A journey into a Chilterns desert

Poking around in unassuming, tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there.

February is the time to satisfy seasonal cravings for warmth, sunshine or a dash of colour in an otherwise challenging month. Carpets of aconites and snowdrops start off the race to spring, hellebores and daffodils in hot pursuit, with the ultimate spectacle of the iconic bluebells that light up the woodlands from April to May that will herald long overdue summer days.

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Carpets of Swyncombe churchyard aconites

Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing with seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.

Travelling north to south and back again is easy to do, the challenge is crossing from west to east as there is no direct route. Therein lies the joy of Chilterns travel: unhurried, with the slight edge of not really knowing where you are, glimpses of the road ahead not really helpful as their unfamiliarity only confirms my sense of trepidation, when all of sudden, the bare tree canopy opens up revealing wonderful views down the valley as I watched an approaching rain shower racing towards me.

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A rain shower races up the valley

I followed a succession of narrow windy lanes, thick mud and leaf litter piled up on either side, making me glad I was visiting mid-week, so wouldn’t have to negotiate these mires with other road users travelling in the opposite direction. I now understood why this area has been called the ‘desert of the Chilterns’, it is remote, despite being so close to London and nearby market towns of Wallingford and Henley on Thames.

I turned off the track, following signs for the Norman parish church, and apart from a photographer with an enormous zoom lense, there wasn’t anyone about. I was underwhelmed with the snowdrop display, the aconites were much prettier and were working hard to cheer up a gloomy corner of the graveyard. The church itself is small, unassuming and gives no hint at what is inside.

Poking around in tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there. This church is a Norman Pilgrim Church, a reference to it’s place on a Pilgrims route, a once popular undertaking.

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Botwulf of Thorney

St. Botolph was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints, and became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. A Saxon noble who lived in the 7th century, he spent time abroad and upon his return was given, by King Anna, a grant of land near either Aldeburgh in Suffolk, or Boston in Lincolnshire to build a monastery. Two centuries later in around 870, it was destroyed by Danish invaders and the saint’s remains were divided into three parts and taken from the ruins to be housed in Ely and Westminster Abbey. It is likely, given the flourishing trade in relics at the time, that the parts were conveyed from place to place and so his name became synonymous with wayfarers and travellers. Over 70 Churches, along with five towns and villages are dedicated to him, and although he has no place in the Prayer Book Calendar, his feast day is June 17.

Not many parish churches are open to the casual visitor, so I am never sure if the sturdy doors will yield when pushed. This one did, and opened into the warm and colourful interior that far surpassed the seasonal exterior. Some hikers were eating their sandwiches in the back pews and returned to their murmurings beside the font. Although extensively restored in 1850, much of the original Norman church is recognisable, with the font that possibly predates even this.

The ceiling has been restored and is painted a summer blue with a more brooding red reserved for the Norman apse, off set by simple white walls and red floor tiles, some looked medieval. The rood screen and loft date from the early 20th century. The refurbished wall paintings behind the alter are impressive and make for a cheerful and pleasant space. The wall plaques commemorating former vicars, wardens and parishioners remind me that I am in England, not in some far off exotic place.

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No sign of any relics, but I am delighted that this special place, tucked away in this ‘green desert’ that involves a purposeful journey is named after the English patron saint of wayfarers and travellers. It means even more to me now.

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Swyncombe is derived from Swin for wild boar and combe for valley or hollow

For further Chilterns travel inspiration and lovely local walks

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