Keach’s Meeting House

Beneath the chocolate box exteriors, beats the heart of dissent and nonconformity.

Midway between Aylesbury and Buckingham, on an elevated piece of land overlooking the Buckinghamshire flats, you will come upon the pretty market town of Winslow. Up and over the hill onto Sheep Street, you drive past lovely thatched cottages and the once grand, but now faded Winslow Hall, before turning into the picturesque high street.

Sheep street in Winslow
Looking back down Sheep Street.

Making up another piece of the jigsaw I am piecing together, this visit to the remarkable Keach’s Meeting House continues the story of the strong nonconformist tradition so typical of our region.

Meeting Midway

There’s something about Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns, that over the centuries, attracted both political dissenters and religious non-conformers who met or worshiped in secret. Some wanted to do things differently, to go against the grain. Amongst the beech trees and farmland, many would make their mark on the nations history.

Our guide for the hot, late summer afternoon was local historian and keeper of Winslow’s stories, Dr David Noy. In keeping with the times, he was sporting a Covid visor and we socially distanced in Bell Alley outside the Meeting House.

Houses on then Walk, Winslow
The abundance of clay and lack of stone really is a local feature

David grew up in the town and has a wonderful grasp of even the tiniest detail told in an engaging and slightly dry manner. The story of Winslow is in fact the story of many towns across Bucks and the Chilterns; mysterious burial mounds, obscure Saxon heritage, rapid growth, Royal favour, dissent and disaster is reflected in the rise and fall of local family fortunes.

Burning Books

In English church history, a nonconformist was a Protestant who did not “conform” to the governance and usages of the established Church of England.

Winslow has a strong nonconformist tradition going back to the 17th century, and in 1660, Benjamin Keach (1640 – 1704), was chosen pastor for the little Baptist chapel.

Benjamin Keach was a powerful preacher, a prodigious writer, poet, and composer of the long hymns he was keen his congregation sang – every verse! In 1664, he published a book for children, called The Child’s Instructor, which saw him arrested and charged with publishing a book that contradicted the teaching of the Church of England. Fined £20 and sentenced to several hellish months in goal. He also had to stand upon the pillory at Aylesbury and a few days later to do the same in Winslow market where his books were burnt in front of him by the common hangman.

Keach continued his ministry at Winslow until 1668, but being harassed by the civil powers, he moved to London. Chosen as pastor of a small congregation in Tooley St. Southwark, he remained there until his death in 1704.

A Modest Structure

Disputed dates Winslow
Disputed dates

Tucked away on Bell Walk, the Meeting House is one of the oldest buildings of its type in Bucks. There is some debate when it was built – 1625 or 1695. David pointed out how the 2 and 9 in the image above, have been ‘adapted’.

Easily missed behind a wall and overhung with large trees, a small graveyard at the front. It’s tiny! This modest structure, no bigger than a garage, would have provided shelter but not a lot of comfort for the congregation – the benches look like they were designed to keep the worshipper awake! Especially as Baptist worship at this time included long prayers and longer sermons. There is a lot of charming detail; small leaded windows, wooden spindles in the porch, hat pegs, early C18 century tomb flags in the floor, against the east wall, beneath the narrow gallery, are hinged desk tops and four lead ink-wells, for use of the Sunday-school which started in 1824. 

Our Stories

I came away from Winslow feeling that all is not what is seems. You think you know somewhere, or are familiar with village life (I live in a Chilterns village), but David’s tour really opened my eyes to changing fortunes, vernacular and provincial town fashion. But most of all, I was reminded that it’s not the structures that determine a location, a place in the landscape. Underneath the Buckinghamshire skies and in the Chilterns beechwoods, it is people who continue to make and tell the stories.

And always go with a guide. Thank you David!

Further Information

The Winslow history website has lots of interesting photographs.

Explore Jordan’s, the unassuming village, with deep local roots and influence that still reaches far-off places. It owes this accolade to its Society of Friends Meeting House, one of the oldest in the country.

Another strand of religious heritage are the many pilgrim routes that criss-cross the fields and towns. Read about ancient relics and medieval wall paintings over in Hertfordshire.

Along sheep street in Winslow
Be careful the conkers don’t drop on your head

A new range of Chilterns gifts and souvenirs

Framed Chilterns Posters
A Year in the Chilterns on your wall. Prints and gifts on sale

A Cautionary Tale

The co-owners of this remarkable building, Karen and Alison have moved heaven and earth to ensure these treasures have not been lost to property developers or simply careless conservation, they are custodians of medieval history in the Chilterns and they do so without funding nor support

Piccotts End is a dot on the Chilterns landscape; somewhere you wouldn’t even pass through as the busy Leighton Buzzard road bypasses the village. Yet this tiny settlement has one of the most remarkable and historically important features, tucked away inside a Grade I Listed 15th century cottage at No.132 Piccotts End.

Extremely rare and of national importance, these Pre-Reformation Catholic paintings, were hidden behind a sheet of course hand-woven linen until they were discovered by Arthur Lindley in 1953. Compared with many murals found mainly in local churches that were either damaged, destroyed or simply never completed, these rare, fine in situ examples, that briefly saw the light of candles for 50 years or so, before being covered up for over 500 years, are a sensation. I feel privileged to have seen them.

Piccotts End exterior
Never judge a book

The co-owners of this remarkable building, Karen and Alison have moved heaven and earth to ensure these treasures have not been lost to property developers or simply careless conservation, they are custodians of medieval history in the Chilterns and they do so without funding nor support.

Don’t smoke in bed!

Arthur Lindley’s son Alistair, picks up the story: “In 1924 my father bought these cottages and a nearby house and opened a petrol station to cater for the busy Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard traffic. He describes the buildings as ‘hovels’, this one inhabited for 78 years by a widow, whose husband had lived and died doing what he loved best; smoking in bed!” A lucky escape for the house you could say.

Olive the Scraper

Arthur Lindley invested in the serves of a lady referred to as “Olive the Scraper” who spent many many hours scraping off past layers and so helped uncover the entire panel.

The cottages were built 600 years ago as a hospice for pilgrims on their way from the Abbey of St Albans to the monastery at Ashridge. The Abbey attracted pilgrims who visited the shrine of the first English martyr, and could have taken the 13-mile journey to the nearby Monastery of the Bonhommes at Ashridge.  On the pilgrim trail to view a holy relic – a phial of the blood of Christ,  Piccotts End being mid-way between the two, would have served well as place for the pilgrims to rest and take refreshment before continuing their journey through the forest to Ashridge.

img_1544

The murals are dated from between 1470 – 1500, and could only have been on display for around 50 years due to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and is most likely the reason for the damage to the faces. The fact they survived this event, is in itself remarkable. One theory is that the faces were damaged on purpose to ‘buy some time’ before they were covered up. For good. That is what makes them so rare; up and down the country, parish churches, abbey’s, monasteries and cathedrals were destroyed, or returned to the Crown, stripped of their riches and relics as King Henry Vlll became Head of the Church.

What relevance has this for us?

What is its meaning? To the modern eyes, it’s a jumble of symbolism and hard-to-detect imagery (including the All seeing Eye), that needs either many hours of looking at the paintings, or someone to show you the swallows (who were thought to spend the winter in holes in the ground), a dragon, a grinning cat, claw hammer, St Peter and the keys to heaven, even safety pins. I recognise those! All from a time when there was little literacy and religious symbols were a powerful influence in people’s lives.

Part of the second floor was removed to show the entire mural as it was meant to be seen. The building had no natural light, so viewing the mural would have been difficult for the pilgrims, but perhaps they had a resident storyteller and interpreter who led them through the story of the heresy of the Cathars, who believed that if God was all good, why did he create and allow evil? Pope Innocent lll called a crusade against them which resulted in the slaughter of 30,000, indistinguishable between Catholics and Cathars. I felt this account to still be raw today, as Alistair asked if any Catholics were present before he shared this piece of information. By choosing to remain silent, I know even more will be shared, unpalatable as it might be.

A Buddhist Monastery

In 1825, Sir Astley Paston Cooper founded the first cottage hospital in the country on the site of these cottages at Piccotts End. This is only part of the Piccotts End story as there are strong local connections  between St Margaret in the painting and the nearby Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at St Margarets, Great Gaddesden. This area once boasted a busy straw growing and weaving industry that linked these traditional farm house-crafts with the high streets of Luton, the mills at Tring and China. Now long gone, their traces are revealed in unusual ways; such as the providing unknowing protection for the mural at the time when the house had a second floor and where the floor boards didn’t quite meet the wall, where the bedding straw fell in between the two, provided protection for the painting.

img_1473
The landscape around Piccotts End in the Chilterns

Further Information:

Abbey Walks is dedicated to mapping long distance footpaths that monks walked from abbey to abbey in the 12th to 14th centuries and they have some lovely local routes that link into long distance paths that could take the adventurous all the way to Rome!

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll, but holy relics were once a flourishing trade at Ashridge.

Find out more about the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Most of the images in this blog can be purchased as wall prints or postcards. If you don’t see what you are looking for on this page, please contact me to enquire if what you are looking for can be produced.

Amaravati Buddhist monastery
Amaravati Buddhist monastery