I’m grounded. The car, minus its MOT, sits forlornly on the drive awaiting its appointment at the garage first thing on Monday. I am limited to where I can go with rural transport and I am severely missing my wheels. The weather has been unsettled and, being full of cold and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself, I had a look back through some of the photographs of past ventures into the landscape.
I came across some pictures from a little village thatsits right on the border of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire; indeed the boundary runs through the parlour of the Manor. I recall the day well; it had started with a trip to Hawk Hill… the place where Stuart and I had first encountered the massed red kites. It was sort of a pilgrimage to retrace our steps to a rather special church. From there I had gone to the church we had called the Dark Virgin, given the feel of the place… and I had found it transformed. It became the Virgin of the Rainbows after that visit, and I was almost whooping with joy… but that’s another story.
From there I had, inevitably, taken the longest way home I could find, stopping at several sites on the way. For some reason, I chose to turn off the main road back and see if I could find the church at Ibstone. It probably had something to do with the red kites… they had, after all, been reintroduced to England at the Wormsley Estate, just outside the village, back in 1989. Wormsley… which is such an interesting name…had been restored by the philanthropist, Sir Paul Getty. I had delivered there regularly, years ago, and knew about the kites. They had become extinct in England and Scotland and a reintroduction was planned at Windsor which fell through at the last minute. Getty had stepped in to save the project and, to my everlasting delight, the kites have thrived and now live on my doorstep too.
On the other hand, I knew nothing at all about the history of the village itself. I remembered it chiefly from my delivering days… which had proved so useful in learning my way around the area. My memory for roads and places is good and, since Stuart and I began exploring, has been put to good use. Ibstone, I remembered chiefly for the long, single sided street that ran through it, facing the common, and the lovely old houses. You could just tell it was a place with a long story in its past.
I knew from the architecture that the inn must be about 300 years old in parts. I was betting the village went right back beyond memory. What I didn’t remember was the huge, great standing stone in the middle of the common… and I was sure I would have noticed it! I pulled over, grabbed the camera, and went to investigate. Ibstone comes from the Anglo-Saxon name Hibestanes… which would, after all, imply ancient stone had been involved somewhere along the line. But this one didn’t ‘feel’ right. Don’t ask me to elaborate… because I can’t. But it didn’t. Accosting the owner of a very friendly collie, I asked about its origins, and found I was right. It had been erected to mark the Millennium… had it really been so long since I was last here? … and was not of ancient origin at all. And the Church of St Nicholas was at the far end of the village, down a little lane, all on its own…
Which sounded good. For some reason the churches in the older places always seem to be slightly outside the village. Apparently the villagers had tried to rectify this by building a new church. Legends say the Devil objected and the church fell down. They named the spot Hell Corner. The other claim to fame in the village was the windmill. It had been used as Caractacus Potts’ workshop in the film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and actress Hayley Mills had lived there too. But I wasn’t after windmills. I headed for the church.
I was glad of the directions too or I would never have found it, tucked away amid the lost traces of an ancient settlement, where a church has stood for over a thousand years. The tiny church stands on a mound, always a good sign, and is surrounded by trees that hide it from view. The present building was, at first glance, disappointing, in spite of the beautiful setting. Partly rendered now, it is far more modern, dating back largely to the 12th century. Prior to this date any church would have probably been made of wood, so I wasn’t going to complain at that. Traces of its history linger in the carved heads over the windows, the plain tub font, the chancel arch and the blocked doorway. I wondered if this was a Devil’s Door prevalent in many old churches, left open to allow the demons to depart as was the custom, but it proved to be on the south side and such doorways were almost always to the north.
I spent some time in the peaceful little place before wandering out into the sunshine which had broken through the clouds. There, in the green oasis of the churchyard, I found two things of particular interest. One, I noted and photographed… but it would be two years before I looked back at the image and realised its full significance…
The other, I could hardly miss. I have seldom met a tree with such presence, and not simply because of its size. Dwarfing the church tower, the Ibstone Yew was a surprise. It is thought to predate the present church and be over a thousand years old. With a girth of some eighteen and a half feet, the tree spreads its branches over the tower, as if sheltering the little church. It must have seen so much in its time, watching a third of the village lost to the Black Death in 1348, seeing the lords of the manor come and go and witnessing the marriages of the men and women of its land. The yew has such a place in our myths, lore and legends that it would need a whole book to tell them; somehow it seems fitting that the ancient magic of the sacred trees is preserved in our churchyards… a continuity of faith, in spite of its changing faces and doctrines over the years. As I turned for home I felt it had been well worth the trip.