“May I help you?” The stern voice sounded more ominous than helpful, slicing the serene silence of the old church. The warden towered over the suspicious individual who was pulling up the heavy iron grate at the base of the pillar. The figure shifted, uncomfortable at the intrusion… or because of the cold, medieval stone beneath her knees.
“I was just going to show my friends the medieval tiles on the old floor…Is that okay?”
“Oh yes, of course!” Disapproval turned to smiling approbation as the warden realised I knew the church well and was not, in fact, vandalising a listed building, but sharing its secrets with my visitors.
Having decided to drive our London-bound friend to the nearest Underground station at Amersham, it would have been a shame not to call into the church at Little Missenden which is a rather special place for many reasons. The film crew that was occupying most of the village bears testament to one of them… the tiny hamlet has often played host to Midsomer Murders and other productions due to the beautiful old architecture, while buried in the churchyard are Michael Denison CBE and his wife, Dulcie Gray CBE. The simple grave touched the heart of my friend with its inscription to ‘a good, kind, funny man’. Denison may be best known for his role as Algernon Moncrieff in Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of being Earnest” alongside Dame Edith Evans and Michael Redgrave. He also took the lead role in “The Glass Mountain” alongside his wife, Dulcie Gray and the celebrated bass-baritone, Tito Gobbi.
The church must be the oldest building still standing in the village though. Built on the banks of the Misbourne as long ago as 975AD, with Roman tiles from centuries before incorporated into its fabric, it has grown over the years into a place of grace and beauty. Pilgrim’s crosses are etched into the 13thC walls of the Chancel where the faithful carved their mark on their journey. Medieval tiles still show the level of the old floor beneath the iron grille of the ‘new’ 15thC north aisle with its 12thC pillars holding up the arches.
The nave is dominated by the wall paintings; a life of St Catherine and the giant figure of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child upon his shoulders. It was this figure that had greeted Stuart and me on his very first visit south and a spur of the moment call on our way back from the station. There had been no reason, except that I knew it for a nice bit of history and a beautiful place… but it was here, had we but known it, that our adventures together really began…and several books later, they have shown no sign of abating. We have visited the place several times since then, always discovering something new… but this time, he was far away in the north.
Time was moving on. The three of us wandered outside, gravitating towards the great yew tree that shelters the churchyard. A robin flew down and perched at my feet, looking up expectantly, accustomed, perhaps, to being fed by those who share the peace of the place. It was a short detour, but a timeless interlude… a few shared moments with friends before one of them had to depart… and my friend and I had chance to get down to some serious catching up…