As we could not, due to COVID, gain access to visit Holy Trinity at Bledlow on our recent sortie, I will tell you about our previous visit… what we found… and what we missed…
The door that has served Holy Trinity for seven hundred years… possibly the oldest working doorway in the county… had once again opened for us. It was our second visit and a stroke of luck; the church was being dressed for Harvest Festival and the parishioners had better things to do than to supervise us as we explored their ancient church.
And there is plenty to see. From the six massive pillars that have supported the nave for eight hundred years or more, each with their own particular design of carved foliage sprouting from their capitals, to the glowing colours of stained glass and the faded ghosts of mediaeval wall paintings.
The oldest survivor in the church is the font. It is of the ‘Aylesbury’ type, found frequently in this area, meaning that it is a huge, footed bowl, in this case, fluted and carved with foliage and scallop shells, a symbol of baptism. It was probably carved in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries by stonemasons engaged to do the work by the abbot of St Albans.
I love to see the old fonts still in place and in use. It is such a statement of continuity and community, regardless of whether or not you subscribe to Christian beliefs. Up until recent years, that would not have been a choice, as Christianity prevailed in Britain and the church would have been the hub of every community.
Above the old door, there are fragments of wall paintings showing scenes from Genesis… and, more specifically a completely unique depiction of the Labours of Adam and Eve, watched over by a finger-wagging angel with outspread wings. This used to be a popular scene… the punishment of humankind for disobedience, but where Adam may be shown tilling the soil, here he seems to be digging with a spade, while Ever spins. The distaff beside her is often seen… and rarely her ‘labour’ is shown by her holding a child, whereas here, she is shown suckling a babe while spinning.
On the wall opposite there is a faded St Christopher, placed opposite the door as the saint carried a special blessing for pilgrims who looked upon him. When the paintings were cleaned a few years ago, traces of water swirling around the feet of the saint were uncovered along with the head of a swimming eel.
There are other wall paintings too, fragments of wider scenes, now lost to conjecture, newly uncovered and tantalising. There are also painted texts, the only ‘pictorial’ scenes allowed under Cromwell, covering who knows what beneath their stark simplicity.
The pre-Reformation lectern we missed. These days, we might have noticed that the eagle whose outspread wings bear the bible, is looking back over it shoulder at the reader, rather than out over the congregation. The bird, in heradic terms, would be known as Eagle Reguardant.
There are wings too in many of the windows and artwork too, from those of the angel watching St George hold the dragon at lance-point, to those of the drumming angel, after a part of the Linaiuoli Triptych of 1433 by Guido di Piero, known as Fra Angelica.
he gilded icon was presented to the church by aviatrix Amy Johnson who lived close by for a couple of years from 1930, and came to the church to worship. Johnson died in 1941 when her aircraft crashed into the Thames.
In th south aisle is a wooden altar table which may have been the high altar at one time when Queen Elizabeth I had decreed that ’every Paryshe Church to have a stoute oaken table from which to celebrate the Lord’s Supper’.
Above it is a painting of the Deposition, “Descent from the Cross,” by Samuel Wale (c. 1770). Besdie it are two tomb recesses and a thirteenth century piscina for the holy water and oils to be returned to the fabric of the building… not left to be stolen and abused by local witches.
There are strange faces looking down from many vantage points in the church, as well as fragments of medieval glass and clues to the evolution of the building itself. When we visited, all those years ago now, we had barely begun to learn about these wonderful repositories of human, local and social history.
We had barely scratched the surface of the architecture, the terminology or the artistry…or joined the dots with how they connected with the spiritual history of these isles.
We had yet to scratch the surface of the symbolism and the strange stories we would find, hidden in plain sight, in the windows and carvings that adorn buildings that date back almosy a thousand years… and which yet speak to us in a language we still understand.
But we had begun to learn… both how to look and how to document our visits with photography… and, with out churches still closed to visitors for the foreseeable future, in revisiting these photographs, we can revisit the churches and share them while we wait for the doors to open once again.