HUNDREDS of Chilterns venues throw their doors open next month for ten days of free open days, tours, walks and talks as part of England’s largest festival of history and culture.
Each September thousands of volunteers across the country do their bit to allow guests to experience local history, architecture and culture with no entrance fees.
This year’s festival will take place from September 11-20, supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.
From a Victorian station house in Bedfordshire to a derelict wire mill in Berkshire or a haven for wildlife in suburban Reading, venues offer a chance for local people to connect with the past – and the natural world.
Nationwide, destinations range from castles to factories, town halls to tithe barns and temples. Not all events are registered yet, but several hundred Chilterns venues are already listed on the Heritage Open Days website.
As well as experiencing local events, this year virtual visitors can participate in activities further afield and see even more hidden places.
For the first time, the programme will include a range of digital events allowing communities to celebrate their stories while adhering to social distancing measures. Some venues and outdoor spaces will open for pre-booked events and visits by small groups, while others will offer virtual tours and digital experiences.
Every year around 50,000 volunteers give their time and effort to help create the largest cultural grassroots festival in the country. Last year 5,700 events were organised which welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors.
This year’s theme is Hidden Nature, which offers an opportunity to discover the nature that exists on our doorsteps, as well as the built heritage. Areas of the countryside that aren’t normally accessible to the public will be opened up and events will reveal the hidden history of not just our natural landscapes, but also gardens, green spaces, urban parks, orchards, vineyards, farms and forests.
Annie Reilly, head of producing for the National Trust, said: “Heritage Open Days is about connecting people so we can share in the amazing stories of the places, spaces, nature, heritage and history around us.”
Heritage Open Days is coordinated and promoted nationally by the National Trust with support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery. All events are free, including access to many sites that usually charge for admission.
FROM stately homes to steam railways and spooky caves, from wildlife sanctuaries to woodland walks, The Beyonder’s What’s On pages have been updated to include more than 50 of the Chilterns’ top attractions.
The at-a-glance array of picture buttons offers ideas for days out that range from free museums and rural rambles to palaces and zoos across four counties.
The buttons link directly to the websites and Facebook pages run by various organisations from the National Trust to town museums.
Attractions for animal lovers range from the Living Rainforest or Beale Park in Berkshire to Whipsnade Zoo and Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire.
If rescued hedgehogs are of more interest than lions and tigers, there’s always the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hsopital in Haddenham, and youngsters wanting to get up close and personal with lambs and baby goats can visit Odds Farm or even foxes and ferrets at the Green Dragon Eco Farm.
History lovers aren’t forgotten, either – from stately homes like those at Stonor Park, Waddesdon or Hughenden, not to mention the majestic delights of Blenheim Palace or Hampton Court.
Museums include those in Amersham, Stevenage, St Albans, Tring and High Wycombe, while those preferring a steam trip can venture out to Chinnor or the Bucks Railway Centre at Quainton Road.
If youngsters need to escape from their smartphones and get the wind in their hair, they can always connect with nature at one of the country parks scattered across the region – or blow away the cobwebs with a walk in Wendover Woods, Penn or Burnham Beeches.
For something that little bit different, there’s always the model village at Bekonscot in Beaconsfield, the gloriumptious Roald Dahl museum at Great Missenden, the mysterious Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe or the exotic attractions of Kew Gardens.
Or what about stepping back in time at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, finding out more about science at the Look Out Discovery Centre or discovering more about the lives of writers like John Milton or CS Lewis by visiting their homes in Chalfont St Giles and Headington, Oxford.
Many of the websites featured offer a regular programme of special one-off events, displays and attractions too, so there’s always more to discover – with further buttons linking to the National Trust, English Heritage, Wildlife Trusts, Chiltern Society and National Garden Scheme for more ideas about places to visit and things to do.
With a host of additional events listed in the monthly What’s On pages too, there’s something for everyone who loves the great outdoors. For more information, click on What’s On whenever you need a little inspiration about how to make the most of your free time.
The website has also launched a “Where to go” section on its Further afield pages, which in the past have featured attractions which might involve Chilterns readers driving just a little further afield, to London, Surrey and Sussex.
The first half-dozen attractions listed include Winston Churchill’s family home at Chartwell, nearby Hever Castle in Kent which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and the steam railway centre at Didcot, much loved by railway enthusiasts.
Feeling left out? If we have inadvertently missed an attraction out of our listings, get in touch.
DOZENS of venues across the Chilterns throw open their doors next month as part of the country’s largest free celebration of history and culture.
The annual nationwide event boasts a dynamic programme of more than 5,000 events where public, private and community spaces host tours, talks and open days.
From open churches to family fun days, doors are flung open at some of the country’s best-known tourist venues, as well as monuments and buildings which do not normally allow visits.
Attractions range from churches, country houses, museums and gardens to theatres, wildlife reserves, distilleries and even recycling centres.
To celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary, 25 new venues are opening their doors. “It’s always exciting when new places join Heritage Open Days,” said national manager Annabelle Thorpe. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than by sharing it with these iconic places.”
Behind-the-scenes visits include theatres, bell towers and sports stadia, with a full searchable list of all 5,000 atractions available at the main Heritage Open Days website.
Other popular options include National Trust properties opening their doors free for the day and local churches, museums and other venues staffed by thousands of volunteers eager to share their knowledge of local heritage.
This year’s event runs from September 13-22 and local highlights across the Chilterns are listed on our What’s On pages.
Established in 1994, Heritage Open Days is England’s contribution to European Heritage Days – launched in 1991 – and has grown into the country’s largest heritage festival.
MANY visitors to London’s Central Criminal Court never see the statue of Lady Justice straddling the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey.
Yet this is the statue used to illustrate countless news reports of the great criminal trials which have taken place here across the years.
There’s been a court here since the 16th century, attached for much of its history to the adjoining Newgate prison, and it has witnessed hundreds of thousands of trials, including some of the most notorious and newsworthy.
Back in the 19th century, hangings were a public spectacle in the street outside and the condemned would be led along Dead Man’s Walk between the prison and the court to be met by riotous crowds pelting them with rotten fruit and vegetables.
Those crowds have long gone, but high on the dome above the court stands that bronze statue of Lady Justice, executed by the British sculptor F W Pomeroy, erected in 1906 and holding a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left.
It’s an iconic image that harks back to her origins as Iustitia, the Roman goddess of justice introduced by Emperor Augustus and subsequently a figure which every Roman emperor wanted to be associated with.
Though formally called a goddess with her own temple and cult shrine in Rome, it appears she was viewed more as a symbolic personification rather than as an actual deity with religious significance.
Today, she gazes down on streets steeped in history, although so much of this part of London was destroyed in the war and buried by modern monstrosities that you have to look hard to find those hidden traces of the city’s past.
One such establishment is the Viaduct Tavern, a Victorian gin palace built to celebrate the opening of the Holborn Viaduct and with numerous claims over the years that its cellars incorporate old prison cells from Newgate Prison.
The Fuller’s pub is certainly in the right location for that – and it is also likely the pub stands on land which was the original site of a debtors’ prison which operated until 1853.
Across the road and down a side street and you find yourself in front of Cutlers’ Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, one of the most ancient of the City of London livery companies.
It its first Royal Charter from Henry V in 1416 and, as was the case with the other trade guilds of the day, its function was to protect the interests of its members, to attend to their welfare, and to ensure that high standards of quality were maintained.
Their business was producing and trading in knives, swords, and other implements with a cutting edge. Over time the emphasis shifted from implements of war to cutlery and other domestic wares such as razors and scissors.
A ‘House of the Cutlers’ mentioned in 1285 is the earliest recorded regular meeting place of the Cutlers, but the current building (the fifth such hall) dates from 1888 and survived a great fire bomb raid on December 29th 1940 which left only St Paul’s Cathedral and Cutlers’ Hall standing virtually unscathed amongst the devastation.
Back up Newgate Street and in the Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden you can find a much more recent tribute to the city’s past, commemorating Christ’s Hospital School’s 350-year presence in the City of London from 1552 until 1902, when the school moved to Horsham in West Sussex.
The bronze sculpture by Andrew Brown was selected following an open competition run by The City of London Corporation.
From here, it’s but a short walk to Fleet Street and the first of many hostelries to have resonated with the exchanges of generations of journalists. The Punch Tavern is a Grade II listed refurbished 19th century gin palace once known as the Crown and Sugar Loaf.
It is said to have been renamed in the 1840s in homage to the regular drinkers from the nearby Punch magazine, a weekly magazine of humour and satire which was at its most influential at that time, when it helped to coin the term ‘cartoon’ in its modern sense as a humorous illustration.
After the 1940s, when its circulation peaked, it went into a long decline, closing in 1992. It was revived in 1996, but closed again in 2002.
Almost next door is another Fleet Street pub with a proud history, the Old Bell Tavern. Now part of the Nicholson’s chain, The Old Bell Tavern has been a licensed tavern for more than 300 years.
The claim is that it was built by Sir Christopher Wren to house his masons as they rebuilt St Bride’s Church after the Great Fire of London. Certainly it is still sought out by journalists returning for services at the church, with its centuries-old connections with the printing industry.
Down in the crypt, the church chronicles 2,000 years of its history, which began with the Romans some six centuries before the name of St Bride, daughter of an Irish prince, emerged from legend to become associated forever with the site.
By the time the Great Fire of 1666 left the church in ruins, a succession of churches had existed on the site for a millennium. It took nine years for St Bride’s to re-appear from the ashes under the direction of Christopher Wren, and for the next two centuries his unmistakeable wedding-cake steeple cast a long shadow over the rise of the British newspaper industry.
In 1940, St Bride’s fell victim once again to flames as German incendiary bombs reduced Wren’s architectural jewel to a roofless shell. This time 17 years elapsed before rebuilding was completed.
Generations of newspapermen and women have prayed here and feel a special affinity for the place. Many have been married here – while others have come to honour dead colleagues, whose pictures stand on a side altar beside flickering candles.
After exploring the long history of the “journalists’ church”, it’s probably time for another convivial Fleet Street pint, perhaps this time in The Tipperary, which can claim to be the “original” Irish pub outside Ireland.
On a site which was once an island between the River Thames and River Fleet, a dribble of which is said to still run under the pub, The Boar’s Head was built in 1605 and, being made of stone and brick rather than wood, survived the Great Fire.
In around 1700 the S G Mooney & Son Brewery chain of Dublin purchased the pub and fitted it out in traditional Irish style. It became the first outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft, and was renamed in 1918 by the printers who came back from the Great War in honour of the song “It’s a long way”.
Greene King bought the pub in the 1960s and refitted the interior to the style of Mooney’s days, recapturing the original character of the 1700s.
Emboldened by an authentic pint of Guinness, there might just be time to pop across the road and visit another venerable Fleet Street watering hole which did not fare so well in the Great Fire.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of a number of London pubs to have been rebuilt shortly after the fire, although there was a pub here from 1538 and the establishment is chiefly known for its literary associations and lack of natural lighting, which lends a gloomy charm to its many little side rooms, bars and passages.
Hidden down a narrow alleyway and decorated with wood panelling from at least the 19th century, the pub boasts plaques showing famous people who were regulars, and who may have ranged from Dickens and Chesterton to Samuel Johnson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Talking of Dr Johnson, there may be time to look in on the charming nearby 300-year-old townhouse where the writer and wit lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language.
Today, the hidden gem is open to the public with a collection relating to Johnson, a research library, restored interiors and a wealth of original features. But if you are pressed for time, there’s one famous local character you must look in on before saying a fond farewell to Fleet Street – Dr Johnson’s beloved cat, Hodge.
Hodge is remembered by a bronze statue unveiled in Gough Square in 1997 showing the cat sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary.
Sculptor Jon Bickley made Hodge about shoulder height for the average adult – just about right for putting an arm around. Most of the information on Hodge comes from Boswell’s account:
I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.
I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed”.
Well, in truth it has been under attack for years, but it’s only now that we can fully appreciate the scale of the onslaught as dozens of high-rise buildings reach completion.
When architecture critic Rowan Moore highlighted the problem back in 2014, more than 200 towers were being planned across the city, in urban and suburban locations alike.
But it’s telling that today the London Town website actually says that this part of London is “aesthetically defined by its towers” and even suggests venues where high-rise visitors might want to savour a vertigo-inducing glass of bubbly and pricey meal while taking in the view of what remains of our once glorious capital.
Moore discusses the aesthetic dangers and practical drawbacks of this race to look like Dubai, Shanghai or New York, but if you haven’t wandered round the backstreets of the City lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that every cobble, every tiny alleyway, is being transformed – mainly into offices or high-rise luxury penthouse blocks.
Much of that is driven by overseas investment – and a glance in the estate agent’s window quickly establishes that no “normal” rent-payer would find it easy to pick up a bargain around here, even in the few bijou low-rise developments which remain.
Property agents confirmed this month that overseas investors had shrugged off Brexit worries to invest nearly £7bn in London property in 2018 – ahead of Hong Kong and Paris.
The only consolation is in tiny alleys and hidden squares there are a few remnants of the old city for the wanderer to stumble upon.
The main tourist attractions like St Paul’s still provide visitors with a focal point, of course. Sadly Hitler’s sustained bombing campaign during the Blitz saw swathes of central London flattened in 1940 and 1941, leaving only blue plaques to remind us of some of the buildings which had graced the historic square mile since that other great London disaster, the Great Fire of 1666.
The Museum of London is a great place to start an exploration of London’s past – and when it moves to its new home beside Smithfield Market it should be an even more fascinating attraction.
But what remains of that historic capital, the Roman and medieval city largely hidden under our feet? There are still glimpses of London’s history down dark alleys and quaintly named closes, although it has to be said much of it is masked by traffic fumes and the detritus of modern living.
Between the high-rise blocks, London’s financial heart has become relentlessly hipster in mood and appearance, although the obsession with quality coffee is nothing new. London’s coffee houses were famed across the centuries, even if Samuel Johnson declared himself ‘a hardened and shameless tea drinker’.
But where to start after you emerge from the overheated hubbub of the Central Line in rush hour and step aside from the frantic City hordes to take your breath outstide St Paul’s?
Down on Ludgate Hill it’s reassuring to see an old Routemaster bus struggling to make any progress down towards Ludgate Circus and Fleet Street, but this throwback to the past is something of a sop to the tourists.
The vehicle itself is authentic enough, now more than 50 years old, having been originally delivered to London Transport in July 1964.
But it was withdrawn from service in the 1980s and spent time in Hampshire, Perth and Glasgow before being selected as one of a handful of buses to operate “heritage routes” through London – in this case from St Paul’s down to Trafalgar Square.
More authentic, perhaps – and a lot less well known – is a small park round the corner from St Paul’s which provides a welcome splash of green among the concrete.
Postman’s Park has an intriguing history in its own right, occupying an amalgamation of three burial grounds and taking its name from the fact that when it opened in 1880 it became a popular haunt with postal workers from the nearby General Post Office.
Efforts to resist the attention of Victorian property developers in the 1890s ensured that the park was saved for posterity and when it reopened in 1900 it incorporated an extraordinary and moving memorial to self-sacrifice, remembering ordinary “humble heroes” who had lost their lives endeavouring to save the lives of others.
Chief proponents of the scheme to remember the extraordinary actions performed by everyday men, women and children were the artist George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904) and his wife, Mary (1849 – 1938).
The Watts Memorial contains 54 memorial tablets commemorating 62 individuals. The earliest case featured is that of Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist who died in 1863 and the latest is Leigh Pitt who drowned in 2007.
A short walk from the park is a somewhat grimmer memorial on the outer wall of St Bartholomew Hospital in Smithfield paying tribute to Sir William Wallace, one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence – most famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film “Braveheart” – who was executed nearby on August 23, 1305.
Wallace was charged with treason, to which he responded that he could not be guilty, for he had never sworn fealty to Edward I. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to the traitor’s death, one of the most vicious punishments devised during the medieval era.
He was taken to the Tower of London where he was stripped naked and dragged behind horses to the scaffold at Smithfield. He was first hung by the neck and then cut down while still alive. He was then eviscerated and castrated, and eventually beheaded. His body was cut into four parts, and his limbs sent to the corners of Scotland as a warning to the rebellious country. His head was set on London Bridge, where it was soon joined by other Scottish rebels.
Hidden away from the main tourist thoroughfares, Wallace’s monument is a place of pilgrimage for Scottish visitors to London, while round the corner Sherlock Holmes buffs gather to see the vacant pathology block where Benedict Cumberbatch took his famed mystery plunge in the BBC series reimagining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels.
This part of one of Britain’s oldest hospitals is being redeveloped into a private healthcare facility. But opposite it is a reminder that this was once a rather seedy corner of medieval London where the Great Fire of London – ‘occasion’d by the sin of gluttony’ – finally stopped, as commemorated in a statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner.
The fire which broke out in in the early hours of Sunday, 2 September 1666 swept across London from the Thames to Smithfield, destroying thousands of houses and more than 80 churches over five days.
Initially blamed as part of a treasonous plot by Roman Catholics, the 18th-century monument credited an alternative culprit in the shame of the extravagant feasting of well-off 17th-century Londoners.
At this corner of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street also stood The Fortune of War pub, a rather unsavoury drinking den where in the early 1800s corpses provided by body snatchers used to be held in a backroom for surgeons at the nearby hospital to view and purchase.
The high-rise office blocks haven’t quite obliterated this part of London yet, although they are certainly encroaching from all sides.
Not that anyone is suggesting that the medieval brothels of Cock Lane or nearby Victorian gin palaces provided a vision of London which tourists would enjoy today.
But between the soaring office blocks there are those glimpses of a different London skyline – like the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey, where the gleaming statue of Lady Justice, erected in October 1906, has long been used to sum up anything to do with the criminal justice system.
But that, as they say, another story…
See the Further Afield section of The Beyonder for additional snippets about London’s history.
IT’S HARD to think of a less likely tourist attraction that the UK’s second oldest oil refinery, at Grangemouth.
But if you drive past the gas flares and cooling towers for a few minutes, the detour off the busy M9 motorway from Edinburgh to Stirling will take you to a quite extraordinary reminder of a golden age of steam.
For this is the home of the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway, a five-mile working heritage railway and home to Scotland’s largest railway museum.
The view from the station platform – the main station at Bo’ness was actually relocated from Wormit, at the south end of the Tay Bridge – could hardly be more authentic, although the 0-6-0 tank engine decked out in British Railways black is also “in disguise”.
Despite the BR livery, this is not the former LNER Class J94 engine which once bore that number, but a lookalike – an engine once owned by the National Coal Board which was built by W G Bagnall in 1945 and acquired from the NCB’s Comrie Colliery in Fife.
In its gleaming BR livery it certainly looks the part, though, and it’s only one of a large selection of steam and diesel engines to be found here.
Another surprise is the surprisingly rural atmosphere of the route. Despite the proximity of heavy industry, the line takes passengers to a local nature reserve, and you can always walk back along the coast or disembark at another rural station that has been a favourite with film-makers.
The museum across the footbridge at Bo’ness is open seven days a week until October 28 from 11am-4.30pm and boasts three large buildings full of memorabilia – from full size locomotives to old-fashioned railway signs which once adorned the walls of busy railway stations across the country.
For full details of the railway, see the link above –and more information about the Scottish Railway Preservation Society can be foundhere.
One minute you’re wandering past an 18th century house wondering about its former residents and the next moment a lady in period dress has popped out to fill in some of the details and answer your questions.
She is one of a small army of committed volunteers at the museum who love nothing more than bringing the past to life in a very vivid and engaging way, whether that means baking bread in the Iron Age roundhouse or taking part in a school workshop about Victorian life.
It’s the perfect place for a school visit, of course – but what can ordinary families expect to find?
It’s the perfect antidote to anyone who finds traditional museums stuffy and offputting. There are no glass cases here, just a series of lovingly rebuilt authentic buildings dotted around the spacious 45-acre woodland site close to Chalfont St Peter and Chalfont St Giles.
It was founded in 1976 to rescue historic buildings threatened with demolition and so far more than 30 buildings have been saved and rebuilt on the site, with more in store, spanning hundreds of years of local history.
These range from medieval and Tudor barns to a toll house, forge, chapel, 1940s prefab and a working Victorian farm.
On a sunny day there’s plenty of time for a leisurely stroll around each of the different buildings – and there are a range of paths laid out in the woods for those wanting to get a little more exercise.
For older visitors there are vivid reminders of the Second World War and post-war housing crisis, with a “prefab” from Amersham vividly capturing life in the late 1940s, right down to the Anderson Shelter in the garden and pictures on the mantelpiece of the family who lived in the building from 1948.
Outside, despite the July heatwave there’s a flourishing and colourful vegetable garden and a Nissen hut salvaged from Bedfordshire fitted out as an RAF pilots’ briefing room, where guests young and old can try on military uniforms and gas masks.
Atmospheric audio tapes in some of the locations add to the period feel, while in others volunteers are on hand to provide more personal detail. Easy-to-read information boards provide an at-a-glance summary of key facts, with more information on the website and in a family guide available from reception for £3.50.
We get the personal touch at Leagrave Cottages, where a volunteer is on hand to show us round the building, which started life as an 18th century barn in Bedfordshire and was converted into cottages in the 1770s.
Interviews with the Marks family who lived in one cottage from 1913 to 1928 have enabled the museum to present one cottage accurately as it would have been in the 1920s. The other side is presented as it might have been in the 18th century.
From here, we continue to wander through different periods of Chilterns history – from the atmospheric Henton Mission Room built in 1886 in Oxfordshire to an 1830s cottage from Haddenham with walls made of a special type of local earth called wychert.
We still haven’t got to the working Victorian farm – complete with a small selection of rare-breed livestock – and by the time we have chatted with volunteers about iron age baking techniques it’s too late for an ice cream at the tea room, which closes at 3pm on weekdays.
There’s still plenty to see, though – the blacksmith’s forge, the industrial buildings and the 1826 High Wycombe tollhouse from the London to Oxford road which was home to a family of five in the 1840s.
This is perhaps the museum’s greatest strength: its focus on the houses and workplaces of ordinary people that have gradually disappeared from the landscape, particularly in an area on London’s doorstep where the pressures of redevelopment are particularly great and where much of this heritage would otherwise have been lost.
The charity relies very much on the support of more than 200 volunteers (and its association of friends) and those individuals we encountered were relaxed, helpful and not at all pushy. You take a tour here at your own pace and you don’t get history forced down your throat.
You can host a party here, take part in a variety of organised workshops and experience days, or even get married, should you fancy a civil ceremony in the roundhouse, toll house or tin chapel.
But most families will doubtless just enjoy the opportunity to ramble around the extensive site at their own speed, piecing together snippets of local history and appreciating some magical insights into the ordinary lives of people living in this landscape all those centuries ago.
Full details of prices, options and a calendar of forthcoming events are available on the museum website.
‘CATHEDRAL OF THE DOWNS’: St Michael & All Angels at Lambourn
THERE’S a solidity to the church at Lambourn that you might expect of a landmark that has witnessed ten centuries of history.
A stone’s throw from the busy M4 motorway between Swindon and Newbury, the village provides a welcome escape from the traffic streaming west from London and the historic Grade I listed church is a cool, peaceful oasis at the heart of the village.
Nowadays Lambourn is perhaps best known as the largest centre of racehorse training in England outside Newmarket, but centuries ago it was the market town for the sheep farmers of the western Berkshire Downs – and the church of St Michael and All Angels is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Downs’.
At least four Anglo-Saxon documents refer to the town and the church and since the association of King Alfred with this part of England is well known and Alfred was a devout Christian, it is perhaps reasonable to presume that he may have had something to do with the founding or improvement of St Michaels. The dedication of Michael the Archangel was certainly a popular one in Saxon times; the addition of All Angels came later
From the outside, the visitor’s attention is perhaps initially focused on the distinctive lych-gate.
Nowadays we tend to have forgotten the purpose of these traditional gates but the name derives from the Old English ‘lich’, meaning corpse, and they were meeting places and shelters for the party bringing a corpse for burial.
Although some had been built earlier, the 1549 Prayer Book required the priest to meet the corpse at the churchyard entrance. This encouraged the provision of lych-gates to shelter the corpse and the funeral party for that purpose.
FUNERAL SHELTER: a lych-gate at Lenton in Lincolnshire [PICTURE: Bob Harvey]
Medieval lych-gates were made of timber and most have long since disappeared. However many new lych-gates were erected in Victorian times, sometimes as memorials to prominent local people or as war memorials.
Although the numerous ancient barrows in this area are proof of much earlier settlements, as are finds of Roman pottery in the vicinity, Norman invaders later made their presence felt and the grand nave of the church dates from the 12th century.
IMPOSING INTERIOR: St Michael’s boasts several chantry chapels
The first written record of a church at Lambourn dates from 1032, but it seems likely there was a Saxon church here several centuries earlier and the circular shape of the churchyard suggests that the site may have been in use in Roman times.
The current church was begun in the 12th century and the core of the building dates to about 1180 and is constructed on a cruciform plan. More information about the church’s history, transepts, chapels and stained glass windows can be found on a website run by the Friends of St Michael.
By the 13th century Lambourn had assumed some importance and a charter was granted by Henry VI to allow a market and two sheep fairs a year to be held. Around this time the Market Cross in the Market Square was erected.
PAST GLORIES: some stained glass dates from the 16th century
Inside the church a variety of chapels provide plenty to interest the passing visitor – from the Holy Trinity Chapel built in 1502 by John Estbury, featuring a tomb chest decorated with coats of arms and a brass effigy, to the North Chapel, added in the late Elizabethan period and heavily restored in 1849, which contains a wonderful table tomb to Sir Thomas Essex and his wife Margaret.
At Sir Thomas’s head is a fiery salamander, emblem of the Essex family, while his feet rest upon a dolphin, an unusual symbol in an English church.
CHAPEL OF REST: the table tomb of Sir Thomas Essex and his wife Margaret
After exploring the historic delights of the various chapels, you don’t have to go far for more earthly sustenance. The George across the road is not perhaps the most impressive looking of village hostelries from the outside, but the Arkell’s inn is friendly and bustling inside and the Sunday lunch proves a unexpected delight – and excellent value for money too.
SUNDAY LUNCH: the George at Lambourn
Lambourn Church is at Parsonage Lane, RG17 8PA and The George on High Street, Lambourn,RG17 8XU.