Article by Ernest Dormer
The pedestrian who asks for the church at Arborfield, in Berkshire, will, without a doubt, be asked in return if he means the new one. If an antiquarian, his reply will be in the negative, and thereupon he will be told that by keeping straight through the Park Drive at Arborfield Hall until he comes to a white gate he will see the “ old ‘un.”
It was a sultry afternoon in late May; there was a distant grumbling of thunder, the clouds were low and leaden, and there had already been several heavy showers, as I followed the directions and came upon the ruined church of St. Bartholomew, at Arborfield, all suddenly, by the white gate.
The first view of the structure is singularly impressive. There is about the hallowed spot an atmosphere of departed times and customs, of an age when hustle was an unknown word. Em-bosomed in a thick, interlaced bower of yew, holly, pine, honeysuckle and tangled growth, the remains of this once unassuming 13th century church present a scene of crumbling beauty that it would be difficult to match within a hundred miles.
I passed up the clean path and stood looking at a bold gable wall, spectral and gaunt, which rears its ivy-clad head aloft in the air, and is buttressed by late 17th or early 18th century brickwork. A large window, the tracery and glass of which have vanished, has a shallow splay and its renovation in thin brick, while some pink colouring is still to be seen on the facing of the splay.
The window and core of the wall are distinctly suggestive of Transitional Norman work, while the restoration has been effected as though the window were pure Norman with the rounded arch. The erection has in many particulars suffered cruelly at the hands of inexperienced restorers at different periods of its existence. In several places, where the rough cast has fallen away, are traces of red brick, especially where the quoins are missing, but possibly may be lying somewhere about the nave or churchyard.
I passed along and entered a doorway into what I took to be the nave. No “dim religious light” reigned in the sacred spot where hymn and chant had once ascended into an old timber roof of hoary tradition. But it was an unique scene, and quaintly suggestive of, and full and overflowing with the natural handwork of God and the sweet picturesqueness which the dilapidation of religious edifices imparts. A thick wall of flint and chalk rubble of early character bounded my left, while on my right was a small chapel, restored. The central walk of the nave was formed of large square red tiles, uneven and worn. Beneath my feet were tombstones, scarred and scratched, and the rain pattered down upon them from God’s roof above. T’was all open to the sky. The winds entered not and vegetation thrived in luxurious profusion. Ivy hugged the walls and crept along the ground.
I turned about. Three steps of brick led up to what was once an altar. It is the altar still, for it has been dedicated to the Lord, and the presence of a blackbird’s nest with five young in it, is assuredly a fit emblem of the purity and sacredness of the spot. Here, not a century ago, simple villagers had knelt and pledged their truest vows, many of which they doubtless broke, as mere humans do. From here the voice of one who lay in silent dust beneath my feet had called forth Heaven’s blessing on all his flock.
There is a piscina in the altar wall, and on the floor are two small tablets to the Hodgkinsons, Rectors of the parish, and the wife of one of them, who died in the second year of her marriage:-
“A sigh the absent claims, the dead a tear;
There was a heavy scent of rain-washed vegetation in the air, an almost
overpowering odour of succulent stems and exotic growth. The bees droned
in the buds near the altar and a few young rooks looked on and cawed
noisily from a neighbouring yew as I bent to take the following
inscription on a tomb in the nave;-
I moved along curiously alert for discoveries. Of tower or porch there is no trace, although it is recorded that at the west end there was a tower carried on four wooden posts, and containing five bells which were removed to the new church built in 1863. There are two or three stone corbels in the walls at the western end of the nave, and sockets in the other walls suggest the removal of similar details. Where the congregation once sat there is a garden of lush grass, and the noble “cuckoo-pint” springs with its convolute head from the surrounding luxuriant growth. Here also young sycamore, nettles, hedge parsley, and the deadly solanum flourish in the floor dedicated to the Most High. Beneath this “garden” maybe lie the remains of lordly knights and ladies fair, who once attended to hear their pastor deliver his perorations on the virtues of his patrons. And now “Lords and ladies” above and lords and ladies below; a natural growth and inanimate recollections!
Conjuring, I passed along. A new looking porch attracted attention near the middle of the nave. I found a modern and unsuitable iron gate closed and locked, but peering within the porch I saw an ancient wooden door, with heavy iron-winged hinges and a doorway of a very plain order, probably transitional Norman. I remember, however, that it had a chamfered impost, and above the doorway an oaken beam, whitewashes, had painted upon it the date 1631. Some additions were probably made to the church at this time. Above this again was chalk tablet with a carved escutcheon. I climbed the gate, pushed open the old oaken door and entered the chapel.
A rumble of thunder from the heavens greeted my
entrance. It was dark, very dark, and an odour of age and forgotten
greatness seemed to impregnate this shrine of the dead. The floor was
heaped with plaster from the ceiling, and looking up I saw that the
laths were showing in places. In parts the walls are cracked and
fissured and the creeping ivy has made its way into the interstices,
while a huge crack runs from one of the tiny, long and narrow splayed
lancets to the roof, suggesting a difficult problem to the restorer. if
he ever comes. Around the walls are many mural tablets of marble to the
Conroy family, and opposite the doorway a fine escutcheon carved in
chalk. An oak-panelled dado runs round the chapel, save where a portion
has been wrenched away. The altar rails are intact. The little gate
leading to the altar - the Table is gone - was open and the floor beneath a
mass of dust and plaster. I gazed around conscious of the instability of
earthly things and the lesson which this little rural chapel imparts to
all those who stand within its walls. Facing the altar is a three-light
window of the Perpendicular style, with coloured glass and an
inscription beneath the two central figures. My eyes had now become used
to the light within this small shrine so reminiscent of manor lords, and
over the door which I had entered I made out the following inscription,
which, if it should be inaccurate in any small particular, is the fault
of the darkness of the thunderstorm and of the lack of light in the
The churchyard is a sweet old place of tall grass, sorrel, and cleanly swept paths. There is in places a spongy floor of pine needles, while some of the inscriptions of the table tombs are clothed in a similar covering. Over the innumerable mounds dotted round the church, the primrose and violet cluster in delightful profusion, and the ivy hugs wooden memorials of the later Georgian day, whose supports are decaying and worm-ridden. A low brick wall of apparently early 18th century construction marks the boundary of the “acre”, and several old family vaults are surrounded by the familiar urn and spike railings. Near by an old doorway and beneath the shade of two slender yews, is a wooden monument to the memory of Thomas Appleby, who died in 1851, and was Parish Clerk for 33 years.
From the corner of the churchyard a little gate leads into the grounds
of Arborfield Hall, a modern Manor House built on the site of the old
one in 1832. Miss Mitford describes its predecessor in “Our Village” as
“the old house of Aberleigh.”
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