Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Cotswolds - Kelmscott

Cotswold cottage on the Oxfordshire village of Kelmscott by Martyn Ferry Photography

Kelmscott, famous as the home of the writer and designer William Morris, is a small, secluded hamlet on the north bank of the river Thames, and is at the end of a no-through road that peters out at the Thames towpath. It has remained a small and predominantly agricultural community, built around two working farms, and even today it consists of less than 200 residents.

The hamlet's riverside landscape, though broken up by hedgerows and trees, is mainly flat and featureless, the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a friend of Morris who spent time at Kelmscott in the 1870s, called it 'the most uninspiring I ever stayed in', and noted it was 'the doziest dump of old grey beehives'! Though to Morris, with more idealized views of rural life, Kelmscott was a 'beautiful grey little hamlet' unspoiled by industrialisation.

Beautiful secluded hamlet of Kelmscott in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds by Martyn Ferry Photography
A view of one of the little lanes that run through the very rural hamlet of Kelmscott.

Undated cropmarks west, south, and east of the modern village suggest extensive early settlement, ranging probably from prehistory to the Roman period. A rectangular enclosure immediately south of the village may be of Iron-Age date, and traces remain of several undated early trackways, some of them apparently related to parts of the existing road system. No physical evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement is known, although at sometime during this period a Saxon called Cenhelm built his “cott” or “cote” (a cottage or stockade) here and the name Kelmscott is attributed to him. 

During the Second World War a landing strip at Kelmscott served as a relief landing ground for RAF Watchfield, and in 1944 was used for beam-approach training. Before the Normandy landings extensive practice parachute drops were made in the area, many parachutists reportedly missing the site and landing 'in fields and trees for miles around'.

Kelmscott village hall built in memory to William Morris by Martyn Ferry Photography
The village hall built in memory to William Morris

In 1914 William's daughter, May Morris, commissioned the Arts and Crafts architect Ernest Gimson to design a village hall in memory of Morris, and following a public appeal, the building was finally erected in 1934 to coincide with Morris's centenary, the opening ceremony was conducted by George Bernard Shaw in the presence of the then prime minister Ramsay Macdonald. 

Medieval church in the Oxfordshire Cotswold village of Kelmscott by Martyn Ferry Photography
The only medieval building in Kelmscott is St George's parish church on the village's northern edge.

In a typical village the parish church is right next to the manor house. But in the village of Kelmscott, which spreads along 4 lanes that form a box, St George's Church is on the opposite side of the village to Kelmscott Manor. St George's was begun in the late 12th century, and since the middle of the 16th century it has remained virtually unaltered. 

St George's church at Kelmscott in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds by Martyn Ferry Photography
The interior of St. George's church, which owes a debt of gratitude to Morris.

It escaped drastic Victorian 'restoration' - unlike so many other churches - largely thanks to the efforts of Morris, who felt so strongly that he formed S.P.A.B (the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings) which is still active today, and who made sure that any restoration that was carried out in the late 19th century, did little to spoil the medieval character of the church. 

13th century wall paintings in St George's in the Cotswold village of Kelmscott by Martyn Ferry Photography
All the church wall paintings are entirely in red ochre. Their style indicates a painting date of around 1280.
The grave of William Morris in Kelmscott churchyard in the Cotswolds by Martyn Ferry Photography
The grave of Willam and Jane Morris tucked away in a corner of St. George's churchyard.

In the churchyard is the tomb of William Morris, designed by Philip Webb. Morris featured the church in his novel News from Nowhere, when in the final part of the book, the Guest is taken there for the feast.

The Plough Inn at Kelmscott in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds by Martyn Ferry Photography
The Plough Inn, housed in a 17th Century building.

No alehouse licenses for Kelmscott were noted in the 18th and early 19th centuries, though by the 1840s the village carpenter sold beer, at what would come to be called, the Plough Inn, where by the 1860s, there was also a grocer's shop. It was one of several Oxfordshire pubs abutting the Thames that suffered badly from the floods of 2007. It was closed for some considerable time while repairs were undertaken.

And that is the small but perfectly formed village of Kelmscott. Next time, we go from a place with about 200 residents, to one with over 27,000. The largest town in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, Witney.

You can see more images from the beautiful Cotswolds countryside on my website.

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