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 Social Experiment

It was from a tweet shared by the Jordans Village Estate from HM Queen congratulating them on their centenary 1919 – 2019, that I knew I just had to visit.

There’s something about the Chilterns that over the centuries, attracted both political dissenters and religious non-conformers who met and worshiped in secret. Amongst the beech trees and woodland many would go on to make their mark on the nations history. This post is a celebration of the Chalfont Quakers, a community celebrating its centenary, but with a history going back to the early 17th century.

cottages in Jordans Village
So English, so Chilterns!

You won’t come upon Jordans village, you have to set out to find it. Tucked away down higgledy-piggledy lanes east of the busy market town of Beaconsfield, Jordans village is everything its neighbour is not: compact, unexpected and peaceful, with neat cottages and terraces nestled around the village green. So English, so Chilterns! 

This unassuming village is unique, 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.

‘Jordans is the Quaker Westminster Abbey’.

Simon Jenkins author “England ’s Thousand Best Churches”

American connections

From the mid 17th century, Chalfont Quakers had been meeting in the woods and up the road in the nearby Jordans Farm, whose owner William Russell was himself a Quaker. Known today as Old Jordans, this collection of buildings is said to have been constructed with some of the beams and a cabin door of the Mayflower, the ship that took the Pilgrim Fathers to the shores of the future colony of Virginia in 1620. Old Jordans was also used during World War I as a training centre for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and sold by the Quakers In 2006.

William Russel, (whose daughter was the first to be buried here), bought a piece of land in a clearing beside the Beaconsfield Road in 1671 because the Chalfont Quaker’s needed a burial site. Jordans Friends Meeting House was built in just three months by local craftsmen in 1688. This was shortly after the King James ll Declaration of Indulgence that allowed Quaker and other non-conformist groups to worship lawfully for the first time.

The Jordans Meeting House
Looking today as it did then, this elegant Grade I listed William and Mary wisteria-clad redbrick house, would not have been an unfamiliar style across the American colonies.

Sylvania

It is also the burial place of William Penn (1645 – 1718), founder and first governor of Pennsylvania. His first wife Guilielma, his second wife Hannah, and nine of his children are buried close by. Other early Quakers who worshipped here and are buried in the grounds include Isaac Penington and his wife Mary Springett, Thomas Ellwood (poet and friend of John Bunyan and John Milton) and Joseph Rule. Despite William Penn leaving his name to a new American state that he wanted to call ‘Sylvania’, it was Charles II who ordered that the family name Penn (in honour of William’s late father) be added.

Headstones at Jordans Meeting House
Important people. Simple headstones.

Beside his grave, pebbles are left by visitors from North America, two of whom had to be stopped from attempting to exhume his remains as they wished them to be reinterred in the state capital! 

Inside the Quaker Meeting House
Nina introduces the group to the Meeting House story

The simple bare-walled meeting room retains most of its original uneven locally-fired bare brick floor, glass, dark wood panelling and some well-worn benches. It suffered a serious fire in 2005, when the modern extension was virtually destroyed and the roof of the original 17th-century meeting room severely damaged. The interior of the original meeting room escaped relatively unscathed, but suffered some water and smoke damage. A lucky escape! The viscous glass is removed and turned upside down each year, to retain an even thickness.

‘Some of the things that they would do included; not going to church, refusing to swear an oath, refusal to pay church rates, opening their shops on Sundays, travelling on Sundays and teaching without a Bishop’s license… the 1960’s had nothing on them!’

Mary Bellamy
The book of Christian discipline
Those attending the Meeting are listening to one another and to ‘the still small voice’ within. Anyone present may feel moved to speak from their own spiritual experience.

A mini henge

The burial ground reflects the Meeting House seating, where there is no formal service and people sit quietly and wait for inspiration and guidance, and from those gathered “heeding the love and truth in the heart”. 400 quakers are buried here, but few have headstones – they were deemed too flashy and worldly.

The burial ground at the Jordans Quaker Meeting House
Arranged to reflect the meeting house seating, the headstones remind me of henge.

In 1916 a group of Quaker’s met in London to establish a community partnership and three years later, the first stone was laid. This social and industrial experiment, where land was owned communally and craftsmen’s work to be sold cooperatively, grew around the village green, with Fred Rowntree the architect. The homes are uniform in style, not grand or fussy with the village shop open since 1922. Whilst there is no permanent pub, a pop-up pub called the Jolly Quaker quenches the locals’ thirst. 

The accommodation waiting list is long, and the village has seen its share of famous residents; King Zog of Albania who, with his legendary chests of gold, (he lived at St Katherine’s Parmoor during the World War II).  With author Fredrick Forsyth and musicians Ozzie and Sharon Osborne goes to show you don’t need to be a Quaker to live here! 

Jordans Village Green
Waiting for the children to come out from school

This is a typical Chilterns story set in a place you’ve probably never heard of, about people and events you will most certainly have heard of, shaping and influencing events across the nation and across the pond!

Further Information & Inspiration

This walk was organised as part of the twice-yearly Chilterns Walking Festival that includes a spring and autumn programme of fabulous walks that take you to the places other walks just don’t reach.

Jordans Village and information on the community.

Jordans Quaker Meeting House and Centre offers Quaker meeting for worship every Sunday morning at 10.30, with a simultaneous children’s meeting – to which all are welcome.

Stay at the nearby Jordans self-catering YHA or stay with Norma and John, wonderful hosts at their comfortable guesthouse Sprindrift

Whilst in the area, explore the Chilterns in miniature at Bekonscott Model Village.

The Penn families are well connected with the Chilterns. Read more about what else they were up to.