OXFORDSHIRE, MARCH 2020

FULBROOK, TAYNTON, CHURCH HANBOROUGH & BLADON.

March 2020, and what turned out to be the last churchcrawl before the UK was placed in to a three month lockdown as covid 19 hit the country hard. We had visited Burford, which was my 1000th church visited, and were working through the six churches in the Burford Benefice. So far, four had been visited, with all four being open.

The early morning heavy rain, followed by a brief flurry of snow, had cleared; and it had turned in to a bright and sunny mid March morning.  The church of St James the Great, Fulbrook was the fifth church of the Burford Benefice visited, and this one was also open to visitors.

The church is to be found, nestling behind railings, just off the main road through the village, with much of the church hidden behind a gigantic yew tree, which pretty much obscures the church from the east of the south porch.

A notice was up advertising a service of Taize worship, due to be held at the church on Sunday March 29th. Sadly, this was not to be as churches were closed for worship as of Boris’ announcement on the March 23rd. Following that, all churches were to be closed for at least the next three months with some failing to open for the rest of the year.

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The church here consists of west tower, nave with north aisle and transept, south porch and chancel. The church dates back to the 12th century, with the north aisle added around 1200. The chancel was remodelled later in the 13th century, with the north transept and south porch being added at that time. The church was restored in 1892, at which time it is thought that the nave was re-roofed.

The tower is of two stages, and is plain, with just a two light window on each side at the bell tower stage. The tower is offset to the south west. For obvious reasons the best views of the church are to be had from the north side.  There is a bricked up doorway in the north aisle and the north transept is very large! A very well preserved scratch/mass dial  which is finely detailed and separated in to 24 different sections!

An attractive church on a beautiful day!  Some ancient gravestones line the path which leads to the south porch, late flowering cyclamen surrounding one of the graves. Close to the south wall of the nave, under the shelter of the tree, are a cluster of three bale tombs; all of which have a Grade II listing, and which date from the early 18th century.

One of these has a depiction of an angel; wings outspread, and with face and part of one wing chiseled out. The rest of the carving is in good condition; was this deliberate? Could someone in the past have objected to the subject matter and decided to erase it? The side panel to the west has a depiction of a human skull in a scallop shell, similar to one seen at Burford. Also of note in the church grounds is a medieval chest tomb dating from the 15th century.

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Moving inside, an ancient uneven floor with ledger slabs, leads to the chancel, with rounded chancel arch. Grotesque carved faces look out from the walls of the nave; one bizarre face has many teeth, another has an elegant beard and hat worn at a jaunty angle.

A look upwards and several ceiling bosses are the stuff of nightmares. A figure with closed eyes and mouth wide open, sticks out its tongue in medieval gesture of insult, three uneven teeth exposed in the process. Another is a tiny representation of a bat, with tiny wings and a malicious look.

A wall monument dating from the early 18th century has a winged skull symbolising the flight of the soul to Heaven, dark cavernous eyes helping to remind the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die.

The chancel is plain with the alter just having a cross on it, with no reredos. The three light east window has the risen Christ as central, looking far from Jewish with blonde hair and beard. There is a slight touch of gold in His eyes; a lovely touch.

To the left as we look at it is a depiction of St James the Great, to the right of Jesus is St John who holds a goblet, from which a tiny dragon emerges. It was said that John had been given a poisoned goblet of wine to drink. John made it safe to drink by praying over it; the poison coming out of the drink in the symbolic form of a dragon. There was a great sense of peace in this church; which I enjoyed visiting very much.

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The church of St James The Great, Fulbrook.

We moved on to Taynton,  a village at the extreme western edge of Oxfordshire, and the church of St John the Evangelist. This was the sixth and final church in the Burford Benefice that we visited, and this was the first one that we found closed to visitors. I am assuming that this was just circumstances on the day as it says on the website that the church here is, at least pre covid, open each day throughout the year.

The church is set in a very attractive setting, with a long path leading to the north porch; ancient moss covered graves to each side of the path; bushes line the path and trees in blossom are off to the west. The church here dates back to 1360, with the chancel rebuilt in 1500; with much rebuilding here in 1865.

The tower is tall and slim, with church clock facing out from the north face; union jack flying. The nave is quite short, with the clerestories to north and south being of just three windows. There is a bricked in door to the south. Normally there would be a south porch and a bricked in door to the north! Some say that north doors were bricked in to help dispel superstitious practices which were associated with the north side, the devil’s side, of the church; well that is definitely not the case here!

Benches are laid out to the south of the nave, looking out over the church grounds and the countryside beyond. A stone medieval coffin is propped up at the side of one of these benches.

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The church of St James The Great, Taynton.

We left the Burford Benefice and decided to head gradually over to Woodstock, which my friend who has family in Oxfordshire had recommended as being a lovely church to visit, and which would in all probability would be open.

The first point of call was at Church Hanborough, and the church of St Peter and St Paul. The church is set in the centre of what appeared to be a very busy village, to the extent that parking for the church was difficult. I left Gary, parked perilously close to someone’s gate, and did a fairly rushed job on this one; hoping that he was still there when I got back!

The church here dates from the early 12th century, and the age is reflected by a wonderful Norman doorway, dating from the time of the church being built. The tympanum arch over this door has a carving of St Peter, with nimbus and carrying the key to the Kingdom of Heaven. By his side is what appears to be a cockerel, reflecting back to his betrayal of Jesus on the night of his arrest. Off to one side is a lamb, with cross behind it; this being the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. Also present is a carving of the lion of St Mark.

The church consists of square tower, with tall octagonal spire which dominates the landscape, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel. The church was open to visitors.

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Moving inside, it was bright and welcoming inside, despite the clouds having rolled in suddenly and a few spots of rain falling. A screen separates the nave from chancel, with a carving of Christ crucified hanging under the chancel arch; a beautifully crafted carving of Jesus alone, often He is depicted with the Virgin Mary and John. Pre reformation, statues such as this would have been an integral part of the majority of churches. The reformers saw them as popish and idolatrous and were high on the list of their targets to destroy. Those in place today are for the most part modern pieces of work.

The east window depicts the scene on Easter morning with an angel of the Lord appearing to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome. He is not here, He has risen!

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On another window, St Francis is depicted, with blue nimbus, stigmata wounds visible on hands and feet, birds flying around his head and a cat wrapped around his feet, tail raised in greeting! Chickens peck contentedly at his feet. As an aside my experience of chickens and cats is that the cat would be nowhere near; but probably hiding until the feathered things with the razor claws has gone away!

The font is octagonal, and has one panel which depicts some of the instruments of the crucifixion. Included is the cross, crown of thorns, a nail, a hyssop stick, on which wine vinegar would be offered to the person being crucified, a spear and pliers. Interestingly, a chest tomb in the church grounds also has some of these included on a side panel. Perhaps this font meant a great deal to someone who passed on here 300 odd years ago. A beautiful and historic church.

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The church of St Peter & St Paul, Church Hanborough.

We headed a few miles north, to the church of St Martin at Bladon. Bladon is a lovely village, six and a half miles North West of Oxford; with population of getting on for 900 at the time of the 2011 census. Within the parish is Blenheim Palace, the family seat of the Duke of Marlborough.  The village sits at the south western edge of the Blenheim estate.

The original church here dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries, but the structure that we see today is almost entirely Victorian. This church was demolished in 1802 and had been rebuilt and opened for worship again by 1804. It was rebuilt again in 1891. The church here is the final resting place for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who is buried in a family plot to the north of the church.

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The structure that we see today consists of west tower, nave with south transept, south porch and chancel with north chapel. The four stage west tower is battlemented and pinnacled, with the church clock set in to the south face. A statue of St George slaying the dragon sits in an image niche over the south porch. There is no clerestory.

A very interesting selection of gravestones and chest tombs can be seen to the south of the church,  with four chest tombs, dating from the late 18th century to early 19th century all having a Grade II listing. The chest tombs, and the majority of the gravestones to the south of the church all pre date the present structure.

A footpath, runs past the west end of the church, heading towards the Churchill family plot. A bench is laid out to the west face of the tower. An extremely pleasant place to sit and rest!  Given the historic interest here, I imagine that, pre covid, there would be many visitors to this church. Hopefully, this will be the case again soon.

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The church was open to visitors. It was bright and welcoming inside; wooden pews leading to a tall, wide, pointed chancel arch. In the chancel, the alter is plain and simple, with just a cross and candlesticks, with Christ crucified at the centre of the Victorian reredos; angels kneeling at either side of the cross and radiant beams of light pulsing from Christ’s body.

The east window is of three lights, with the centre panel depicting Christ making Himself known to Cleopas, and the other unnamed man, who He had met on the road to Emmaus. The left hand panel as we look at it shows Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning.

To the right is what appears to be the telling of Jesus reinstating Peter, following his betrayal of Jesus on the night of His arrest. Peter is often depicted holding the key to the Kingdom of Heaven, but this is not the case here and Jesus is not shown with crucifixion wounds, which are present on the other two panels, so I have a few doubts on this one.

A modern window shows St Martin, who cuts his cloak for a beggar, and St Alban, the first British Christian martyr, who is depicted with a sword, this showing the manner of his martyrdom. This window was erected to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. Two scenes from Churchill’s later life are included at the foot of the window, with several other symbols of his life framed around the window as a whole, with a profile of him smoking a cigar, the ‘V for victory’ sign, a bulldog and several wartime symbols all included.

Another window shows the wise men appearing to see the infant Jesus. This is a more historically accurate portrayal, with the wise men having travelled a great distance to see Jesus, who is portrayed as a toddler in this depiction. Close by, five golden haired angels cluster together in the clouds. This is a lovely and historic church, which I enjoyed looking around very much.

We headed onwards, towards Woodstock and a late and much looked forward to lunch…

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