We had lunch at the thatched pub in Chearsley, a place that may be the site of the battle where the first Saxon king of Wessex, Cerdic and his son, Cynric fought the Britons in 527… Arthurian times. The inn is a little younger than that, being around 450 years old, and stands on the village green where the roads cross. Today the place is one of those chocolate box villages that scatter the area, but once the lord of the manor’s gallows stood at the crossroads and telltale skeletons have been found close by.
While there is a lovely church in the village, we had been telling our friend about a rather special place… the ‘Dark Virgin’ of The Initiate… Duly fed and watered, we headed off towards a church lost amid the fields and hills that can only be found by navigating the tiny, single track lanes that run snake-like between the hedgerows. The kites were flying as we arrived…
It is not the prettiest church. From outside it seems too square and plain in comparison to others in the region. I had long promised myself a visit, having spied the tower in the middle of nowhere, but it was not until Stuart and I began our adventures together that I actually got there.
Neither of us had liked the place. It had everything we were looking for in a church at that point… history, a single-cell construction, medieval wall paintings, old floor tiles preserved, stained glass, an ancient font… yet there was something about the place that had felt uncomfortable… and we had not been able to put our finger on it.
Even the postcards for sale in the porch had portrayed a dark and foreboding aspect more fitted to a Hammer horror film than a church. We hadn’t stayed long… but we did go back.. and what we did is told elsewhere. After that, something, whether in the place or our perception of it, changed… and we could see it for the little gem it is.
Still, it is, undeniably, an odd church. Built around 1200 by the Knights Templar, it was originally even smaller than it is today. The nave was lengthened around two hundred years later when the porch was added. The windows of the nave were also enlarged.
The church has only the central aisle that runs the length of the building, from the font in the west to the altar in the east through an unusual central tower, narrower than the body of the church. The font may be the oldest thing in the church. It is thought to be Saxon and was dug up by a farmer in a local field.
All eras of history seem represented here. The pulpit dates from 1680, the reign of King Charles II who gave the village to one of his mistresses. Brasses commemorate local dignitaries of the Elizabethan era and the printed sign saying ‘do not clean’ reminds me of my grandmother who had cleaned a ‘dirty vase’ at her CO’s home, only to find the ‘dirt’ had been family ashes…
There are medieval wall paintings around the window embrasures and peeping out from the later, post-Reformation texts that covered the forbidden iconography… the clearest being a St Christopher high on the wall. These were rediscovered in the 1930s by Clive Rouse.
The oldest paintings, though are the simplest… the masonry patterns, the consecration crosses that face each other at the entrance to the chancel and the Tree of Life above the tower arch.
The visibility of these old wall-paintings varies depending upon the humidity. Damper weather seems to enhance the colours and, after the wet winter we had this year, many of the paintings are much easier to decipher, including the ones behind the altar… one of which looks as if it depicts the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove.
Others are not so clear…or have lost essential features that would allow their true stories to be understood. Angels, saints or ecclesiastics… we may never know for certain.
The stained glass is all from the past century, including one window that commemorates a famous incumbent, the Rev. Corder, who worked to restore the church, built the vestry with his own hands while contributing valuable scientific work to cancer research and three narrow lancets above the altar.
My favourite, though, is a little more enigmatic. Undated and unattributed, it is listed in the catalogues as a ‘woman holding a crown’. Is she Mary the Virgin, for whom the church is named? Or does her unbound, flower-crowned hair show her to be another Mary, the Magdalene? With the Templar associations, the questions cannot be avoided.
Either way, the haloed lady wears a crown of her own whilst holding another and richer crown close to her heart.
The little church has an air of mystery, as if it knows more than it whispers in the silence. Standing in the bright interior bathed in afternoon sunlight, I remembered the iron nails driven into the tree trunk that we had found, the tales of ancient murder and the strange symbol carved into the fabric of the building.
The history of the place stretches back long centuries. For much of that time we have neither memory nor record, only legends and stories that shed and gather details as the years move on. There are mysteries here… but perhaps only because we cannot see them through the right eyes.
Outside in the sunshine, we were being watched by other eyes… bright ones that followed our movements, accompanying us to the car… and others, soaring high above and riding the wind. If it was to be a day of mysteries and as we were so close… there was one place we really should take our friend. It would be closed, of course, but even from the outside it is a strange place…