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The Hidden Churches of Oxfordshire
In north Oxfordshire, you'll find some of its finest churches, built predominantly from the golden brown marlstone of the English Midlands. The two medieval churches, both called St Mary, in neighbouring towns Adderbury and Bloxham, compete with each other in terms of the splendour, intricacy, and sometimes eccentricity of their stone carvings. Inside and out, 14th century masons have carved ladies and knights, angels and devils, musicians, villgers and animals of all descriptions. In Adderbury's case, the original 13th century church and tower were added to in the early 1400s, with a splendid chancel in the Perpendicular style, which underwent restoration, as did other parts of the church, in the 19th century. At Bloxham, too, the original structure was added to some hundred years later, in this case gaining some magnificent windows and a chapel at around the same time (and probably due to the same person) as Adderbury's chancel was built. It's worth having a special look at the carvings round the windows at the west side of the north aisle, where unusually the traceries -the frames - are carved both inside and out.
Just north of Bloxham - in fact about as far north as you can get in Oxfordshire - is St Etheldreda in Horley. Another golden building typical of the area, it is not of anything like the splendour of Adderbury or Bloxham; however it does sport one of the best large medieval murals of St Christopher, and is worth a visit just for that.
Further south, and over to the west, and the building material changes to the creamier-coloured stone of the Cotswolds. At Chipping Norton, just down the A361 from Bloxham, is another St Mary. A church has been on this site since the 12th century, although only the remains of an old arch on the tower wall date from then, with most of the present building being of 13th and 14th century construction, with 15th century additions. Of particular note is the hexagonal porch - one of only a handful in the country.
Further south, at Burford, is arguably Oxfordshire's finest parish church, that of St John. The church benefited from the rich wool and cloth merchants of the area, who, rather than getting together and building a spectacular church, as happened in other places, slowly added pieces to St John's as they desired. This perhaps makes it less magnificent, but more attractive, and it still has plenty of grandeur about it, although it does have a bit of a maze-like feel about it, with multiple chapels, shrines and alters. There are several splendid monuments, among them the colourfully-decorated if rather controversial (and, to be honest, ostentatious) Tanfield tomb, erected for Sir Tanfield in the early 17th century by his widow, despite being refused permission to do so by the church. Apparently she just sent her workmen in anyway to build the tomb, which comprises Corinthian columns, obelisks, and effigies of both Sir and Lady Tanfield. Amidst all the colourful trappings on show, have a peek under the monument, where you'll see a more down-to-earth reminder of the tomb's function, as a carving of a skeleton lurks beneath. Keep an eye out too for the carved panel opposite the south chapel, which has been dated to 160 AD, supposedly illustrating an ancient Celtic fertility goddess.
Just next to Burford is the village of Widford. It would be easy to miss the church of St Oswald - very easy, in fact, since you can only get to it on foot - but, despite its unprepossessing appearance, that would be shame. The mainly 13th century church (although there is still evidence of the original 11th century building) is small, peaceful and simple. Apart from the fact that it is built over the top of a Roman villa or temple, and the floor mosaics under the chancel are in a remarkably good state of preservation. Speculation is rife as to whether St Oswald's sits on the site of some ancient Christian shrine: fortunately (from a romantic point of view, anyway), nobody knows.
While you're walking, keep going about half a mile to Swinbrook, a pretty little village complete with cricket green. The church (another St Mary) at first glance appears to be nothing startling: inside is a different story. There are two monuments, each dedicated to three members of the Fettiplace family, which date from the 17th century, and without wishing to offend anyone, look rather ridiculous. Each monument comprises three effigies, lounging on their sides on shelves one above the other, looking out at visitors. They are really quite amazing.
Heading back to the hustle and bustle, follow the A40 east to Oxford itself and yet another St Mary. The University Church of St Mary, which stands in the centre of the old walled city, has only been standing since the 13th century - the tower, dating from 1280 is the oldest part of the existing church - but it's believed that a church has been on that site since about 600 years before then. The tower is intricately decorated, much of the decorative carving being added early in the 14th century, and the views over Oxford from the top (if you can manage the 124-step climb) are enhanced by the chance to see some of the carvings close up. The other most decorative part of St Mary's is the 17th century Virgin Porch, famous for its barley-sugar-shaped spiral columns, and the statue of the Virgin and Child above the door - the bullet holes made by Cromwell's troops are still visible.
Heading south from Oxford, towards Dorchester, and styles and building materials change again as you get closer to the Thames valley. Stopping off at Iffley to see the 12th century St Mary's (was there no end to the unoriginality in naming churches?), with its lovely old carvings, head next for Dorchester. The Abbey of St Peter and St Paul is reputed to be built on the site of one of Christianity's earliest sites in England, and you can still see parts of the original medieval abbey in its grounds. The abbey as it stands today dates from the 12th century, with a lot of 13th and 14th century additions. It boasts a rare lead font depicting the apostles (though not all of them, for some reason), and an unusual sculpture of a knight, depicted in the act of drawing his sword. Dating from around 1280, it is uncommon in the fact that it shows the knight actually doing something, rather than lying recumbent or posing motionless, as is usual.
But Dorchester's glory is in its windows, both the medieval stained glass and the carvings around them, particularly the Tree of Jesse in the north of the chancel, which has sculptures carved into all the traceries.
Continuing the move south through Oxfordshire, the church of St Mary fits perfectly into the lovely little Tudor village of Ewelme. Built by the granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk, in the early 15th century, along with the school and almshouses, the church is an excellent example of the period, and the tombs inside of the Duchess and her father and mother are truly splendid.
Finally, heading west again, the church of St Mary at Uffington, watched over by the famous White Horse carved into the hillside, is a wonderful, mainly unadulterated 13th century Early Gothic structure. Little has been added in the subsequent centuries, unlike many churches of its age, although it has been quite extensively restored. The spire on the tower fell down in the 1700s and has never been replaced, the octagonal tower gaining an extra storey instead. There's a monument inside to Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, who was brought up in Uffington, while poet laureate John Betjeman, who lived in the area in the 1930s was church warden for a time. Uffington itself is a very attractive village, with some lovely old buildings and an Iron Age fortress-the church is the perfect complement to this traditional Oxfordshire village.
A Pictures of England article written by Louise Simmons
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Random England fact:
The computer billionaire Bill Gates is reputed to have purchased £1,500,000 of slate quarried from the Lake District, for use in his swimming pool.
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