The panels that were destined for the skip had been ‘washed’ by the overnight rain. When the Penn church vicar returned in the morning, 15th century faces were peering out at him through the whitewash.
On a dry day from the bell tower of Holy Trinity Penn, it’s possible to see the seven neighbouring counties. I was content however, to nose around indoors. On the lookout for the famous ‘doom’ painting; the main reason this church is of such cultural and historical significance.
Nothing beats local knowledge
It’s not hard to see why this church is still a vital community hub; with feverish wedding preparations underway and tried to stay out of the way of the florist and busy vacuum cleaner. In the capable hands of local guide Helen, who modestly professed to not knowing much about the history of the building, then proceeded to dazzle with her huge knowledge. Brass rubbings, the Penn family crypt, lozenges adorning the walls, medieval Penn tiles in the lady chapel, the doom painting, church extensions, renovations and not forgetting those buried in the graveyard.
Now set high on the east wall, the 15th century ‘doom’ painting is still looking as bright and fresh as the day it was painted. One of only five surviving wooden tympanums in the country, it would have been purposefully positioned for worshippers as they faced the alter.
A “dooms day painting” is a traditional English term for an image of the Last Judgment when Christ judges souls to send them to either Heaven or Hell. A crude but effective part of the eclesastical warning system to illiterate congregations, to toe the line or face judgement on the day. This one not only survived the English Reformation, it survived being tossed into the skip!
During renovations in the 1930’s, the now whitewashed wooden panels, were stripped and placed outside, destined for the bin. By good fortune it rained overnight and when the vicar returned the next morning, he saw 15th century faces peering out at him through the whitewash. Their cry for help answered? That is surely a reason to love the rain! Now safely re-instated inside the church, looking as bright as the day it was painted 500 years ago.
Memorials and brass rubbings
At the entrance, there is an inscribed vault stone to mark where Thomas Penn, one of William Penn’s sons, was allowed to build a large vault beneath the church nave. It was built for himself, his brother and four of his children who were interred between 1753 and 1766. The Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania however, is buried at the nearby Jordans Quaker Meeting House with his first wife, Guilielma, his second wife, Hannah, and nine of his children. Despite the many offers to have him moved to Pennsylvania, he remains in the quiet Chilterns churchyard.
As Helen waved goodbye, she pointed to the one hand on the clock tower and told me that during the 17th century a one-handed clock was all a villager needed – minutes where simply too much information! On a dry day from the bell tower of Holy Trinity church Penn, it is possible to see the seven neighbouring counties including; Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Greater London, Bedfordshire, Northants and Surrey. I’ll have to return to see the view for myself.
This is what I love about parish churches, they are an essential part of not only our local Chilterns story, but the nation’s story too. Unlike a museum, they are stuffed full of treasures, but none kept behind glass, or in spaces filled with tour groups, these are a snapshot of history, watched over by individuals keen to generously share.
I recommend that during the Heritage Open Days event in September, to visit the nearby Penn House which is the other half of the Holy Trinity story in the Chilterns.
There are plenty more to explore, and do please let me know if you have other Chilterns churches to recommend.
There are plenty of other quirky stories to celebrate here in the Chilterns, read about them here.
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