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Out here, on Sundays, they leave the churches open

The summer is pretty clearly ended, and so is my time in Oxford. As I indicated a while back, some time elsewhere has thankfully been found, and as enquirers on other matters have cleverly determined, there is news on other fronts too and next post, I promise, I will put it all together and tell you what’s going on with me. Just now, however, I want to clear the decks of one last photo post from the end of last summer, because shortly putting up meandering posts about Oxfordshire will be badly anachronistic. So this is the story of one Sunday when I was fed up with whatever I was trying to get done with the day and decided to pack a map and take the bike out and get lost, and then find my way home when I’d had enough. (I very much recommend this method of exploration, by the way.) So I picked a direction I’d never gone in and this is what I found.

Noticeboard detailing the Battle of Chalgrove Field, with the memorial behind

Noticeboard detailing the Battle of Chalgrove Field, with my noble silver machine resting against it and the memorial behind

This area being about the best agricultural land in England, you don’t have to go very far to find where people have been fighting over it, but this was part of the English Civil War, so a bit more than a squabble over fields, albeit still not a very big one in this particular instance. Some parts of this country do rather pile the history in, though. What you can’t see in this picture, though, is that off to the left is the headquarters of Martin Baker Ltd., the company who invented the ejector seat. The tower they use to test the seats is easily visible from the memorial, though I couldn’t work out how it was used from what I could see. Anyway, that was interesting, but I hadn’t gone far enough. Some miles further on, though, I saw this:

The village of Cuxham in the distance

The village of Cuxham in the distance; you can probably guess what caught my attention…

Why yes it’s an old church! My Romanesque sensors went off almost before I knew what I’d seen. But how old? Well, a closer approach brought me quite suddenly around a corner and up against this:

Portal of Cuxham church

Portal of Cuxham church

and suddenly I was thinking, maybe quite old? Reconnaissance duly followed:

South side of Cuxham church

South side

North side of Cuxham church

North side

The tower, you see, looks older than the rest to me, but some of the windows, doubled round arches, you know, it’s all suggestive. I had to try the door, just to see if there was more information in the porch or something. And well, there isn’t a porch: I just stepped in…

Interior of Cuxham church

Roof timbers in Cuxham church

The roof timbers look older than the outside!

I’m not sure if these pictures adequately convey quite how nicely the whole place was kept. Everything looked freshly washed, not new obviously but perfectly neat and serviceable, as if the place had just been waiting for someone to step in, whereas I suppose given it was Sunday the exact opposite had lately happened. On a table by the door, as well as the usual leaflets and donation boxes, there was a small visitor’s book with a legend explaining that whoever you, the visitor, might be, you were perfectly welcome to come in, sit down, have a look round, pray or not as your persuasion might be, and if you’d like to leave a note that would be lovely! I mean, I do not feel comfortable in buildings of worship when they’re operational, but I almost wanted to seek out the curate and tell him or her they were doing it right as far as I was concerned.

Tower of the Church of the Holy Rood, Cuxham

Another shot of the tower

And, the lowdown, yes, it’s a Norman church, the tower is the oldest bit, and it is the Church of the Holy Rood, Cuxham. Most of it seems to be fourteenth-century and the roof is new as in my-lifetime new after a fire, though I suspect that the reason the supporting timbers look so aged is because they survived the fire. But what a testament to the dedication (no pun intended, though old wood surviving a fire would be a good thing to happen in a church of this dedication, you have to admit) of this tiny village its condition is! I was dead impressed, really I was.

North aisle of St Leonard's Watlington, interior

North aisle of St Leonard’s Watlington, with banners hanging out apparently just for fun

View down the nave of St Leonard's Watlington

View down the nave

Now, that was not the end of my journey, because I’d by then more or less determined to get to Watlington, whither the road I was following clearly went and where I’d often seen buses heading for. Watlington on a Sunday is a little bit dead, though it seems like a nice enough place as big country villages go. But I wandered around, was greeted by several people as if they knew me,* found a pub that was open, and also before this had found that an open church in which the congregation plainly take pride was not just Cuxham’s possession.

I perhaps shouldn’t be so pleased by this, after all I am no church-goer, but things like this are testaments to a goodwill we just don’t see much of sometimes. Where I come from, they do not leave the churches open, because they want to keep what’s in them free from theft and vandalism. It’s nice to think the opposite is still operative somewhere fairly close by.


* This almost always completely surprises me. Where I grew up and in the towns I have subsequently lived, a stranger addressing you in the street is trying to get money from you, or at the very least, palm a flier off onto you and thus get money from someone else, and the closed-down anti-response one develops becomes almost automatic. Every time I get north to where the country has hills in it and meet someone who observes the courtesy of greeting the people you pass, because to ignore them would be rude, I have to readjust. But Cuxham had already adjusted me this time.

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3 responses to “Out here, on Sundays, they leave the churches open

  1. Slightly gratuitous comment to say ‘hear hear! embark on random exploratory journeys whenever and where ever possible!’
    Anon.

  2. I find it delightful that you experience the same wonder at freely open, tidy, and currently unoccupied churches that I once did when I first started visiting tiny country churches in the UK. But now, I think of it as a thoroughly British thing, so it’s funny to hear you find it so strange. (Yet, if I think about it, it makes perfect sense.) And as a relatively extroverted/friendly midwestern-American (where we also greet strangers), I’ve always been more at ease socially “north to where the country has hills” and with people from those places than with London and Londoners (much as I *love* London with a love that is pure and true). It’s no coincidence that when I did an undergraduate year at Cambridge, the closest friends I made were from Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Northern Ireland! And my two nearest, dearest, oldest friends in the UK are from Yorkshire and Wales. All of which is to say that your experiences as an insider confirm my experiences as an outsider.

    And here’s to future random, exploratory journeys in and around your new home, too!

  3. I do hope so! It is nice to be nearer hills, but on the other hand that, and the size of the city in which I now find myself, may make it rather more work to get out to the green… We shall see! Thankyou for the thoughts and corroborations.

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