The church reveals itself slowly as you walk between the yew trees that hide it from the gate. The spot has a pleasant feel, nestling close to walls of the big house next door and surrounded by the sheltering branches of trees. There has been a church in Horsenden since at least AD 1210, from which date the advowson… the right to present or suggest a parish priest… has been held by the lords of the manor, but the current building looks odd for any era. The tower does not match the main body of the church at all, and although we are well used to seeing the architectural evolution of a church throughout the centuries, the proportions all seem wrong.
In fact, we were to learn that the current building is largely fifteenth century, but only a fraction of a much larger church remains. In 1728, author and antiquary, Dr Browne Willis, wrote to the then Lord of the Manor, John Grubbe, describing the church as a substantial edifice, extending almost to the stable block of the manor, and consisting of a nave, chancel, arcade and tower. The condition of the building however, was such that by 1765, most of it had to be demolished, leaving only a portion of the chancel standing.
With the reclaimed materials from the demolition, a new tower was built, explaining why neither style, proportions nor finish match the rest of the walls. The tower itself though is lovely, with a window over the west door and two pigeon-populated openings to the belfry that houses a single bell dated 1582.
The body of the church, that was once its chancel, has five fifteenth century windows, holding nineteenth and twentieth century glass, including one by Clayton and Bell, as well as a screen of the same date. There are also memorials to the early members of the Grubbe family, with the earliest, to Bathewell Grube, dating to 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London.
The interior, from the one picture I have been able to find online, exudes warmth, with ornate tiling and a hexagonal font placed centrally in the single aisle. It is really frustrating to be unable to gain access to our old churches this year…
Watching us as we walked around the exterior were a pair of gargoyles. One, rather weather-worn, appeared to have been a regal winged lion, the other, quite possibly the angriest looking angel I have seen. Or perhaps he was a winged man… in which case I would have to wonder if there were originally also a winged bull and an eagle, completing the set of four symbols for the evangelists. These are the four ‘living creatures’ that pull the heavenly chariot described in the Book of Ezekiel and which were later attached as symbols to the writers of the Christian Gospels.
Other than these watchers, there is little to hint at what might wait within. Across the churchyard, the manor hides discretely behind the trees. There is a tale that says the manor was sold by John Grubbe, to pay the debts incurred during the building of a new theatre in London, a project which failed dramatically. The old house was demolished and rebuilt in 1810 in a more modern style and the listed building is now a family home and private recording studio.
We feel as if we can only scratch the surface of these stories without being allowed to explore the churches. We worry that many of our small, underfunded and underattended churches will remain closed and lost to future ‘explorers’ after the covid crisis has passed. Regardless of any personal religious or spiritual affiliations, it would be a crying shame to lose the social and human history that has been preserved within their walls for centuries.