Friday, February 21, 2014

A bit of good old fashioned history

I was feeling the need for a bit of history last weekend, so I thought I’d head over to Chastleton House, a grand old Jacobean pile owned by the National Trust, to get just that.

On the way there however I stopped off at St. Nicholas church in Lower Oddington, it had been a long time since I was last there, and as I was driving past anyway, it seemed a shame not to pop in on the way.

The church is set amongst woodland and a little way out from the village, the original settlement was probably moved to its present site during the plague, to make use of the higher ground, away from any swampland. And this tranquil isolation is one of the reasons the church is worth a visit.

A view of the Norman church from the back wall that runs around the graveyard.

Unfortunately the church has no stained glass windows, it’s thought they were destroyed during the civil war, as this part of the Cotswolds sustained particularly heavy fighting. But on the plus side, and the other reason a visit here is worthwhile, are the wall paintings, and if its history you’re after, these paintings have it in spades. The dominant painting is the Doom, dating from 1340 it takes up most of one wall of the nave, and may be the largest Doom painting in Britain.

A Doom is a traditional English term for a painting of the Last Judgement, and as such this huge mural contains all the expected elements, with Christ, apostles, angels and saints all given a good showing, plus of course the devil and his demon horde giving the sinners a roasting, sometimes quite literally.

It’s not in the greatest condition, thanks to the Reformation and it’s penchant for destroying murals, amongst other things, but luckily the whitewash they used did not completely eradicate the painting, and it’s not too demanding to pick out the details it contains. 

A panorama of the church interior, you can see the Doom on the far left hand side of the picture.
Clicking on the image will bring up a larger version.

It’s not a hugely visited church, so it’s quite possible to have the place to yourself, and sitting in one of the old wooden pews, surrounded by walls covered in timeworn depictions, it’s not too difficult to feel the history and the atmosphere of the place seeping in. In fact it’s quite a wrench to pull yourself away from the pleasant feeling of quiet reverie.

But pull myself away I did, and I was soon back in the car heading towards Chastleton House. Built between 1607 and 1612 by a prosperous wool merchant, this is an unusual place in so much as it remained with one family for nearly 400 years. And as with many once prosperous families, they slowly became more and more impoverished, with the interiors and contents slowly falling victim to the ravages of time. 

It’s also unusual because when the National Trust acquired it in 1991, they went with a policy of conservation, rather than restoration, so the historical ambience of the place is entirely authentic. I’d not been before so I was looking forward to getting inside and scooping up a bucketful of this historical atmosphere.

Looking from the main gate towards this splendid house.

But I realised when I arrived that I’d managed, with my usual rapier sense of foresight and planning, to completely disregard the fact that the house didn’t open until March. I’d looked in the NT book that very morning to see which days it opened, to make sure it was, in fact open that day, so I couldn’t understand why I’d completely missed the months of the year it welcomed visitors.

At first I thought it was because I was using the 2013 book, and they must have changed it without telling me, but later on I did check, as I wasn’t going to let this one slide, and sure enough, right next to the little table that shows the days it’s open was some illuminating text stating it was open March to October.

Luckily for me (which is often the case, it does seem fortune in fact smiles on the incompetent, not the brave), the garden was open that weekend for a snowdrop and spring flower extravaganza. So wanting to make the best of a middling situation I was soon wandering the grounds surrounded by a, and lets be fair, smattering of snowdrops. This was no floral mardi gras, but I wasn’t complaining, as the situation could have been a lot worse.

Doorway - firmly closed.
Some of the strangely shaped hedges contained in the garden. The garden in fact can be said to be the
birthplace of croquet, it was here that the rules of the game were codified. 
View from the garden to the fields beyond.
Old door and some of those spring flowers.

After wandering around the gardens, I took a stroll into Chastleton village, and by the time I’d got back to St. Mary’s church, which resides next the house, I was fairly warm on this beautiful sunny day. So I stepped inside the cool interior to take a breather on one of the 17th century pews, and soaked up the atmosphere.

St Mary's church with the top of Chastleton House visible behind.
One of the beautiful stained glass windows
Close up of the window and the reflections on the stonework.

After which I made my way back up the path to the car park where a patient National Trust employee was waiting for me to leave, so she could lock up, which I hadn’t even considered. It’s a good job I didn’t go for the walk I was toying with.

Here's a final one of the house, it was taken on my phone, but I like the feel of it.


  1. Fascinating stuff, Martyn. I especially love the doors shots, especially especially the one with the curved steps - composition, colours, everything...

    1. Thanks Mike, I found that door in a corner of the house and i was immediately drawn to the curved steps, they seemed to be requesting a photo!