south. A three light window on the south wall of the chancel was bricked up at some point in the past, as has a doorway, half way down the nave, again on the south side.

   The church was open to visitors and it was good to spend a short time chatting to the friendly local vicar who was there to take a service a little later that morning.

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   Moving inside and looking to the east, the north and south aisles are each of three bays, the path down to the chancel is well worn, showing the marks of countless thousands of feet over hundreds of years. Box pews are to be seen throughout.

A window at the east end of the south aisle is of great interest. This contains fragments of medieval stained glass. The story behind this is that, on September 26th 1940, a German bomb fell close to the church. It exploded, shattering the windows in the church, and nearby houses. No one was injured. The fragments of the medieval glass were gathered together by the Vicar of the time, William Grenville Boyd. The reset glass now acts as a memorial to Boyd, who died the year after the bomb fell.

   There are some interesting wooden carvings in the choirstalls, which date from the 15th century. One of these in particular caught the eye. Lifting up one of the seats, a misericord had a carving of a man with arms outstretched and an amazingly large hooked nose. Close by another male figure stares intently down as he holds what looks to be a large rolling pin, although I am sure it isn’t! Fantastic figures are carved in to the arms of the seats, with a very depressed looking fish capturing my attention.

   Two monuments against the north wall of the chancel are of great interest. They are to members of the Fettiplace family.  This was a very important family whose history can be traced back to Edmund, who was Mayor of Oxford for 11 terms between 1245 and 1268.  The family was wealthy and powerful. Each monument shows three male Fettiplaces, recumbent, stacked on shelves, one immediately above the other.

   The earlier monument dates from 1613. The effigies are arranged with the oldest at the bottom and the newest at the top. Each figure directly faces the onlooker, and is propped up, quite awkwardly, on their right arm, resting on a cushion with their left arm on their hip. The oldest figure at the bottom, that of Edmund, wears an Elizabethan ruff. 

   The second monument, which dates from 1686, is much more elaborate, with parts of it painted and gilded. The depictions of the figure themselves are more relaxed and lifelike. To see these side by side really brings home the advancement in skills over a little more than 70 years. On the top is Sir Edmund Fettiplace who died in 1686, and under him Sir John Fettiplace who died in 1672, and on the bottom is John Fettiplace who passed in 1657. 

   As mentioned, the figures are more relaxed on this second monument. As with the first monument, all figures wear armour and have swords Gauntlets are off and are being held by the deceased. Their helmets rest beside them. The quality of this latter monument is astonishingly good.

Interestingly, there is no religious symbolism in either of the two monuments. Normally, the deceased would be recumbent, with wife, hands raised in prayer and often holding a prayer book. The figures would normally be side on so that they are facing the east. I have often thought that there is spiritual significance to this, in the same way that the congregation faces the east when saying the creed. Here though, they are facing the onlooker, facing south.

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The church grounds are among the best that I have ever explored. The daffodils were in full bloom and the church, on slightly high ground, looked glorious. The sun was shining brightly but it was one of those curious days when we could go from bright sunshine to heavy rain in a matter of seconds.

  There are several bale tombs here, dating from around the late 17th century. These are chest tombs with a curious curved shape on the top. It is known that these were for people associated with the wool and weaving industries, and it is suggested that the curved shape could represent a bale of wool. These are fabulous pieces of work, and local only to this area. There are a few at nearby Burford of very high quality.

   The side panels on these are often intricately carved, as are the flat end pieces of the bale itself. One of these had the family coat of arms inscribed on it; another had a depiction of a human skull, with the sun’s rays, possibly symbolising the Holy Spirit, radiating from it.

   These have a Grade II listing, and are of great importance historically. Some of the more basic headstones also have a Grade II listing. Several of these have the human skull carved on to them, a message to the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die. The area to the south east and the east of the church is pretty much unspoiled and contains many graves and tombs from the late 17th through to the mid 18th centuries.

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The church of St Mary,Swinbrook.

Whilst chatting to the vicar earlier, we talked about Widford church, which is where we headed for next. It was evident that this church is well loved in the area.

The church of St Oswald stands alone, but loved, in the middle of a field; a stone wall surrounding it the village that it served long since gone. There is a real history here, with the church sitting on a Roman pavement.

Really, externally at least, we just have a single cell building here, with nave flowing pretty much seamlessly in to chancel; a small bellcote on top of the nave and a south porch completing the structure.

 The church here might date as far back as the 12th century, with it being in use as a place of worship until 1859. It was used as a farm building after that, and fell in to disrepair over the years.  It was restored in 1904; at which point the Roman pavement below the church and the wall paintings were found.

Externally, it is worth noting that a north door has been bricked it. Many north doors were bricked up after the reformation to try and get the church congregations to move away from some of the superstitious elements of the worship previous to that time. It is suggested, but not by all, that the medieval mind thought that the devil resided in the souls of unbaptised children. The north door, the Devils door, would be left open during a baptism so that the devil could escape.

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The church was open to visitors. Inside, there is so much character and history here. Box pews from the 18th century stand on the uneven floor, which shows the effects of human traffic and whatever horrors was inflicted on it whilst it was used as a farm building.

The chancel is plain and uncluttered. The alter is just a table, with a simple cross laid upon it. There is no reredos and no stained glass; just plain glass in the three light window. On the north wall is an aumbry, a small cupboard that would hold the communion bread and wine.  The Ten Commandments are listed on two boards on either side of the alter.

There are wall paintings here, of great interest and importance, but badly damaged. It is thought that these date from around 1340. This is being typed in February 2021, while we are still in the third English lockdown.  These would have been quite fresh when the Black Death hit England in 1348 and one cannot help but to think back to those times and wonder what things were like here, while the country was ravaged and around 50 million people died in Europe.

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One of these wall paintings is a depiction of St Martin of Tours dividing his cloak for a beggar. One other is an extremely battered representation of the three Kings meet the three skeletons; a very popular subject during the middle ages. The story is that three Kings went out walking and met three skeletons, the living were terrified by their encounter with the dead. The dead urge them to repent, saying to them ‘: "Such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be’.

This is another form of a memento mori , remember death; repent before it is too late as you do not know when your time will come. When we see, images of mortality such as skulls and crossed bones on monuments and gravestones it is passing on the same message.

There is a St Christopher, painted on to the north wall of the nave. Traditionally, these were painted on to the north wall, opposite the south doorway; a sign of luck from the patron Saint of travellers. This one has been overpainted by a royal coat of arms.

Over the course of a couple of hours I had seen the magnificent church at Burford, one of only 18 churches to be given a 5 star rating in Simon Jenkins’ ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ and then the church here at Widford. Here, we are at the other end of the scale but this church is a little gem and left me with as many good memories as did its illustrious neighbour!

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If you have liked reading this, please click on the photograph immediately above on the right to be taken to more photographs on my Oxfordshire churchcrawl, this time from Burford. This page will open up in a different window.