16 August 2015
After several minutes of dithering, looking at Google Maps on my phone and wondering if there was something I was missing, I decided the only thing to do was to carry on along Brook Lane. Maybe I’d find a path that I couldn’t see from the map and, if not, I’d just have to walk back to Botley Village. Just the thought of it was disappointing, especially as I’d worked out a route home based on finding the church and I’d have to walk back the way I came if I couldn’t. So I turned the corner and carried on, looking to my left hopefully, thinking I might spot the church or a gate or something. There was nothing but trees.
Then I came to a muddy looking track. It was further on than I expected and a sign told me it led to Manor Farm Country Park, not the church. Further dithering ensued. Of course I’d heard of the country park but I’d never actually been there. From what I knew of it, it was huge (four hundred acres I’ve since found out) and I had an idea it might lead me where I wanted to go in terms of the walk home. Maybe there’d be another trail leading to the church. What was the worst that could happen? Well, obviously, getting lost but it wouldn’t be the first time. Feeling rather unsure, I set off along the track. It was possible I’d have to pay to get in but I did have a little money in my rucksack if it wasn’t too expensive.
As it happened I made the right decision. At the end of the track I came to three gates. The right hand gate led to the country park, there was a big sign just in case I didn’t realise this. The left hand gate led to goodness knows where, possibly the farm I’d passed on the corner. Through the middle gate I could see gravestones. Bingo! The gate was open and I walked inside. As I did a young couple came out of the open door of the church. This was a surprise because I hadn’t expected to be able to go inside.
In fact the church itself was a surprise. From what I’d read it was built in the thirteenth century on the site of a Saxon church and it had originally been called All Saints. At some point in the 1800’s a poplar tree had fallen on it and more or less destroyed it. This tiny little church looked in prefect order as far as I could see, not the ruin I’d expected at all. Obviously my research was sadly lacking although, in my defence, there is very little written about the old church. It turns out the falling tree destroyed the nave but left the chancel in tact. Although the church was still useable it could no longer accommodate the parishioners of the growing village. As the centre of the village had, by this time, moved a mile or so north, getting to the church was also causing problems, especially for the ladies of Botley who were not keen on climbing over stiles in their Sunday best. A new church was built in 1835, the one I’d seen in the centre of the village, and the old nave was demolished, leaving just this pretty little chapel. After the new church was built it was re dedicated to St Batholomew, presumably to stop confusion.
Once the young couple had gone I headed for the open door, not really knowing what to expect. There was a small bell tower above the door but, for the life of me, I couldn’t work out how anyone could ever ring the bell. At the threshold I paused, taking in the ancient doorway. The old stone arch was green with algae and moss and speckled with lichen and the wooden door bore the scars of age along with some decorative hinges.
Once I stepped through the door I was spellbound by the simplicity and serenity of the little chapel. The plain white walls, trefoil and cinquefoil headed windows with clear, leaded glass, plain wooden pews and rows of simple chairs spoke of a gentler time when churches didn’t need bells and whistles, or even stained glass to draw in a congregation. If I closed my eyes I could almost imagine the villagers tramping over the fields on their way to the Sunday morning service. At my feet, running along the centre of the aisle, stones remembering those same parishioners were worn smooth by countless feet. How many brides had walked nervously across them clutching simple posies, family and friends turning to watch and smile?
To my right against the wall beneath four hangings of religious text was a funeral carriage, as plain and functional as the church itself, although, these days people, including my late Mother in Law, pay a great deal to be carried off in such things pulled by black horses. How many Botley residents took their last journey in this glass carriage? It must have been hard work for the horses in the narrow country lanes, especially in winter when the unpaved road would have been thick with mud. no wonder the residents petitioned to have the church moved.
To my left, just inside the door I noticed a plain wooden organ. It reminded me of the piano we had when I was a child and I couldn’t resist pressing one of the ivory keys. Sadly there was no sound at all but, as all I can play is Beatles songs and chopsticks it’s probably best. Maybe, if I knew what I was doing I might have got a note or two out of it but my repertoire didn’t seem appropriate for a church somehow.
What really caught my attention was the windows. Much as I like a bit of stained glass these wonderfully unembelished windows festooned with dusty cobwebs seemed to fit with the modesty of the surroundings. Light streamed in casting diamond shaped shadows on the sills. The largest window was on the end wall and the sill was decorated with woven wicker animals, a rabbit, frog, fox, pig, crow and mouse if I’m not mistaken. It was a far cry from the overwhelmingly ostentatious decorations of Salisbury Cathedral, still fresh in my mind. Somehow it seemed closer to my idea of worship, should I ever choose to go down that route.
The altar was stunning in its simplicity, just a plain, slightly watermarked, table with a wooden cross and a bible. A plain brown and cream jar held a posy of wild flowers, tansy, daisies and lavender, much as I’d imagined those brides carrying. They were fresh and I wondered who picked them and brought them to the church. It was nice to think the place was cared for and remembered even if it’s no longer in use.
There was another organ in the corner beside the window. For such a small space two seemed a touch excessive. Beside it an easel leant against the wall and, behind that a blackboard with the letters of the alphabet still written in chalk. Who wrote that lesson and when? The date was 9 June 1890 something, I couldn’t see the last number because of the easel, but I could hardly believe the words had been there quite that long.
In the opposite corner a green enamel jug held an arrangement of dried flowers, teasels and honesty in the main. Below it was a chair, much like the ones I’d admired in Salisbury, with two cushions to make it comfortable. Within reach a niche with a trefoil arch was filled with old books, one a large bible, the other dog eared tomes were probably hymn books. Perhaps the vicar liked to sit there reading scripture.
Slowly I walked back towards the door, taking in the details as I did. When I got as far as the chairs I couldn’t resist taking a seat for a moment trying to imagine what it must have been like to sit there on a Sunday and listen to a sermon. Perhaps William Cobbett would have been there sitting in one of the pews at the front. He did attend this church after all. In fact two of his daughters were christened there although he fell out with Rev Richard Baker when Baker sold him some bad straw. Their relationship never recovered and Cobbett called the parson a ‘chattering magpie’ and a ‘scoundrel.’ In 1809 Cobbett was charged with criminal or seditious libel over an article he wrote in the Political Register and was sent to Newgate Prison for two years. When he was released in 1812 the church bells were rung in all the villages he passed through on his way home with the exception of Botley. Baker held the church keys and refused to let the villagers in.
Heading for the door I turned my attention to the rustic wooden beams of the roof. Cracked and weathered from years of supporting the red tiles above they have certainly stood the test of time. They are a testament to the skill of the carpenters who made them. The light was streaming through the door and, in a summer with so little sun, I couldn’t afford to waste it so, with one last look back along the church I went out to explore the graveyard.
The great age of the graves meant there was little in the way of legible inscriptions to be found but this lack was more than made up for by the number and variety of lichens and mosses. I strolled around admiring the simple headstones and crosses and the one large tomb along with the building itself. On the side wall at the back I thought I could detect a ragged line, perhaps where the tree fell destroying the nave. Of course I could have imagined it.
In the corner against the wooden fence there was a bench shaded by the trees in the land beyond. For a while I sat there and sipped my chocolate milk listening to birds singing and enjoying the peace of the place. After the tree disaster and the building of the new church, the end wall was rebuilt. For a long time I stared at it trying to see a difference between it and the other church walls but I couldn’t. It was as if it had never happened.
As I drained the last of my drink and stowed the bottle back in my rucksack I knew I’d have to start for home. Originally I’d planned on a route that would take me along untried trails to Bursledon Road. They were there on the map and most of them even had names so I’d been confident I could walk them. The problem was finding them.