Miss Olive Bowlby, one time Librarian of Alcester Library, tells of her fascination with Midlands churches
The pleasures of visiting churches are many and varied. Whether or not one has any firm religious beliefs, they are places of peace and refreshment. They are also free treasure houses of art of all kinds. Finally, they can tell much about the history of a place through the style and decoration of the building and the monuments dedicated to its local families. Many of these families played their part on a national as well as local stage. Their importance or wealth meant that some could command sculptors of international repute such as Rysbrack, Roubiliac, Nicholas Stone and many others. Other families were content to engage more local talent. Similarly, a church may be lucky enough to have its fabric decorated by a fine school of carvers, as at Kilpeck, in Herefordshire and many other places.
Churchyards can be attractive places in which to wander and note the local names on the tombstones. They often afford wonderful views of the surrounding countryside: Haselor is a good local example with its lovely panorama of low, wooded hills all Tound, well worth the climb on a clear day. Studley, too, has a lovely setting in fields near the Arrow and Morton Bagot, next to a black and white farm house on a hillside.
Pevsner, in his county guides to the buildings of England, goes into great detail about the structure, decoration and contents of churches. But this cannot convey the pleasure to be had in finding for oneself beautiful or curious items in remote country churches.
At Newbold Pacey, near Wellesbourne, the church is down a secluded drive in the valley of Thelsford Brook. It was rebuilt by J.L.Pearson 1881/2 and contains a sumptuous reredos of the time with Saint George slaying the dragon. At the west end is a monument with a delicate and poignant half figure of Edward Carew, 1668, with his baby daughter in swaddling clothes; both died within days of one another.
Lapworth has a fifteenth century chantry chapel above a vaulted passage on the outside of the west wall. The chapel is reached by two spiral staircases. In the north chapel is a tender Madonna and Child by Eric Gill, c. l930. Barcheston, near Shtpston-on-Stour is another lovely church, with its leaning fourteenth century tower: it stands in meadows above the River Stour alongside its rectory and manor house. The old church at Whitchurch is also near the Stour and can only be reached by a footpath across two fields from the gated road which runs between Wimpstone and Crimecote. The village of Whitchurch has disappeared except for a farmhouse nearby.
In Snitterfield churchyard there are iron cages on some of the graves: this was to protect them against the bodysnatchers of t he time, who plied a lucrative trade. Of all our local churches, Wootton Wawen is probably the finest and illustrates almost every style of architecture from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries. It dominates the whole village, above the sloping fields. Inside the south chapel are fragments of fourteenth century wall paintings, with small red flowers. There is a monument to Henry Knight, a cashier, who was disgraced when the 'South Sea Bubble' burst in 1720.
The area is quite rich in monuments commissioned by local important families: among these are the Throckmorton tombs in Coughton church. Salford Priors church has a large tablet to the Clarke family with no less than eighteen colourful coats of arms. At Charlecote, Thomas Fairfax-Lucy reclines against a background of books with the names of Greek and Roman authors on their spines; also a depiction of his deer park, denoting his two main interests.
At Ebrington in Gloucestershire there is a painted stone effigy of Sir John Fortescue: it is larger than life-size and shows him in his bright red legal robes as Lord Chief Justice. Elmley Castle has effigies of William and Giles Savage, with the latter's wife holding her baby in her arms. Among the elaborate Sheldon monuments at Beoley is one to William Sheldon, who started the first English tapestry workshops at Darcheston and Bordesley.
The area is not noted for wall painting. For that, one must go further afield to Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Only fragments survive: for example, the Virgin on the east wall of the chancel at Wickhamford and some carved and painted panels at Buckland. Mediaeval stained glass, too, consists mainly of fragments and small panels. A very fine example is that of two small female saints in Bredon church. Carving in wood brings to mind the fine set of Misericord seats at Ripple, near Tewkesbury. They represent the twelve labours of the months of the year. Ashchurch, also near Tewkesbury, has the best rood screen in the area, while at Buckland there is elaborate panelled seating, with canopies, along the south wall of the south aisle.
Good carving in stone can be found on the Norman tympanurn above the south doorway at Beckford portraying a bird and two animals. The north door represents the Harrowing of Hell? Christ' in the middle with his cross thrust into the mouth of the dragon, the other hand holding a man on a leash. Cropthorne church has a cross head a piece of Anglo-Saxon art. Birds and beats are interwoven on both back and front. an unusual stone lectern at Norton has the seated figure of a cleric at its centre and rich leaf scrolls. It was dug up in the churchyard of Evesham Abbey and later installed in Norton Church.
The fabric of most of the local churches is stone; cream, white or blue lias in the Bidford area. Over the border in Worcestershire are a number of black and white timber towers, notably at Dormston, Pirton and Wardon. Further afield are the glorious Cotswold stone churches. Chipping Campden is the nearest of the larger churches built by wealthy wool merchants. Almost every church contains at least one item of interest or curiosity. The urge to stop and look is a keen one and as there are at least 10, 000 churches in England alone that is more than enough to keep one happy.
Autumn 1990 Index
© Alcester & District Local History Society 1990