Friday, August 22, 2014

St Oswald's - A bit of Cotswold history

Last weekend I took a trip over to Widford, a tiny village, that's not really village anymore, on some maps it isn't even listed, or if it is, then it's as 'the site of'. But despite its lack of substance, there are still a couple of structures that denote an actual place, rather than the remains of one. And the Church of St.Oswald's is such a marker.

This shot was taken at sunrise, to catch the sun as it popped up on the horizon, appearing behind the small
church and offering some colour to the clouds above.

Widford itself takes its name from the Old English ‘withig for’, ‘the ford by the willows’ but was already 'Widiforde' in the Domesday Book, 1086. Though the village that once prospered here in the Middle Ages can still be seen, thanks to the crop marks that score the surrounding landscape, showing the layout of the former buildings.

Path that runs alongside the River Windrush and passes by St. Oswald's.

In 1904 it was discovered that the church stands on top of a Roman structure, generally thought to be either a villa or temple, and for many years a section of Roman tessellated pavement was exposed in the chancel. But so many people took souvenir pieces of the pavement, that the Roman artifacts had to be covered up to preserve them. They now reside in the Corinium Museum in Cirencester.

St. Oswald's itself is thought to have been built in the 13th century or thereabouts, although depending on your source, it could also have been constructed in the 11th, 12th or 14th centuries. Or, more likely, it is an amalgamation of different builds.

Shot at sunset, this view is looking away from the church towards one of the outbuildings of Manor Farm,
a 17th century building, and the only other original Widford structure still standing.

The first church that we know of, was built here in the late Saxon or early Norman period, for the monks of St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester. Local tradition suggests that the site marks a place where the monks carrying St Oswald, King of Northumbria's body, from Northumbria to his burial place in Gloucester, stopped to rest in AD 642. But due to its location, this seems unlikely.

Looking downhill from the church towards the River Windrush, whose banks along here are lined with trees.

There is a good deal of uncertainty when, and why the village began to decline, but, as is the way with many vanished villages, it has been put down to the Black Death. And the area, like so many others across Europe, did suffer many casualties during the devastation. In the nearby manor of Witney, 14th century evidence suggests that an estimated two-thirds of their tenantry died.

After Dissolution the church was in use for some 300 years, but the surrounding landscape would have changed considerably, as by the 18th Century it was part of the Wychwood forest, an area of wasteland which in 1809 comprised some 6720 acres, and was described as being 'filled with poachers, deer-stealers, theives, and pilferers' (Board of Agriculture, 1809). Not the most welcoming of surroundings for someone looking for a bit of quiet contemplation.

The Cotswold stones glow in the warm morning sunlight.

So it was no surprise, in 1859, when much of the forest was cleared to make way for agriculture, that the church closed and was put to use as a barn. After 40 years the church fell into a serious state of disrepair and was restored by public subscription and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1904, when the Roman pavement and wall paintings were discovered. The church is now grade II listed.

The commandment boards (situated top left and right above the chancel
arch) are dated 1815, and may have remained in place while this building
was used for farm purposes.
The pulpit is 15th century and the box pews, some of which contain 19th
century graffiti, date from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. In
Medieval times this part of the church would have held no seats or pews,
but would have served as a community centre, with the chancel being
the only religious part of the building.

The wall painting in the church, of the three dead and three living, said to date to the early part of the 14th Century, is one of the earliest depictions in the country. The wall paintings depict the cautionary tale of the Three living and the Three dead (‘As you are, so we: and as we are, so you will be, wealth honour and power are of no value at the hour of your death.’) and St Christopher crossing the river.

Lining the sides of the chancel are the wall paintings, but from this angle they can't really be deciphered. The aumbry, or locked dry cupboard, on the far left was for the bread and plate. The piscina, on the right beyond
the basket of flowers, was for washing the chalice. Wall paintings explained the religious stories of the day
from the bible.

So all that history and upheaval, has a left St. Oswald's in splendid isolation, sat snugly in a rolling field, away from the bustle of traffic and tourists, making it the perfect place to spend a few hours soaking up the beautiful Cotswold countryside, and contemplating the rich history that is contained in the surrounding landscape.

The church still has services, every fourth Sunday of the month for half the year, but outside of those times, whenever I visit, it's always been completely empty. Making it a perfect place to get a feel for the local
history, and of course for a bit of quiet pondering. 

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