The sky was a perfect blue as we headed towards Wing… a small Buckinghamshire village with a name that makes me smile. The etymology is not so romantic, having changed over the centuries, but I always think of the great birds, the red kites that soar here. On the other hand, the name is supposed to be derived from either “Wiwa’s sons or people” or “The dwellers at, or devotees of, a heathen temple”…and that latter, of course, whets the curiosity, especially given the archaeology in the area.
The church stands close to an ancient mound, quoted as being ‘partially natural’, called a Castle. Too small for defensive purposes, it stands incongruous at the edge of the village. A tumulus is not far away… always a good indication of the proximity of the oldest sacred sites… and an ancient trackway runs through the village. Many of the villages nearby reflect the same source for the name and we know there are many churches dating back a thousand years in the area. These alone would be enough for us to start taking note, but then, there is the church and that has a long history.
We walked along the narrow pathway to the church, where an old tree is quietly swallowing the iron railings. The bells were ringing, a glance at the noticeboard showed we had twenty five minutes before the service started. It would have to be a ‘raid’ then… one of those quick visits that give just enough time to see if we need to go back. I have visited the church several times before and know it deserves more attention than that, but Stuart had a coach to catch. We always feel a little awkward about these raids, but the gentleman handing out hymn books waved us in cheerfully and another shared some of the church’s history with us. Although we generally prefer to have these old buildings to ourselves when we visit, it is always nice to have the parishioners share their evident love of these places that are at the heart of their village.
From previous visits I knew there were faint traces of the medieval wall paintings still showing as patches of ochre; fragments of a jigsaw puzzle we would never see complete. I knew, too, of the Elizabethan tombs of the Dormer family and many architectural details e would not have chance to see on this visit. The roof of the nave is magnificent; 15th century, the ancient wood heavily carved with angels and figures. But you cannot soak up the feeling of a place when you are rushing with camera in hand, so having documented what we could in mere few minutes, we repaired to the churchyard to look at the exterior, which , in many ways, is the most interesting part of the church.
Iron numbers date the clerestory to the 16th century and you might be forgiven for thinking the building is from that era. Many old churches have been heavily remodelled over the centuries and unless you know what to look for the old square towers and pointed windows seem ageless. Yet the seven sided, three windowed crypt that supports the apse is Saxon.
There was an Abbey built close by in the 7th century and the church was thought to have been built at this time for Saint Birinus, and Anglo-Saxon burials have been found. Yet there is older evidence, with Roman tiles and brick used in the early construction of the church and still visible, and along with archaeological finds and the derivation of the name, coming from ‘the dwellers of the heathen temple’, it would seem that there has been a sacred site at this place for longer than history can tell.
As we sat in the peace of the churchyard under the spreading shade of an oak tree, we watched the kites wheel overhead, the sunbirds with their fiery plumage and the great arc marked on their backs. The hymns from the congregation filtered out through the doorway, a soft background of sacred song. Birds watched us curiously, bees assiduously carried out their appointed task and butterflies graced the morning. Beyond the hedge a pony waited, echoing the colour of the kites. The earth was green, the sky the blue of the Virgin’s robe and wildflowers bloomed all around us.
“This is our church,” said my companion. “You don’t need more than this.” I nodded in silence as a robin perched on the branch above us. In Christian mythology, the breast of the robin is stained with the blood of the crucified Christ where it tried to pull the thorns from His brow. In Irish folklore, the red breast is the mark of the fire it tended to save a child from a ravenous wolf. To me it is always a cheering and beautiful visitor who looks back at you with intelligent eyes. No, I thought. You need no more than this to know the beauty and sacredness of this place we call our home.