A very familiar church

3 May 2018

Sometimes things go to plan, others fate has a surprise or two up her sleeve.  This is not always a bad thing. Fate has a way of showing you what you need even if you don’t know it at the time. Today was a case in point. The sun was out and I decided to get away from all the storm damage related tasks like, insurance assessors,  prices, quotes, builders and generally clearing up and take a wander to the windmill. On the way CJ and I would pop into the polling station in an annexe of the village church to vote and maybe stop to tend Pappy’s grave. 

When we got to the polling station we discovered the main church building was open. This is very unusual. In fact I don’t remember ever seeing the doors open before and I don’t think I’ve been inside the church since Alex’s wedding when I was three. It seemed too good a chance to miss so we stepped inside.

Holy Saviour Church was designed by Southampton architect George Guillaume in gothic style. Guillaume was also the borough surveyor and is thought to be responsible for the layout of the city’s central parks. Apparently he’s buried in the Old Cemetery, although I have yet to stumble upon his grave. The builder was John Gambling of Northam Road. It was consecrated in 1853 and a south aisle was added in 1885, presumably because the little village was expanding.

The coursed rubble building has a slate roof and a one hundred and twenty foot high spire that can be seen from all over the village. Above the main door there is a clock, donated in 1868 by Stewart McNaughton of Bitterne Manor in memory of Miss Janet Moyes. Sadly, when the trees are in leaf the clock is all but invisible so most people don’t even realise it’s there.

Obviously my memories of the inside of the church are minimal, although they are very vivid. At the age of three I had very little understanding of what a wedding or being a bridesmaid entailed. Dressed in a pretty white dress with a fitted bodice and a puffy netted skirt tied with a blue velvet sash, I was perfectly happy until it came to going inside the church. The interior was very dark, or at least that’s how I remember it. It was also filled with people I barely knew and they were staring at me. All I wanted to do was sit on Mother’s lap in the front pew but my soon to be sister in law had other ideas, she grabbed my hand and dragged me along with her. This led to lots of tears and some ruined wedding photos. According to Alex I didn’t stop crying until the reception when I saw the wedding cake.

Stepping inside the church for the first time in over fifty five years I thought perhaps some memories would be triggered. In fact I remembered nothing of it at all. It was certainly a little dim after the bright sunshine outside but nowhere near as dark as my three year old eyes had found it. It also seemed much smaller than I’d expected but this might have more to do with me being much bigger now.

Once our eyes became accustomed to the dimness inside the church we noticed a  lady, sitting quietly in a corner. It turned out she was there to answer questions and, perhaps, guard the place from vandals. These days even a church isn’t safe from such things. She told us the church has only recently started to open its doors and they are only open once a week. It was sheer chance that we chose the right day to visit. Perhaps fate wanted to put a smile on my face after the destruction in my garden.

CJ and I slowly wandered around, pointing things out to each other in whispers because I always feel as if I should walk slowly and whisper in a church for some reason. Now our eyes had adjusted, it didn’t seem dark at all and I liked the way the pale painted walls contrasted with the dark wood of the pews and the arched roof beams. Maybe it wasn’t painted when I was a child or maybe the impression of darkness was just my memory playing tricks on me.

It’s surprising I have no memory of the beautiful stained glass windows. One of the things I like best about the inside of churches is seeing the windows lit by the sunlight outside. Some were relatively plain but the large window behind the altar was gloriously colourful. As we went towards it for a closer look I realised I must have been retracing my steps from all those years ago. I tried, and failed, to imagine Mother sitting in the pew to my left. If there was one thing I’d expect to remember about the church it would be that window.

The church walls were decorated with many marble plaques commemorating parishioners from the village. These are of interest in any church I visit but, in my own village church, the stories they tell seem especially poignant. Some are well worth telling. Amongst the memorials to the men of the village killed during the Great War,  prominent clergymen and esteemed villagers, are two war heroes with connections to the village.

Stephen Fairbairn Cotton and his wife Carrie, the parents of Ralph Charles Fairbairn Cotton, lived in a large house called Brydone at the top of Mousehole Hill. The house is long gone, replaced by smaller houses in the 1930’s and the grounds cut through by Townhill Way. Although he’d been brought up in relative affluence, Ralph was keen to improve the living conditions of the working classes. He became a barrister. When World War I broke out, he joined the 1/1st Hampshire Yeomanry. He had recently married. He was one of the first officers to be attached to the Machine Gun Corps and was sent to France in late 1916. His life was nearly ended in Bourlon Wood when his dug out was hit by a shell and he was buried alive. In late March 1918, his luck ran out in Bois des Essarts. He was shot in the lungs. Unlike Pappy, who was similarly wounded, he did not survive the experience. Two days later, in the American Red Cross Hospital at Evreux, he died. He left two daughters, Teresa Jane and Judith Mary.

The second hero was 2nd Lieutenant John Nickleson Martin of the Bengal Artillery. During the Indian rebellion of 1857, he was involved in the siege of Cawnpore, an important garrison town for the East India Company. Hugh Wheeler, the British General at Cawnpore, had adopted Indian customs and married an Indian woman so the Indian soldiers under him remained loyal. There were around nine hundred people in the British camp, three hundred of them soldiers, the rest women, children, assorted businessmen, engineers and native servants. Soon after the siege began the servants left.

Those who remained were not prepared for a protracted siege and soon surrendered in return for safe passage to Allahabad. They were betrayed and the evacuation turned into a massacre. Almost everyone was killed, including Lieutenant John Nickleson Martin who was just eighteen. The memorial in my village church is echoed by another, exactly the same, in All Souls Church in Cawnpore.

Interesting as these memorials were, the stained glass windows were the things I’d really come to see and they didn’t disappoint. Several were also dedicated to people who lived in the parish but my favourites were the ones dedicated to health, love, faith and hope. They reminded me of the paintings of Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha.

The windows and the  arches of the building were pleasing to the eye but there were plenty of other little details to make me smile. We found a comfy looking chair with floral cushions, perhaps somewhere for the vicar to put his feet up after a hard Sunday morning. There were brightly coloured cushions scattered under the pews too and a beautifully abstract quilt on the wall.

Then there was the font. This was where I was christened although, unsurprisingly, I have no memory of it. Behind this we found a little model of the church building and a lovely floral arrangement.

By this time we’d come full circle and were close to the main church door. We’d dallied far longer in the church than we’d intended and there was no time left to walk to the windmill. Even so, our morning’s work was not quite over.

Our final mission was outside in the churchyard. The graves here are not as overgrown as those in the Old Cemetery but there was a little work to be done to remove the grass growing on Pappy’s grave. Had there been bluebells growing, like those on some of the other graves, I might have left them be. I’m sure Pappy would have liked them.

It hadn’t been quite the morning I’d expected but I’m glad the church was open and I finally had a chance to look around it. Now I know when it’s open I’m sure it won’t be my last visit.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

10 thoughts on “A very familiar church”

  1. Wow–that really is a beautiful church; I’m glad it didn’t bring you to tears again on this visit! It’s always interesting to contrast childhood perceptions with what you see once you’re an adult. It’s sad that vandals forced the closure of the church–a depressing commentary on society–but I’m happy you got to go in and share it with the rest of us!

    1. I expected to remember more of it once I was inside but I didn’t. It was lovely to get the chance to see it though.

    1. So sorry to hear about your brother. The lilacs have such a short, sweet smelling life. I’m sure you’ll think of him whenever you smell them

  2. I did like your reference and pictures of the memorials to the people killed during the Indian mutiny.I have seen these in many churches I have visited.Sadly lot’s of people never look at them now,as a profound dislike of the British Empire seems to be around now,mostly from the Young!

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