OXFORDSHIRE, MARCH

WOODSTOCK, KIRTLINGTON & BUCKNALL

We approached Woodstock, no, not the iconic 1960’s music festival, but the Oxfordshire town!  It was mid March 2020, and what was to be our last churchcrawl before covid really hit; the UK being locked down for the first time a few days later.

The day had started with a visit to Burford; we then worked through the rest of the churches in the Burford Benefice before aiming towards Woodstock, a town of 3,100 at the last census, which can be found eight miles north west of Oxford.

In Anglo Saxon, Woodstock means ‘clearing in the woods’. There is a great deal of history here with Woodstock mentioned at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086. This area was popular with royalty during medieval times, with Woodstock Palace being used by several medieval kings.  This was destroyed during the English Civil War, with the remains being cleared and Blenheim Palace being built on the site. Winston Churchill was born there in 1874 and is buried at nearby Bladon, which we had visited immediately prior to this.

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A measure of the historic interest at Woodstock can be seen by the fact that there are no fewer than 166 Grade I and II listed structures in the town!

A friend who has family in the area suggested that Woodstock would be a good place to visit, as the church was very beautiful and was liable to be open. So it proved to be on both counts!

The church of St Mary Magdalene dates back to the reign of Henry I, who was monarch from 1100 until 1135. It was built for the convenience of the court during royal visits to the royal hunting lodge close by, this new church being closer than neighbouring Bladon. The church is in the centre of the bustling town, a public footpath leading immediately past the west of the tower.

The best views of the exterior is to be had from the south, an immediate gut reaction on looking at the west tower was that it looked Georgian, which proved to be the case.  Evidence of the age of the structure itself though can be seen by a fine Norman doorway to the south, with two orders of zig zag decoration, which dates back to the 12th century. This would probably date to the formation of the church here; what medieval royals would have entered through this door? Such history!

The church consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories and chancel.  The west tower dates from 1785, and is pinnacled with a single lancet window at the belfry stage. A church clock in the traditional blue and gold is set on to all four sides of the tower.

Standing in the grounds, looking at the church from the south, the onlooker can see some very lovely buildings, to the north of the church, which I suspect are 18th century. One of these has two very large and ornate chimneys. Fond memories of a bus journey in Norfolk once; going through Walsingham from memory, where I overheard a conversation about someone who travelled the country photographing ancient chimneys. At the risk of sounding even more boring that you already think I am, what a lovely thing to do!

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The church was open to visitors, with entry being through a door on the west face of the tower. A small image niche over this door has a statue of St Mary Magdalene, after who this church is dedicated. She is depicted carrying a jar of pure nard, an expensive perfume which she used to anoint Jesus’ feet shortly before His crucifixion.

It was bright and welcoming inside. There are no pews here, with modern wooden stacking chairs leading to the chancel arch. There was a very pleasing light quality here. This was a church interior that I immediately liked very much! The nave walls are ‘busy’ with several wall tablets

There are a large number of carved human heads to be seen on the capitals in the south aisle. These are both male and female, with most being of well to do folks. One male figure wears a crown; a female figure looks regal with a headdress which I am sure that someone who knows that kind of thing could date accurately. Towards the east though there are carvings of the less well to do. One figure has a large forehead with worry lines; another laughing figure has his face screwed up. Several of these figures have damaged noses, possible signs of the reformers at work! One figure with tongue stuck out appears to have had the tongue removed!

I wonder if this was a snapshot of those people who were around here at the time that the south aisle was erected back in the 13th century.

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The chancel was heavily restored in the late 1870’s. The alter is plain and simple, with just two candles on it; the reredos has Christ in majesty as the focal point, Jesus depicted with red nimbus with burst of fire radiating outwards from Him. Angels bow down in worship at each side.

The east window depicts five scenes from the Easter story, with the crucifixion centre. The panel far left sees Jesus at prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, an angel reaching out towards Him; disciples asleep at His feet. To the right of this, Jesus is tied up and brought before Herod prior to His trial.

 The panel second from the right depicts the scene after Jesus’ body has been taken from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea helps to prepare Jesus for burial, the crown of thorns lies at the side of Jesus’ body. The panel far right is set on Easter morning. Jesus has risen and appears to Mary Magdalene.

The glass here is of very good quality, though there is nothing of any great age! One two light window shows two scenes from the life of Jesus; both of which were concerned with water. In one, Jesus reaches out to Peter, who has started to sink after his failed attempt at walking on water. In the other, Jesus is asleep on board ship during a storm. The frightened disciples wake Jesus up to quell the storm.

The church grounds are interesting, but didn’t throw out anything of great interest. Several chest tombs here, dating back to the early to mid 18th century.

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The church of St Mary Magdalene, Woodstock.

We moved onwards, to Kirktington, a village six and a half miles west of Bicester.  This was fast turning in to one of the most enjoyable churchcrawl for some time.  The church of St Mary The Virgin was the 12th church visited and the 11th to be open.

This was another village of great historic importance; the Portway, a possibly pre Roman road which ran from London to Exeter ran through the village. There was an important royal manor here during the time of Edward The Confessor, whose death in 1066 instigated a three way fight for the English crown.  There was a church here at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, but by that time, things were in Norman Hands.

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The church of St Mary consists of central tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, chancel and south porch.  The tower looks to be Norman but is from the 19th century but built in the Norman style.  The present church dates from the early 12th century, with the church extended during the 13th and 14th centuries. The tower was rebuilt in 1853. As you will read, I was particularly fond of the chancel here, and it was no surprise to find out that it was rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott in 1877, the year before his death.

Moving inside; and what a pleasing sight. The sun was streaming in through the windows in the south aisle, multi coloured reflections through the stained glass window at the east end were being cast on to the church organ at the east end of that aisle.

Taking an initial look around the interior, I was interested to see a re-set tympanum arch set above the vestry door. This dates from the 11th or 12th century and features a tree with foliage. A wall painting of St George slaying the dragon looks to have been over painted at some point in time but is still easily identifiable. The dragon is definitely slayed; lying on its back with its legs in the air!

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There is some fine stained glass here, although again nothing of any great age. The five light east window has Christ crucified at the centre, with the four Gospel writers at either side.  Below this are five further panels with the nativity, the flight from Egypt, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Jesus’ baptism and Jesus comforting a small child. Angels are at prayer high up in the tracery.

The alter is plain and simple; just a cross on the alter. The chancel was spot lit and the light quality was exceptional. This is a place to sit and think. No worship bands here, no stage, no theatrics; no need! We went in to a three month lockdown soon after my visit here. When the go ahead was given for them to reopen for private prayer, I hope that this church was able to open, and I hope that it was used for this purpose.  Time spent in peace and calm whilst things were challenging outside!

Another three light window shows Christ in majesty at the centre. This is on two levels with the risen Christ, robed and with wounds visible, surrounded by blue sky, Roman soldiers asleep below. To the left as we look at it is John the Baptist, who holds a globe which contains the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. To the right is St Luke.

A depiction of the annunciation is of interest. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, golden haired and with wings unfurled; pointing upwards towards heaven with a curiously long finger. Mary, with long flowing golden hair looks distinctly un-Jewish, the characterisation being tailored towards those looking on; as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove shines down on her.

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The church of St Mary, Kirtlington.

We moved onwards to Bucknell, a small village two and a half miles north west of Bicester. The church here is dedicated to St Peter and is of unusual design. There is a central tower, nave, south porch, south vestry and chancel. There is nothing remarkable about this; but what I found unusual is the nave!  Looking at the nave from the north, there are four clerestory windows high up, with two lancet windows below. There is no immediate sign of there having been aisles here in the past. If there were no aisles here, then I am surprised that there are clerestory windows!

The church here dates back to the 11th century, with much of the structure that we see today dating from the 13th century. The chancel and nave each date from that time.  The lower stages of the tower are Romanesque, dating from before 1200, with the top stage dating from the 14th century.  The church was restored in 1893.

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The tower is battlemented and there is a staircase to the north west corner. The church clock in the traditional colours of blue and gold is set in to the west face. A lion like gargoyle, with tongue stuck out in gesture of insult, looks out from the south.

The church was open but there was a toddlers club going on inside; obviously this can be a problem these days so I asked if it was okay to come in with camera. No problem at all was the answer. I have been refused entry in the past in similar circumstances, and always understand why. It is always good to be trusted though and the people here were really very pleasant!

Due to their being people about though, I spent little time in the nave. The chancel is bright and welcoming. Three single light windows on the east wall are of coloured glass. The cross stands on a ledge on the east wall. The alter cloth has the crown of thorns on it.

The chancel is long and several rows of pews face the alter. It looks as if services could be held within the chancel itself, with the nave being used only when numbers are higher.

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There is some good stained glass here.  One two light window has two depictions of Jesus; in each He carries a sheep. These are post crucifixion, with Jesus wearing the crown of thorns in both, with wounds visible. One reads ‘I am the door by me if any man enters in ye shall be saved’.  Under the second panel it reads ‘I am the good shepherd and know my sheep and am known of mine’.  Interestingly, one of the sheep as Jesus’ feet stares intently at the wound on Jesus’ left foot.

There is a lovely depiction of St Michael, weighing the souls of the resurrected dead, this being a memorial to those who fell in World War One. In Christian teaching, at the Second Coming of Christ the dead will rise from their tombs to be judged and sent to heaven or to hell. St Michael holds the scales of judgment and weighs the souls of the resurrected. A righteous soul will tip the balance of the scales downward.

Here, St Michael holds the scales. Christ crucified is in one tray, the devil is in the other. The side with Christ in it is tipped downwards. Memories of the Wenhaston Doom painting in Suffolk where a figure to be condemned to hell prays whilst in the tray; either in a mocking or futile gesture!

There are a few wall monuments here, with one catching the eye. This is to Samuel Trotman who died in 1684 and his wife Mary who passed away in 1667. Part of the inscription reads ‘They lived in ye faith and dyed in hope of a resurrection to glory’.

The afternoon was drawing on and the shadows were starting to lengthen. There was enough decent daylight left to take in another couple of churches. We headed off in the general direction of home, visiting the first churches that we happened upon on the way!

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