Albion, ancient sites, Art, sacred sites, TOLL, travel

An ancient place

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I had taken my visitor to see the church at Stewkley, one of the best surviving examples of a Norman parish church. It seemed only right, while we were in the area, to take him to visit the church in Wing… one of the oldest churches in England, dating back even earlier, to Saxon times.

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The oldest recorded name of the village, Weowungum, dates from around 966 and is of disputed origin. Some think it may derive from a personal name, Wiwa, others look to the older language and believe it refers to the ‘dwellers by a pre-Christian temple’.  The ancient trackway of the Icknield Way passed through the village and there were often important sites close to such routes.

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The archaeological record dates back much earlier than the 10thC and it seems probable that an early sacred site stood here long before Christianity came to these shores. Traces of a Roman  structure were also found and it is known that in the 600s, there was an abbey just a couple of miles away at Ascott and it was around this time that the church of All Saints was built for St Birinus.

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The present building bears traces of much of that history. The crypt, nave, porticos and apse were built then, with the polygonal apse being rebuilt in the 9thC. Almost every century since that date has left its trace. Alterations are visible where arches and windows have changed position, tiles that may be Roman have been re-used in the construction of the tower, gargoyles decorate the rooflines and touches of Victorian restoration tell of the presence of George Gilbert Scott.

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Beneath the apse, the Saxon crypt remains, visible now through a gate, though closed and awaiting restoration. A large Saxon burial ground was found on the edge of the current churchyard some years ago, much larger than the medieval plot, which is unusual… the later and larger population would normally occupy the most space.

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The skull of a young girl buried there was used by the team at Meet The Ancestors to reconstruct her face. Examination of her bones showed her to be 11 or 12 years old and to have suffered a life of illness and pain. Given the number of  other burials from that time, it has been suggested that the church was a place of care or pilgrimage to which the people brought their sick and ailing relatives for healing.

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Above the door into the porch, empty niches show where statuary once stood, possibly destroyed during the Reformation…possibly just lost over time. Beneath the eaves, what appears to be the Lion and the Unicorn, though they are so weathered it is difficult to tell. If they are the Lion of England and the Unicorn of Scotland, that would date them to no earlier than 1603, when the creatures became the supporters of the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom on the accession of King James VI of Scotland became also King James I of England, joining the two nations.

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Inside the porch, the base of a much older 12thC font is tucked away in a corner, in far better condition than the heraldic creatures above the door. Looking at the building over so many centuries really shows how well the Saxons built their original stone church…and who knows if, as at other places, the stone building replaced an even earlier one of wood? Be that as it may, this has been a place of Christian worship for at least 1300 years… and for how many centuries before that was it a place of pagan worship? It is an astonishing place… and that is before you set foot inside…

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