A VISIT TO ST. ANDREW’S CHURCH
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Approaching from the south, as you go through the Lych Gate you pass on your left the new Burial Ground, and to your right is all that remains of the cottage of shepherd John Withers, whose gravestone just inside records his death at 104 (Jessie Timms, buried near the porch, reached 105!). It was at the Lych (= body) Gate that the bearers rested the bier on the way to the grave. The Lych Gate was given by the nine sons of Henry Rendall, Rector 1856-1893, in memory of their mother who died in 1905, and the initials of all nine are carved around it. (The Rendalls’ only daughter, who died in infancy, is buried just inside on the right, close to the family tomb).
The Old Churchyard, formally closed in 2000, is reckoned to contain at least 4,000 bodies; the earliest (17th Century) surviving gravestones are distinguished by having curly tops and being deeply sunk into the ground. Close to the church are the Timms and Herbiage chest tombs, and the base and stump of a medieval churchyard cross, where the villagers would gather to hear itinerant preachers, and, no doubt, exchange news of all kinds. Pause here to look up at the porch – added around 1400 to shelter those congregating outside the building, whether for a service (weddings often took plat “at the church door”), to conduct business or to post official news. The porch once held a small upper room where the priest could lodge or teach; the projections which support its floor beams, and the small windows which lit it, can still be seen. The accurate sundial dated 1658, probably commemorates the 60th year in office of John Goodwin, who was Rector from 1598 (when was 26) to 1667!
Around the top of the porch, and extending east and west round the south aisle, runs a corbel table of 47 carvings, a mixture of human faces (perhaps benefactors?), grotesques, animals and rosettes. The carvers’ fancy roved freely here, as it did in portraying the Green Man and Green Woman (faces amidst growing vegetation, a memory of pre-Christian folklore) as stops on the westernmost window. Green Men are common in medieval stonework, and this one’s features were still clearly visible a hundred years ago; Green Women are much rarer.
At the entrance, the Norman doorway and its dramatic, carved tympanum are the oldest surviving features of St Andrew’s; it must have been salvaged, when the south aisle was added, from the smaller 12th Century, Norman church. Between the concentric orders of zigzag decoration, the fierce “beakheads” are typical of the time, but at the end of the row the clearly identifiable man and woman offer a truly individual quirk, perhaps the signature of this long ago carver. Birds and humans remind us that God created the whole world and its creatures; in the central space a “great fish” swallows – or spits out – a man’s head, and another human figure (in grave clothes?) lies beneath. This is surely Jonah, whose re-emergence after three days from the belly of a great fish prefigured, in Jesus’ words, his death and resurrection, reminding us that at the heart of our faith is a story, with a meaning, which we believe to be the basis of our salvation.
Just inside the door, as is appropriate for the start of the Christian life, is the 14th Century octagonal font, where people of all ages are baptised; Jesus taught that we must be “born again” by water and the Spirit to enter God’s Kingdom. So to the nave (from the Latin word “navis” for a boat, since the Church is seem as a kind of Noah’s Ark, in which we are saved from destruction). As we stand at the centre and look east, we see at the far end of the Chancel a wooden cross standing on an oak table (called, by ancient tradition, the “altar”). The Cross is central to the Christian faith, because Jesus Christ was put to death by being nailed to a wooden cross; but it is an empty cross, because three days later he walked living from his tomb. At this Communion Table there takes place the important act of Christian worship, when we re-enact together the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, breaking bread and pouring wine for them to symbolise his imminent death on the first Good Friday.
“He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by his precious blood.”
Over the Communion Table is a fine east window, filled with St Andrew’s diagonal crosses, large and small; its stonework was totally renewed in 1988-9, launching a period of major restoration.
As we turn to look westward down the church, immediately on our right is the “Batersby Brass” recording a 16th Century Rector, and then the door to the Vestry, added by G.E. Street in his restoration, begun in 1852. To that period also belong the fixed choir stalls here, the congregational pews in the nave, the carved wood pulpit and the oak “lectern” (reading stand), all evidence of the growing importance of formal music and preaching in the Victorian era. In the south east corner of the chancel, a “piscine” (washbowl for the Communion vessels) still shows traces of the original HIS (the initial Latin letters for Iesus Hominum Salvator). A “priest’s door” leads out in the churchyard.
Returning to the nave, we pass through the delicately carved Rood Screen, with its asymmetrical sections designed to fit the unequal spaces either side of the central aisle. Its medieval colours were renewed in 1851-6 by the curate W.C. Flint (helped by his wife), who had taken over the pastoral care of the village when his Rector Joseph Brooks fled the building and the country one Sunday, having run deeply into debt. The curate also founded the still-flourishing school next door. The screen stands as a reminder of the pre-Reformation days when the priest and choir in the chancel were kept apart from the ordinary people in the nave. High above it hangs the “celure” which once covered a “Rood” – a status of Christ on the Cross, flanked by St John and St Mary, standing on a beam above the screen. In the pillar between nave and south aisle you can see, blocked up, the door which led to the rood-loft.
At this end of the south aisle is the memorial to Alexander Scott Hall, whose family owned Great Rollright Manor for the first third of the 20th Century; then a thoroughly “perpendicular” window facing east (with, at the top, a few sections of 17th Century “strapwork” glass), and, facing south again, a slightly earlier, pointed window. Between them is a second medieval piscine, this time with “ogee”, (onion-shaped) top, suggesting that this corner was once a “Lady Chapel” dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After the Second World War this area was restored, and the stone memorial altar built.
Moving to the west end of the south aisle, we come to the wheeled bier (once used for bringing bodies for burial, now for displays and coffee), and above it, the oldest and most interesting window in the church. It is unusually low and wide and contains, in its decorative upper lights, five original medieval painted roundels. The white rose and the falcon may suggest a connection with Richard Duke of York (later King Richard III), a patron of this living. The panel of painted glass illustrated here, now in the Bodleian Library, may represent the marriage of Henry VI with Margaret Anjou, though this is disputed.
Church towers were originally places of defence; later they were built more to impress, and to provide travellers with a landmark. St Andrew’s tower dates from around 1400 and its first floor was probably a priest’s room (reached now as then, by a ladder). In 1695-6 five bells were hung, and this became the ringing room; the Treble bell was added in 1899. (For the last 25 years or more the bells have not been rung, as they were found to have caused cracks in the tower, repaired in 1998-9). In the floor of the tower are reminders of the frailty of life around 1700; three black ledger stones commemorate the four little sons of Edward and Elizabeth Brewster, a prominent family in the village at that time and there are two marble stones for the infant son and young daughter of William and Anne Sheppard. Memorials to the long-serving Rector Henry Rendall and his family are prominent at this end of the church.
One such memorial was the original organ, by Henry Williams, replaced in 2003 by the fine Porritt instrument now in use. The children’s corner was introduced in the 1990’s and children are welcome at all our services. On the wall above is the Second World War Memorial; on the right of the door is the 1914-18 Memorial which includes the name of A.H. Tidmarsh, who died on HMS Vanguard when it blew up in the Scapa Flow, in July 1917; and the brilliantly illuminated description of the church, executed by the local artist Joan Lawrence in 1994, is a unique modern treasure.
This is, as it always has been, a house of living prayer and worship. Our services are set out in the calendar (on the table by the door or on the noticeboard). Do join us on a Sunday.
To close your visit now, you may like to use the following prayer, or to post your own request on our prayer board – and do sign the Visitors’ Book!
Come, Lord, fill me with your Spirit that I may know you more and seek your will. Amen
May Christ meet you with you and bless you on your journey.