Cotswold Churches

PUBLISHED: 10:07 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013

Northleach, one of the grandest of the Cotswold 'wool churches', is famous for its memorial brasses to wool merchants, whose wealth paid for the building

Northleach, one of the grandest of the Cotswold 'wool churches', is famous for its memorial brasses to wool merchants, whose wealth paid for the building

Our churches stand as silent witness to the changes wrought over the centuries, as power drifted away from the wealthy elite

'What is a church?' Our honest sexton tells,

'Tis a tall building, with a tower and bells'.

George Crabbe

The Cotswolds are rich in churches - large and small, grand and humble - the spiritual centre and focal point of every town and village and a physical landmark of the history of a place. To come upon an ancient church for the first time and become aware of treading where generations of that community have trod before, marking the milestones of their individual lives at christenings, weddings and funerals, gives one a strong sense of continuity in the order of life, for they enshrine both our heritage and the changing social structure as it has evolved throughout history.

Many of our churches have stood in the same spot for a thousand years, silent stone witnesses to the changes wrought over the centuries as the shift of power moved from church and state to local influences of wealthy landed estate owners - all reflected in the style and fabric, and now in many places the closer involvement of the community itself - the long and ponderous epitaphs and stately sculptural effigies of manorial lords and ladies are now just accepted as part of the furnishings - but of such exquisite craftsmanship that complement the beauty of stained glass and wondrous wood-carving that the churches are virtual art treasure houses in their own right.

Ancient churches have weathered the winds and whims of changing fashions more robustly than their contemporary grand houses have: Gloucestershire can boast a hundred churches with their architectural foundations rooted in Norman times, whereas it would be hard to find a Norman domestic building. Built in the native stone of the Cotswolds, the church was meant to last - and last it has, and evolved, strengthened by successive generations refashioning, adding, subtracting and stamping their own time on it - for whatever purpose, often for the better, sometimes for the worse, until it stands today as a veritable history book in stone to be read by those who care to look and be guided by architectural clues.

Conservation, preservation and care for churches in general, and appreciation and care of Cotswold churches in particular were the late David Verey's life-time commitment. The son of a vicar, he was taught at a young age that beauty was one of the attributes of God, and since beauty can be found in the works of man as well as in nature, he considered it a duty to maintain and protect such works. Just how committed he was to his beliefs, appears in the preface of his newly republished work on Cotswold churches. Like all great men, David Verey was too modest to blazon his highly respected status of architectural and archaeological authority abroad, but his daughter, Davina, lists a highly impressive curricula vitae of his chairmanship and directorship of national importance, along with his literary work which is still held in high esteem some quarter of a century after his death.

Erudite and scholarly, David Verey was; pedantic he certainly was not, and even those who did not have the fortune to meet him in person feel they know him through his writings as his personal preferences and opinions give colour and enthusiasm to his works. He obviously had a great love of our local churches, but he was not afraid to be critical of either authority or architecture if they offended his eye and sense of aestheticism or common good sense. In fact, he was encouraged to be so by Sir John Betjeman, who had enlisted his contribution to the new Shell Guides a half century ago. Pevsner, whose approach to writing about vernacular architecture was completely different from that of Betjeman's more popularist style, later enlisted David Verey for his scholastic work that resulted in two Gloucestershire volumes in Pevsner's Buildings of England series.

Cotswold Churches stands as a single guide from David Verey's pen by which he points out basic architectural facts of our local churches, summarising the transition from one period to another and setting them in topographical context of their river valleys. This makes a far more interesting arrangement than an alphabetical gazetteer and, as spring slips steadily on towards the longer summer days bringing locals and visitors out and about to explore our highways and byways, the format makes an ideal trail to follow on what the author himself called the enjoyable pastime of 'church-crawling'. It is an enjoyment enhanced by the snippets of hinted at scandals, ironies of time and place, and tantalising clues to follow in these history books of Cotswold stone, glowing glass, tactile wood carvings and sculptural forms telling their own stories of those who passed this way before.

Shiny floor tiles, over-restoration with 'cruel' or 'disastrous' scraping of medieval walls and fussiness of extraneous carving, (but the obtrusion of the organ at Wyck Rissington is forgiven by the fact that Gustav Holst played on it) are among the few dislikes recorded by David Verey, who found more to praise than criticise in his native Cotswold churches. He loved the antiquity of Hailes and the remoteness of Farmcote, the well-preserved wall paintings at Stowell and the charm of Widford. He was struck by the dignity of Duntisbourne Rouse with its simple stone floor, panelled box pews and carved wooden misericords. An extract from the memoirs of a young servant to the Curate just before Victoria came to the throne presents a delightful pen picture of the youthful Henry White, whose duties were to drive a donkey cart to Cirencester twice a week, clean cutlery and boots, wait at table, care for three pigs and do the garden - for which he received 2 for the first year. His livery, in which he had to follow the family to church, carrying his master's surplice, was knee-buckled black plush breeches with white stockings, a brimstone coloured waistcoat and blue pigeon-tailed coat. The sight of this splendidly dressed figure 'caused uproar' among the village children who had never seen anything like it before.

Memorials have many a tale to tell behind the inscriptions: Withington church must have been second home to Walter Heyden, as a modern tablet records that he was clerk to eight rectors from 1918 to 1971; as, indeed, Randwick must have been for the Reverend John Elliott whose service as vicar of that parish continued for 72 years. Incumbents at Bibury appear also to have been long-lived, or reluctant to leave, as records show only about ten vicars in 300 years - although one of them became known more for the length of his sermons than the longevity of his life, and when he turned the hour glass over which stood by the pulpit to continue for a further hour, the squire would withdraw, smoke his pipe and return for the benediction! An earlier vicar, and one with the shortest tenure, was a disreputable character who did not say Divine Service every Sunday and was accused of committing adultery with his servant. On the western edge of the Cotswolds, the vicar of North Nibley seems to be less remembered for his church work than his creation of the garden in the valley for his illicit affairs well out of sight of his wife's house.

The story of how Lord Coleraine, a Regency rake, came to buried under the organ at Kempsford, with no notice in the church to that effect, has its clue in his 'frail nature' as recorded on his memorial at Driffield church close by the family mansion he had demolished for the cost of the stone and materials in 1803. The reader is left to interpret the irony of the entry for Swinbrook: 'In the east window of the south aisle there are fragments of medieval glass collected after a German land mine exploded in the village on 26 September 1940 and blew the east window out. Just outside in the churchyard is the grave of Unity Mitford, the misguided friend of Hitler.'

Latest from the Cotswold Life