I am surprised that my son continues to allow me to stop the car outside churches when we are out and about. “I won’t be above a few minutes…” invariably gives him time for a snooze, but on this occasion, a few weeks ago, I was almost as good as my word. It was the swiftest of raids… no forethought, no research, just an opportunistic descent of the off-chance that this time, it would be open.
We had stopped there one day on our wandering, Stuart and I, to no avail. I have tried on several occasions, only to find the door securely locked. I honestly did not expect to get in. But, on this occasion, I was lucky.
I’ve always liked the look of St Mary’s. I love the way the door, clock and window are set into the fifteenth century tower, completely out of line and how they reflect so many periods of history. I like the old gravestones leaning at odd angles that shelter beneath the yews. But I had no idea what I might find inside… if anything… so when the door yielded, I was elated.
It is always an adventure opening the door of a church, especially when you have no knowledge of what it might contain. St Mary’s at East Claydon is a simple place… no fuss, no grand tombs, but obviously old enough to have stories to tell.
The church stands on top of Sion Hill, on the edge of the village, in a space that feels enclosed and protected. It has stood here for a long time. The earliest known church on the site, a simple, single-celled building, dates from the twelfth century although its first recorded rector was Richard Hanley in 1218.
At that time there were no side chapels, no aisles, just the single space. The tall nave is probably twelfth century with the south chapel being added, perhaps in the early years of the thirteenth century.
The arch to the chapel is decorated with a carved sawtooth design that was already dated by then, which suggests it may be even older. The piscina in the chapel, though, is thirteenth century and the deep, lancet windows really give a sense of its age.
The piscina was used to give the holy water back to the building, rather than letting it leave the walls where it might be used for shady purposes in folk medicine and wise-craft…or witchcraft. It is for this reason that many early fonts still bear the traces of the locks that were used to secure their covers.
The octagonal font at St Mary’s though, looks rather sleek and modern… yet it is fifteenth century. It was at this time the tower was added and it would appear that a good few modifications were done around this time.
The fourteenth century chancel is very simple, adorned with flowers and one stained glass window of the Nativity, dating from 1899. It was designed by Mary Lowndes and made by James Powell and Sons.
This is another of the very many churches restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Of all the Victorian restorers, he seems to have retained a feeling for history. In spite of the passion for heavy design and curlicues that was fashionable at the time, his restorations managed to preserve something of the original simplicity of the building… especially in this area, so close to his birthplace.
There are little touches of personal history from the villagers too, from embroideries on the walls, to the Mother’s Union banner.
…and from the memorials to the upper end of the social ladder…
to the names of all classes inscribed in the Roll of Honour. Once again I am struck by the fact that this short list of names represents a large number of lives from such a tiny village.
I would have been glad to have got into this church for the simple peace and light it held, but it did have a couple of treasures to find too. On either side of the chancel arch, there are carved corbels showing winged figures, some seven hundred years old.
The only description of them that I can find is that they show ‘two angels and a devil’… which is odd, as there are four faces… and none of them accord particularly well with the modern, idealised form of angelic beings. They all look happy enough though, and they were the icing on the cake for me… well worth a visit, all on their own. I just had to wonder if the other church, just down the road, would be open too… and what my son would say if I stopped the car again…