Things usually do not go well for the population when their country is invaded by a foreign power, and this was particularly true for the inhabitants of the area we visited today following the last successful invasion of England. The invader was William the Conqueror, or William l, (the first Norman King of England), and the date 1066. As soon as all resistance was quelled, an extensive area of land was named ‘The New Forest’ and furthermore it was proclaimed to be a royal forest, to be used exclusively for royal hunts. Twenty hamlets and numerous farmsteads within the area were razed to the ground causing a great deal of hardship and distress.
Remarkably, over 90% of the forest has stayed in the hands of The Crown throughout the past 1000 years and the fortunate result is that an area of 220 square miles in Southern England, the most densely inhabited part of the United Kingdom, has remained largely unfenced and undeveloped with wild ponies and numerous deer still running free.
The New Forest National Park, as it is now known, is neither new nor much of a forest. There is some woodland, but the area is mostly heath and, although it can seem somewhat barren in places, it has its own unique beauty, an attraction that I appreciated as I drove to the ‘Capital of the New Forest’, Lyndhurst on the day of our visit to St Michael and All Angels Church. The morning was sunny and unseasonably mild, the road was almost traffic free and there was a feeling that Spring was not far away. MW
Lyndhurst was once a popular and attractive tourist centre with many flourishing hotels, but sadly, its unique position, surrounded by land ‘of Special Scientific Interest’ has been its undoing. For the past 80 years various authorities have been arguing about how best to relieve the dreadful traffic jams that constantly blight the village, without compromising the surrounding land – an impossible task and so, thus far, nothing has been done. I have already had one rant on the subject in our Minstead Church visit, posted last October, so I should probably leave it at that. Fortunately today we were able to slip in and out of a car park avoiding the dreaded one-way system.
Any negative thoughts however, were quickly dispelled as we entered the church which was warm and inviting . The low winter sunshine streamed through the windows revealing a truly spectacular interior.
For a village of modest size, St Michael and All Angels Church is an incredibly imposing red brick structure with a towering 160ft spire visible for miles around. This is the second Victorian church we have visited and is equally impressive as the previous one at Privett. Construction was carried out between 1858 and 1869 and was funded by an appeal from the vicar to the parish and its neighbours. The Reverend Compton explained to the poor that the new church would provide seats for them as well, so they needed to help too. He made a second appeal to complete the tower and spire.
The earliest record of a church on this site is from 1285 when Queen Eleanor of Castille made an offering ‘at Lyndhurst in the King’s Chapel there’. In the 18th century the chapel shown here was erected on the same spot, with an additional aisle ‘for the gentry’ added later. By the mid 19th century the building had become so dilapidated that a replacement was essential
The mural reredos that runs the width of the chancel portrays the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. It is said that the Bishop disapproved of the theme but was over-ruled by the parishioners, who had after all, paid for the church. The five wise virgins with their brightly burning lights were modelled by daughters of the local gentry while the foolish girls, with their lamps unlit, were from poorer village families. (an indictment of the social mores of the day if ever there was). The artist, Lord Leighton, refused payment for his work accepting only £27 for the materials – a real bargain particularly as he had recently sold one of his paintings to Queen Victoria for 600 guineas.
Once again our visit was made so much more enjoyable and informative as a result of meeting some members of the church community. Suzanne, a church warden, in blue, and her colleague, Jan were most hospitable and kindly made us some coffee which was much appreciated. I was also pleased to be able to meet Ann, the Benefice Administrator, in her office. She shared her considerable knowledge of the church and, as well, produced a framed sketch of the chapel that preceded St Michael’s Church. (Reproduced above)
Alice in Wonderland
Many visitors travel to the church as a pilgrimage to the grave of Alice Lidell who, when she was a young girl, inspired Lewis Carroll to write ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’. Alice first met Carroll in Oxford when she was nine. She had moved there following her father’s appointment to the deanery at Christ Church College. Carroll encountered the Liddells while he was photographing the cathedral and became a close family friend. Alice became a photography subject and one of the stories he told her whilst on a boating trip became the famous children’s classic.
Later in life Alice moved to Lyndhurst following her marriage to Reginald Gervis Hargreaves, the only son and heir to a local wealthy family who had played a leading role in the construction of St Michael and all Angels Church. Alice and Reginald lived at Cuffnells, a grand estate near to the village and three sons were born. Sadly her two youngest were killed in the Battle of the Somme during the Great War.
Following her marriage, Lewis Carroll and Alice had little contact. At one stage Alice asked Carroll if he would be godfather to her son, but he did not reply.
Alice died in 1934 and is buried in the Hargreaves family plot at the rear of the church.
After a varying diet of pub lunches during recent Dine and Divine outings, it was a real treat to eat well at the Limewood Hotel on the outskirts of Lyndhurst. The meal was simply, quite faultless, and the fact that every table was taken during a weekday lunch was testimony to its high reputation. Food quality, presentation and service all justified our rarely given 5 star rating.
Special mention must be made of the superb cheeseboard from which BQ ate heartily, although I must confess to helping him out, even after the most indulgent of desserts.
It was a frugal dinner that evening.
During the time that MW and I have been preparing our blog, we have visited two Victorian churches, Lyndhurst and Privett, the latter the result of powerful rich benefaction, but now redundant, and the former built by the will, charity and enthusiasm of local people and still very much alive. The other disparity is that St Michael’s was constructed on the site of previous buildings of worship at the heart of a thriving community, the other the dream of an entrepreneur attempting to change the character of sparsely inhabited countryside based on unfulfilled expectations of the emerging railway network.
In the past, our travels have taken us to a variety of early churches where any form of decoration was either destroyed or firmly whitewashed over following the reformation by the newly established Church of England who insisted that the word was paramount. This might explain the attitude of the Bishop of Winchester and his opposition to the mural proposed by Lord Leighton of “The wise and foolish Virgins”. However, all of this coincided with the start of the Oxford Movement encouraged by a group of influential Church of England clergy who supported a move towards Catholicism and eventually became known as Anglo-Catholics led by John Henry Newman who later became a Cardinal following his conversion to Rome. Alongside this was the development of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of artists who also used biblical texts in their paintings. St. Michael’s, more than any other church I have visited, represents the fusion of these movements in a glorious and beautiful time capsule, wonderfully preserved for us to enjoy.
The church interior is astonishing and although I have never been particularly keen on brick-built churches this one somehow succeeds, no space is left blank as trumpeters, angels, saints and foliate capitals crowd in but never overpower. If all that is not sufficient, in the north aisle there are the stained glass windows where a succession of draped ladies in soft colours appear in a bucolic setting. With the low winter sunshine illuminating everything, the visit was magical.
Just when I thought the day could not get better, MW whisked me off across the forest to Limeswood, a hotel with an awesome reputation. And it was well deserved for, as we arrived, a receptionist took my car keys to pass to a member of staff to drive it to the car park. I had only seen this before in the movies. WOW!
- Brill, celeriac, mussels on toast, creamed potato BQ
- Steamed Skrei cod, brassicas, cultured butter, crab MW
- English and Italian artisan cheese BQ
- Chocolate orange tart with blood orange sorbet MW
- From the hotel ‘Secret Cellar’
- Sancerre, Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine Sautereau, Loire Valley BQ & MW