I had occasion to go into town one summer’s day back on 2013. I am seldom happy about that, but sometimes it has to be done. Not that it is a bad town, to be fair. It has a history, and a rich one. As it is not ‘my’ town, when I moved into the area many years ago, I made a conscious effort to find out a little of that history. And today I took the camera to the old town.
We know there was an iron age hillfort where the old town and church now stand. A saint was buried here, St Osyth, whose holy well remains just outside the town. Her remains were moved in 1500 on Papal orders and reburied in secret after the town became a place of unofficial pilgrimage. Saxon and Norman lords have held the place. It has been central to many of the great events in our little country’s history, from John Hampden’s refusal to pay Ship Money, to Henry VIII who made it the county town, in lieu of Buckingham, to curry favour with the family of the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. The battle of Holman’s Bridge was fought here during the English Civil War, pistols were found in a priest hole and Cromwell stayed we are told, appropriately enough, at the King’s Head.
This ancient inn dates back to 1455 and is still a functioning pub. The old stable yard is a pleasant place to sit amid the history on a summer’s day. It has a royal history. Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, his bride, are said to have stayed here, and it is known that Henry VIII wooed Anne Boleyn in the Solar.. the room with the large window above the entrance. The inn is now cared for by the National Trust, and as the recent limewash fades and mellows the timbers will once again be visible.
Sadly, most casual visitors to Aylesbury will see a town centre much like any other these days. A large relic of the concrete revolution dominates both the town centre and all views of it from across the Vale. The population has doubled since the 60’s with London overspill and much of the remaining 16th and 17th century historic market town was demolished to build a shopping centre to cater for the influx of new people.
Yet, if one takes the time to look behind the glossy facades or above the tired shops of the old High Street there is still much to see. Those who wander off down the backstreets may even stumble upon the lovely old town that still clusters around the parish church of St Mary.
I like old churches. You may have noticed. For the beauty, the history and the marks left by real people through the ages. So I was going to brave the interior of St Mary’s today, but found it preparing for a concert. Beneath the church are ancient crypts, a Saxon church once stood here, but what remains today is a grander building. Heavily restored by Scott, the 15th century windows were stripped out and replaced by mock 13th century lancets and at first glance you would put it squarely in the Victorian era.
When I first moved here, the best part of twenty years ago, the interior was still very much as it had been for a century or so. I recall one lovely evening at Christmas, being a proud Mum as my son sang with the Favouriti from the Grammar School he attended. The atmosphere, then, was beautiful and full of gentle peace. Now most of the furnishings have been removed. The pews are gone, the tiny Lady chapel was today a waiting room, rather than a place of prayer and technicians made a visitor to a sacred place feel like an intruder.
The place saddens me. The churches, of course, have to move with the times and serve the community in whichever way is needed. Facilities must be provided and space utilised. But it can be done sympathetically… or not. These are, after all, sacred spaces to those who worship there, and to those who respect their faith. While there is much now done to protect the fabric of these ancient buildings, and we restore with a lighter touch and more sympathy their historic bones, it seems, sometimes, as if there is little regard paid to the very reason for their existence and survival.
While the King’s Head still serves ale to the thirsty, after half a thousand years, some of the churches I have visited lately have lost their atmosphere of prayer as they are secularised and their soul forgotten. Side chapels become lumber rooms, kitchens plonked unceremoniously in the nave complete with microwave… I am all for bringing places of worship into relevance and into touch with everyday life… they were, after all, at their inception, the very heart of the community. I’d just like to see a little more discretion in how it is done sometimes, and a regard for maybe a thousand years of faith held in trust within those walls.
In a corner of St Mary’s is the tomb of Lady Lee. She was the wife of Sir Henry lee, Knight of the Garter, champion of Elizabeth I. Her Ladyship died in 1584 and on her tomb is written: “Good frend sticke but to strew with crimson flowers this marble stone”. Every other time, over the years, that I have visited, there has been a crimson flower before her effigy. It is said it has always been so. There was one there still. This time it was artificial. It said it all. Next time, I will take her flowers.