Even though we knew it would be closed, it was worth the detour for the exterior alone… and the view from there is pretty spectacular… and that’s without the Mausoleum… Sir Francis Dashwood, founder ofthe notorious Hellfire Club, had certainly known how to leave his mark on the landscape.
By the time we arrived, the weather had started to change. Clouds were roiling in and promised rain, but the kites… for which we had named the place ‘Hawk Hill’… were still flying below us, circling the ancient site.
The church on the hill is built within an Iron Age hillfort… and enclosure of unknown purpose, as a rule, although this one, according to the archaeologists, once housed a monument comparable to Stonehenge. Later it was a Roman Temple… then an ancient chapel.
Then the Norman watchtower and finally a medieval church that, in 1763, Sir Francis turned into the strangest of ‘country churches’ with its interior based on the Sun Temple of Palmyra… and its tower crowned by a golden ball in which he is said to have held drunken card parties…
I think not. We have climbed that tower… the stairs are narrow and dangerous. The tower itself barely safe with low barriers… and the ascent through the drop-down doorway that dangles over nothingness, inconceivable for portly bon-viveurs already in their cups… We weren’t planning on climbing it again though.
We knew the church would be closed anyway. It always is. Except it wasn’t… so our friend got to see the oddest of village churches for herself…starting with the inlaid marble of the floor. A great sun symbol at the centre of a nave that looks more like a ballroom, festooned with garlands, doves and putti in moulded plaster.
Directly above the solar symbol on the floor is anotherin what appears, at first glance, to be an elaborately carved ceiling… but which is, in fact, perfectly flat. The whole thing… even the pink marble pillars that support it… is painted in trompe l’oeil.. and it is staggering.
The church was too busy with a tea and cake session for me to get the best shots. For some reason lying flat on your back in the aisle or standing on pews seems to be frowned upon…
There is very little about the fabric of the nave, apart from a couple of memorial plaques, that says ‘church’. Only the furnishings… the modern central altar table, the three ‘bishops chairs’ and electric organ identify the room as ecclesiastical.
Yet, behind the modern altar things are different. Between a pair of painted ‘marble’ columns, beneath the arms of the Garter, and through the archway heavy with plaster mouldings, you wak between the two family box-pews into another world.
Doves take flight across a moulded and gilded ceiling, marble memorials flank the altar. An odd pattern of tiles coveres the floor and symbolism in trompe l’oeil forms a frieze. There is little stained glass… and what their is consists of small allegorical and biblical panels mounted against the light.
Dominating the chancel is a fabulous Last Supper, painted by Giovanni Borgnis. It is almost impossible to appreciate the scope of this painting with the naked eye… it needs a lens or the mirror that is placed beneath it to be able to view it properly. All eyes are turned on Jesus as He blesses the bread and wine… save those of Judas, who looks directly at you.
There is a modern font now in the nave, but the original, Italianate font stands by the altar with four doves drinking the holy water, while another alights on the stem up which crawls a serpent…
It seems as if everywhere you look in this place there are more questions than answers, and the symbolism of the Church seems to have layers of meaning here that are not found elsewhere. But then, this was Dashwood’s church… and his legacy in the area has left more than one question unanswered…
We walked down the the edge of the ancient hillfort to look into the Dashwood mausoleum, a huge hexagonal enclosure filled with urns and statues in niches, holding the remains of Sir Francis, his family and a few mysteries… Another mystery of the infamous Hellfire Club waited beneath our feet….
(The Church, Mausoleum and the Dashwood Estate in the valley below the church has been used in several films and productions, including Downton Abbey, the new Bridget Jones film and featuring recently in Paloma Faith’s music video for ‘Picking up the pieces’ which gives a glimpse of the murals and trompe l’oiel inside Dashwood’s home. Click the link to watch on Youtube.)