Monday, 16 April 2018
Offchurch - Part 1: St Gregory's - a Wildlife Sanctuary and lots of history!
It was a lovely sunny day on Saturday following a week of horrible grey and drizzly weather so D and I decided to visit the picturesque village of Offchurch, a few miles from Leamington Spa, in South Warwickshire.
Offa, the King of Mercia, an Anglo Saxon kingdom, had a hunting lodge or fortified house nearby. He ruled from 757 until his death in July 796 and was the son of Thingfrith. He came to the throne after the assassination of AEthelbald. It is said he founded the church at Offchurch (more on this to follow!).
The church of St Gregory was our first point of call. The earliest people to worship at this location were pilgrims in the 7th century who came to pay their respects to St Modwenna - an Irish nun and miracle worker. A shrine to her was housed in a small wooden chapel. Later a settlement developed in early Saxon times and 19th century excavations South of the churchyard found remains from a Saxon cemetery. The first stone church was built by early Christians and it is believed it may date from the time of King Offa who had his own priest at the church. The church was later dedicated to St Fremund, a Christian martyr born in the village and murdered in AD866. Legend suggests that his body was brought to the church for burial. The present building dates from early Norman times (early 12th century).
View from the churchyard
The churchyard is managed for conservation as part of the "Living Churchyard" project. In 1994 it was decided that a "summer meadow woodland grassland" consisting of native wild flowers would be planted and work started in March 1995 with the removal of invasive plants and the planting of wildflower plugs and shrubs. It has since won several prizes in competitions.
Owl, tit, bat and hedgehog boxes have all been installed around the churchyard.
The churchyard on Saturday was full of wild flowers -
Garlic mustard in bud and
Much of the churchyard was carpeted with Primroses and was a beautiful sight. I don't think I have ever seen so many in one place.
Also in flower were Cowslips,
Speedwell, Lesser Celandine and Green Alkanet together with garden flowers such as Daffodils and Hellebores.
We didn't see any butterflies but there were a few bumble bees about including my first Red-tailed Bumble Bee of the year.
D found a native ladybird which makes a change from the Harlequins that have invaded our garden!
A few stone grotesques on the north wall - I do find the bridge camera useful for zooming in on objects like this :)
The North door is the oldest feature in the present church and was the entrance to King Offa's original stone chapel. The interior arch is Saxon (sadly, by the time I got in the church I forgot to look for this!) and the external arch is characteristic of Norman architecture. The patterns round the arch are the same design as those on the interior chancel arch (again I forgot to look for these although in my defence D had had enough of church crawling by that stage and I ended up rushing round as usual) and are similar to those carved into the tomb of Thomas-a-Becket around 1200 in Canterbury cathedral.
It was when I was examining the spiral above that I came across one of the many highlights of the visit - not mentioned in the guide book either! Carved into the door jambs were what looked like medieval graffiti. I thought at first that the compass drawn markings were hexfoils or "daisy wheels" which are "apotropaic" graffiti or ritual protection marks created to protect an area or object from demons and evil. But having read about it a little more I suspect they are Consecration crosses - these were made in medieval times when a bishop consecrated the church. He went round the building 12 times inside and 12 times outside using holy oil and in these places the crosses were placed. The little crosses are either "pilgrim" crosses or crosses that would have been made as a physical symbol of an oath or vow taken at the church door.
D also found a pentangle or pentagram (a five-pointed star) which in medieval times was regarded as a Christian symbol and was used as a symbol of protection. Apparently they are relatively rare on church buildings so this was a good find. There is also an unusual looking "cross" - someone on Twitter has kindly suggested that this is a "sun and hand of god cross". The hand of god represents four seasons with 3 months each which means that the god whose hands these are is the sun god.
The church tower is 15th century, constructed of blue-grey Warwick stone, and houses 6 bells.
If you enlarge the photo below you may be able to make out indentations in the stone which are marks made by musket balls fired by Cromwell's troops during a skirmish as they returned from the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642.
This is a priest's door. I think the lower window is possible a "Leper" window which in less enlightened times allowed lepers to receive a blessing from the priest without entering the church or there is another school of thought that suggests such windows were used by priests who would lean out ringing a bell thus summoning agricultural workers to mass. Of the second higher window there will be more later!
The porch was built around 1200
A really good example of grooves made when arrows were sharpened centuries ago.
Apparently the porch is built on earlier stone and there is a carving of a serpent but try as hard as I could I just could not find it (more of serpent carvings later as I did find the other one!). In 1867 excavations revealed two ancient stone coffins which were later returned to their original position under the porch floor.
And so we entered the church.
The Millennium window is just stunning - it was installed to mark the millennium and also 2000 years of Christianity. It was designed and created by a local stained glass artist, Roger Sargent, who lived in the village.
Most of the remaining stained glass is Victorian.
The next window is in the "Grisaille" style - first used in medieval times to reduce the use of coloured glass although I think this window is far later.
The East Window shows the Resurrection of Christ
And now we come to, what was for me, another highlight, an ancient stone coffin discovered in the 19th century buried under the Chancel. The style of the coffin suggests it belonged to someone important. It would be lovely to think, as local legend suggests, that it was the coffin of Offa, King of Mercia who founded the original church and lived nearby but it is more likely to have been the coffin of the local born Christian and miracle worker, St Fremund, who was murdered in the 9th century by a rival nobleman. As mentioned above at one stage the church was dedicated to him.
There are also 2 slabs of carved sandstone which may have formed part of this coffin lid. They are somewhere in the wall of the church but as with several other items I couldn't find them. I checked mainly the exterior walls but thought, when I got home, they may have been more visible internally.
Looking back towards the Nave
The floor was re-laid during the 1866/67 restoration and the new floor consisted of ceramic tiles made by a Company in Stoke-on-Trent. The pattern includes mythological animals that were important in medieval Christian symbolism.
Finally, (sorry, I know there are a lot of photos and text to wade through) was the last highlight of the "Serpent" window which is named after the ancient stone Saxon carving of a serpent above the window next to the Priest's Door.
This is reflected on the inside stained glass window with St John holding a chalice inside which is a serpent - a symbol of healing.
No village is complete without a ghost! In the 17th century a man was stabbed to death outside the church and local tales suggests that the man who stabbed him ran into the church for sanctuary and then escaped during the night. The ghost of the murdered man can be seen roaming around the tower in search of the person who killed him and at times mournful muffled bells can be heard from the church tower.
I think this is one of the best churches I have ever visited with its God's Acre so good for wildlife and wild flowers and the church itself just stuffed with history.
We then went in search of lunch and a quick walk round the village followed by a stroll along the Offchurch Greenway but I will save that for Part 2 - I promise there won't be so many photos next time!
*D Photos taken by D with the Canon bridge SX50 camera
All other photos taken by me with the Panasonic bridge camera Lumix FZ330
Reference: "The Parish Church of St Gregory Offchurch - Illustrated Visitor's Guide and History" and various information boards around the church.
"Hidden Warwickshire" by Betty Smith
"Medieval Graffiti" by Matthew Champion