Limited Edition
September 2005
No. 224
- Bidding war
- Luxury cells
- A legacy remains
- Sales savvy
- New horizons
- Glow on
- Secret haven
- A tipple Mrs Beeton would approve of
- A touch of Victoriana
- If you go down to the woods today…
- Friends among my flowers
- Glorious grasses
- Doing a runner
- The glories of Adderbury church
- Simply a question of balance
- The life of a legend
- On the Thrush Green trail
- Setting standards
- Here comes the Barnaby Rudge
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Tall story... the splendid spire at St Mary's Church, Bloxham
The elaborate memorial of Sir John Thornycroft in the Milcombe chapel.
The North Aisle east window contains a design by Edward Burne Jones - the figure of St Martin dividing his cloak to give half to a poor man
The Norman carved stone lintel in the Chancel
Lofty ambitions
Tim Healey discovers hidden delights in the splendid St Mary’s Church at Bloxham

Soaring skyward for 60 metres, the spire of Bloxham's church is reputedly the tallest in Oxfordshire. Tapering to a needle-fine summit, it appears loftier still by the fact that it surmounts a hill overlooking the village.

On a windy autumn day, jackdaws — those aerial comedians — dip and tumble around the high spire competing for exuberance with the lively gargoyles on the outer parapet.

The landmark can be seen from miles around, even at night, when it is floodlit by courtesy of a recent lottery grant.

The grandeur of St Mary's bears tribute not only to the strength of mediaeval belief but to the artistry of a group of north Oxfordshire masons who flourished in the 14th century. Their trademarks included lively stone carvings of beasts, human figures and monsters. Their work can also be seen in the parish churches at Adderbury, Alkerton and Hanwell.

Local tradition tells how a mediaeval mason of exceptional genius worked at both Bloxham and Adderbury. One day he tripped and fell, shedding a barrowload of stone which created Crouch Hill on the outskirts of Banbury. Then the man mysteriously vanished leaving the lingering odour of sulphur in the air. Suddenly his fellow masons realised the truth — they had been working alongside the Devil.

Straddling the road between Banbury and Chipping Norton, Bloxham lies in the top corner of Oxfordshire known as 'Banburyshire'.

The local ironstone confers a special character on both church and village, shading subtly from dove-grey through tawny brown to an improbably rich yellow — the colour of egg yolks.

Bloxham's name derives from the Anglo Saxon, ‘Blocc’s Ham’ (the home of Blocc) from the sixth century, when a Saxon settlement was built here on the banks of the Sor Brook.

During the Middle Ages two manors grew up, one on either side of the stream, to be united in 1545 under Richard Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele. His descendants remain lords of the manor to this day.

With a maze of winding lanes surviving from the mediaeval street plan, Bloxham also boasts many houses later built by prosperous yeomen-farmers who were independent-minded in questions of religion.

At the time of the Civil War, Banbury and its satellite villages had a national reputation as a hotbed of Puritanism, and the Fiennes family themselves were strongly for Parliament.

After the Restoration, the Puritan vicar of St Mary's, Christopher Newell, was ejected for refusing to submit to Anglican authority, whilst Quakers, Anabaptists and Presbyterians thrived in the village.

The present church dates chiefly from the 14th and 15th centuries and, though here as elsewhere, Puritan zealots may have destroyed mediaeval stained glass 'whose superstitious paint encouraged idolatry and was the work of the devil' many carvings and other features survived. Enter the porch and you are greeted, to your right, by a grotesque half-human pig-face.

Inside are more carvings — of bishops and angels, knights and ladies and humbler folk too — here a peasant with an axe, there a man with bagpipes. Among the earlier features, the doorway with its zigzag patterning is unmistakeably Norman, and on the north side of the chancel is an especially striking Norman doorhead patterned with foliage, stars and fish-scales. The beautiful rood screen with its traceried bays was the gift of Cardinal Wolsey, in whose day the church belonged to Godstow Abbey.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries Edward VI gave the living to Eton College, which holds it to this day.

In mediaeval times much of the interior would have been decorated with wall paintings. The Puritans covered them up with whitewash but when this was removed during Victorian restoration some vivid fragments of the murals were revealed. They can be seen, for example, in the Milcombe chapel where the other striking feature is an elaborate memorial to Sir John Thornycroft (died 1725) reclining in extraordinarily effete posture.

During the 18th century local Bloxham singers and musicians used to perform for services in a gallery at the west end of the church. The lusty — sometimes unruly — character of 'west gallery music' came to offend Victorian reformers who replaced them with church organists.

At Bloxham an organ was installed in 1846 but at least one older resident regretted the change. 'What singers they used to be,' he recalled, 'and what voices they'd got, fit to knock the winders out.' For instrumentation, it seems, the villagers had employed the ingenious combination of 'bass viol, trombone and violins'.

The restored organ is a handsome feature of the church. But from the same Victorian era, the true glories are the windows with stained glass by the firm of artist-craftsman William Morris.

The Chancel east window was designed by Morris himself, with assistance of Edward Burne Jones in 1868-69 and shows the heavenly city, saints and angels. The beautiful, futuristic clouds — almost anticipating Art Deco — were the work of architect and designer Phillip Webb. Tucked away in a niche to one side, the Chancel low south window showing St Christopher is from an original drawing by Burne-Jones, and the North Aisle east window contains another Burne-Jones design, the figure of St Martin dividing his cloak to give half to a poor man.

Situated by the south corner of the churchyard, Bloxham's Old Court House now serves as a village museum (open to visitors on Saturday and Sunday November 15-16, from 2.30-4.30pm). It is owned by the Bloxham Feoffees, an institution probably dating back to Saxon times.

By tradition the feoffees comprised a body of upright local citizens who were responsible for the well being of the village community. In return for such services as repairing bridges, health and safety, and caring for the poor they were bequeathed lands and monies to be invested. The feoffees formed and financed Bloxham's first fire brigade. A vintage fire engine is among the museum's prize exhibits, along with the old fireman's ladder and the 'Fireman's Drag' a kind of billhook used for pulling down burning thatch and sometimes to recover drowned bodies from the river.

Though their role is now largely fulfilled by the local council the feoffees still function, with some limited funds available to help people who have lived in the Parish of Bloxham for a minimum of three years. Donations assist the elderly who are in need of help, for example, and students starting University, for their books and so on. Like the great church itself, the feoffees provide an extraordinary continuity in Bloxam's 1,000-year-old village story.

Bloxham’s mystery ‘tunnels’

Amazing tales are told of secret passages under Bloxham and it has even been said that an underground way once led as far as Broughton Castle. That may be pure fancy, but there certainly are caves under the village.

In 1825, Harry Davis, a Bloxham vicar's son, wrote: ‘A few years ago some men happened to open a small subterranean apartment, with a floor smoothed out of the red stone rock, containing Spear Heads and Fragments of Battleaxes, amidst a quantity of very black Mould no doubt the Ashes of Brave Warriors.’

In 1902 when a road roller again broke into the cave, Mr Bradford, the schoolmaster, tied string to some of his boys and sent them down to explore with candles. In 1954 the cave was reopened when sewers were being laid. The supposed ‘Ashes of Brave Warriors’ looked to investigators suspiciously like coal dust, and though some claimed the arched cave seemed to have been man-made, others opted for a geological explanation. The underlying rock is an iron-rich Middle Lias marlstone.

The cave may have been formed by a vaulted layer of rock whose underside was hollowed out by percolating surface water.

Water erosion accounts only in part for Bloxham's subterranean tunnels. Like other villages in the area it had its own quarries which were worked not only for building materials but for the iron in the stone. Tunnels discovered in Queen Street survive from 19th-century ironstone mines.

However, a small number of manmade passages are more puzzling. There is one under the privately owned Ashwell House, for example,

stone-lined and with recesses. Its purpose is entirely unknown.

It is reported that a previous owner was so alarmed when she heard that her boot boy had been down to explore that she had it bricked up. Another sealed tunnel leads away from the cellar of the 17th-century Hawk and Partridge pub, just across the road from St Mary's church. The present landlady, Lisa Blatch, showed us the entrance. It was discovered about 1920, and acquired the name of ‘body-snatcher’s lane’.

Through the tunnel, it was alleged, went men who stole skeletons for medical purposes, or robbed jewellery from the newly buried. A Bloxham man born in 1905 related how his grandfather, walking to work before dawn with his mates, saw and chased some body snatchers with their scythes. Had they caught them ‘They'd have cut their legs off!’

Yet another story tells of a sexton (c.1890) reopening a grave in the churchyard, who fell into a mysterious tunnel. Some say it led to Godswell, an ancient holy well in the grounds of Godswell House, much visited by mediaeval pilgrims. Others prefer the more sinister possibility — it was the far end of the body-snatchers' secret thoroughfare.

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