OXFORDSHIRE, MARCH 2020
It was mid March 2020 and a day out in Oxfordshire. Covid 19 was making itself known, but at the time of this trip, there was still freedom of movement; we were to be locked down for the first time in another ten days or so.
This was a special day out for me, the day when I finally photographed my 1,000th church. It had taken over 13 years to get to this mark. There is no point in rushing!
In the Autumn of 2006 I had been to a football match; Stamford was playing Cirencester in the Southern League. On the way back we visited a few Cotswold villages, looking at the church in each, with one of these being at Burford. On the way home the idea started to form to visit local churches and set up a website to record the visits. The original idea was to visit churches within a ten miles radius of Peterborough; that soon extended to twenty and then it all sort of horribly got out of control…
I never counted that day at Burford in my list of churches visited; the first visited properly was at Castor near to Peterborough a few days later, but I thought that it might be a nice idea to go back to Burford; the church that really inspired the idea, to be my 1000th visited!
It was fine and sunny when we left Peterborough; with a fine day forecast. However, heavy rain and a little snow on the way were of concern. By the time that we reached Burford, known as the Gateway of the Cotswolds, though the sun was shining brightly and it was to stay that way for much of the rest of the day.
The van was parked up on the opposite side of a stream that runs past the east end of the church. A quick walk over a bridge and the church was approached from the south. What a lovely sight! This is a very ‘busy’ building which is roughly cruciform; with square tower, with recessed octagonal spire.
To the south west of the tower is an elaborate there storey 15th century porch; perpendicular and with three large image niches, each niche with statue standing on a plinth. The Virgin Mary, crowned as Queen of heaven, is at the top, with two other image niches below. Pigeons nestled on the heads of two of the statues.
Looking around the exterior we also have a south lady chapel at the western end, a south transept and south chancel chapel. There is a north transept and a north chancel chapel.
The south lady chapel dates from the late 15th century, and has a bricked up entrance. Above the entrance is an arch, which has a very badly weathered depiction of the crucifixion. The western door dates from around 1175 and there are some wonderful carved arches, with zig zag patterns part way up the tower, which date from around the same time.
Throughout the exterior, there are elaborately carved friezes and stone heads. This is a wonderful piece of work.
The church of St John The Baptist is one of only 18 churches given a five star rating by Simon Jenkins in his book of England’s Thousand Best Churches. Work on the present church started around 1175 and was pretty much to continue until 1500. There would have been pervious churches here though, with nothing remaining of those earlier structures. How many generations of craftsmen would have spent their entire working lives in the construction of this building?
Moving inside, there was the first real evidence of the problems to come with regards covid 19. There was to be a music event at the church the following day; this was still on but the organisers were busily engaged in trying to sort the seating out so that there was an appropriate distancing between each seat. I had been inside just a few seconds before someone came over to say hello. The welcome was excellent, even when the people doing the setting up were busy!
Standing at the west and looking east, there is a large painting of the crucifixion over the west wall of the central crossing tower, the outline of an earlier roof line visible above it. It would be blindingly obvious to state that the interior is on a grand scale and highly impressive, that goes without saying. Just as an example, there are four alters here today, but in the past there would have been nine!
The chancel was beautifully lit; with a red alter cloth and red curtain instead of reredos. The alter itself is plain and simple, with a cross and two candlesticks. Angel carvings rest in image niches to either side of the alter. Large arches lead to north and south chapels.
It was good to see several visitors enjoying the church; in hindsight any trip out at that time was to be enjoyed as the privilege of travelling was to be taken away from us shortly afterwards. The font caught my eye; this dates from the 14th and has carvings around the bowl, with the crucifixion carved in to the eastern side.
There are some very interesting monuments here, with a memorial to Edmund Harman and his wife Agnes being of great interest. Harman was barber and the personal servant to Henry VIII and he put up this monument here on the north wall of the nave to give thanks for a successful life.
His 16 children are depicted below, with nine boys to the right and seven daughters to the left, with all facing east. The nine boys are all identical, both in terms of age and physical appearance. All have identical facial features and have identical curly hair and wear identical ruffs. Hands, where visible, are at prayer.
The seven daughters have differences; as with the boys, they are arranged in two rows and the furthest east wear headdresses. They face east but the girl on the back row to the west turns her head slightly to look out in to the nave. Only two of their daughters out lived their parents and I wonder if these two are those that survived their parents.
Carvings around the Latin inscription appear to show an Indian tribe which lived alongside the Amazon. If this is true, they are the earliest references to any South American tribe. This memorial was put up before Harman’s death and he and his wife were buried at nearby Taynton.
An elaborate tomb to St Lawrence and Lady Tanfield completely dominates the north chancel chapel, to the extent that it is difficult to get around it and almost impossible to photograph it properly! Having said that, it wasn’t as tight for space as in the north chapel at Blore in Staffordshire which I visited a few weeks previously; where it is really difficult to even walk around the north side!
Sir Lawrence and his lady are recumbent with hands raised in prayer. Their daughter Elizabeth kneels at their head, with grandson Lucius at their feet.
This is a cadaver tomb, with a skeleton immediately underneath where Sir Lawrence is laying. These are memento symbols, designed to show the onlooker how brief human life is. There was a poem in the middle ages where three Kings met three skeletons with one of the skeletons saying ‘as you are now, so we once were, as we are now, so you shall be’. Man is mortal and will die so live a good Christian life as you never know when your time will come.
There is a great deal of stained glass here and I am not going to be able to even scratch the surface with the space that I have. The east window features Jesus central, hand raised in blessing, with wording underneath reading ‘The Great Physician’. Moses and Elisha are to Jesus’ left as we look at it; Luke and ‘doubting’ Thomas to the right. Underneath, there are five small panels with the Good Samaritan central; with four scenes of people being cured of their infirmities on either side.
One further window shows four female saints, one of which I had not come across before. St Frideswide who is the Patron Saint of Oxford and the Patron Saint of Oxford University. St Faith is also depicted here, with a brazier burning away in the background, telling the manner of her martyrdom. I have not seen this saint or symbolism much before.
My favourite window and one that I spent a great deal of time looking at, can be seen in the south transept. This is by Christopher Whall and is dated 1907. It depicts the revelation of St John. The entire window is created in subdued colour tones, with brightness used sparingly and for emphasis.
The central light shows John, kneeling at Patmos as the revelation is shown to him. John looks enquiringly at an angel of the Lord; above him the Virgin Mary, crowned as the Queen of Heaven carries the infant Jesus in her arms. Below here a giant serpent writhes, surrounded by stars and shooting stars.
A radiant beam of light, with here colour used for emphasis, shoots down on the couple and radiates outwards, with one beam of light falling directly towards John. Stunning!
Other scenes surround this centre image. A depiction of the last supper is in subdued tones, with the exception of the golden chalice and vibrant red of Jesus’ nimbus. Judas looks away from Jesus, with black nimbus, clutching a money bag, from which he had taken out a single coin. I am always interested in how Judas is represented in glass. Occasionally, he is depicted with nimbus, more often without, but this is the first time that I have seen a black nimbus!
Jesus slouches over in grief in the Garden of Gethsemane; disciples asleep close by as two angels hold the cup that he had to drink from, which drips blood. Another panel depicts the crucifixion, flames leaping outwards from the cross. John, with Peter behind, look at Christ’s empty tomb, two angels at prayer look down at the scene with a cross on a hill in the background silhouetted by the rising sun. A staggering window!
A friendly local came over, in those pre covid days when one could approach within two meters and without a mask, making sure that I had seen what his favourite window in the church was. Just a small window, not as ornate as many here, but powerful! In it, Mary walks with John after the crucifixion, grief stricken Mary carries the crown of thorns; John looking tenderly across at her as they hold hands.
There is much medieval stained glass here as well, including a head and shoulders of St James and a woman wearing a headdress in the north transept and a collection high up in the tracery of the west window; what I took to be the stage for the music event being a really useful step up to get a little closer.
The church grounds here are of great interest and contain some fine examples of ‘Bale Tombs’. These are chest tombs, sometimes with ornate carvings on them, which have a curious shape on top, which resembles a corded wool bale. The thought, rightly or wrongly, is that they are memorials for those merchants who grew wealthy from the wool industry.
These date from the late 17th to mid 18th century, with them being important enough to have Grade II listings in their own right. One of these has a carving of the crucifixion on a side panel, sadly quite weathered over the years. Writing underneath the scene reads ‘Juxta Fidem Dei Uncti’, which translates as ‘The faith of God’s anointed’.
A couple of these have representation of skulls on side panels, the skull being an often used symbol of the mortality of Man. One of these skulls is surrounded by what look light beams of light; possibly a representation of the Holy Spirit. Another sees the skull set inside a scallop shell, a Christian symbol of pilgrimage, and a symbol associated with St James.
If people disagree about whether or not these were for those involved in the fleece trade, what cannot be argued is that these were for wealthy people.
In past times, only those with some wealth would have been able to afford a gravestone, with most people buried in unmarked graves still. The church grounds here refer back to wealthy times for this village.
In among the beautifully carved tombs and gravestones, one simple mid 18th century grave caught my eye. Two fairly crudely carved skulls gaze out from the top of the grave, with just three sets of initials included, along with the dates of death. In all probability, a simple reminder of three loved ones from a family of less wealth, in times where gravestones were priced up by the word.
A quick check on the exterior walls shows a little graffiti, but nothing much to speak of, just a few crosses and one or two initials dated from the late 18th century, with these nearly being eroded away to nothing. A quick glance up to the tower before leaving showed a gargoyle, retired now with no downspout, pulling its mouth wide open in medieval gesture of insult.
Well, that was church number 1,000; and a rather good one at that. This one would be included in my top ten churches visited, both in terms of the church itself and the welcome received once there! We moved on, attempting to see, and hopefully get inside each of the six churches in the Burford Benefice.
If you have enjoyed reading this, please click on the photograph immediately above on the right to be taken to more photographs from my Oxfordshire churchcrawl. This will included photographs from Fulbrook, Taynton, Church Hanborough and Bladon. This page will open up in a different window.