One of the reasons we have found for visiting and documenting our ancient churches is that we do not know for how long they will remain as they are. There is a fashion at the moment for revamping their interiors, adding facilities such as toilets, kitchens and modern flooring, moving fonts and generally bringing the church into the twenty-first century as useful community spaces. Many of the churches we visited during our earlier travels have been updated and features that have been in place for hundreds of years are now gone… but of some of them, at least, we now have a photographic record.
My own village church has just been revamped in this manner. Even the beautiful old pews were sold to anyone with space to house them. I have yet to bring myself to go inside and see what has been done and now, with the current lockdown, even exploring on my doorstep has to wait. I doubt if any of the features below will have changed…at least, I hope not.
St Michael and all Angels is the Anglican church in Waddesdon. It stands right on the edge of the village, with open fields behind. It is a beautiful spot. The churchyard is walled, for the most part and on one side bounded by a mediaeval barn. The churchyard is still in use by families in the village and always well tended and full of flowers.
The church was first built around AD1190 and has served the community ever since. It has, like all our churches, seen many changes, being enlarged and restored over the centuries to suit the prevailing fashions. The newest changes are part of an ongoing evolution that tells the story of a changing world and the way that communities and church alike meet and adapt to those changes.
Even from outside you can see the differing styles almost jumbled together, especially on the north side that faces the fields. The main approach is less higgledy-piggledy, but it is easy to identify the rebuilt nineteenth-century tower, the fifteenth-century clerestory and the various stages of building.
Above the doorway of the south porch, St Michael holds the dragon beneath the point of his lance. It is a curious sculpture… the dragon seems somehow both accepting and welcoming of its subjugation by a ‘higher power’, which is significant in spiritual symbology. The scene exudes an unexpected serenity.
Inside the church is deceptively simple. Lozenges of blue and red tiles lead the eye between the medieval arches and high, clerestory windows towards the carved screen that separates the nave from the sanctuary altar, where Christ in Majesty gazes down from the stained glass window.
To one side, the ornate marble pulpit, inlaid with its mosaic symbols of gold, seems out of place. It was a gift to the church from its patron, the Duke of Marlborough… a thank-offering for his safe return from the Boer War. It was originally in the Duke’s chapel at Blenheim Palace, which explains its rich design, so out of place in a country church.
The font is some six hundred years old and has been used for the parish’s baptisms throughout that time, yet the carving is so crisp you could be forgiven for thinking it is modern.
In contrast, the stained glass windows are mostly Victorian, yet they have that timeless quality that defies dating except by those who know the medium or recognise the style and artist. This one, by Kempe, is later still, being a memorial to a young soldier killed at Ypres during the First World War in 1915 and shows St George and St Michael with the Virgin and Child.
The young soldier is not the only warrior remembered in the church. There are a number of brasses to knights and their ladies and the sleeping effigy of an accoutred knight, dated to 1330, lies against the wall of a chapel.
For me, though, the nicest finds were the smallest… a few tiny tiles of much earlier date have been preserved and are still set into the floor… a small but vivid link with the ongoing history of an old village church.