Boldre Church is not too far from my home and so, when the weather conditions were right, I had called by a couple of times beforehand to take our usual photos. On each occasion I happened to meet and chat with some of the parishioners and got the overwhelming impression that St John’s is a particularly friendly church with a vibrant community spirit which they attributed to the influence of their popular vicar. When I got home I looked at the parish website – bsbb.org.uk/st-johns/ – and came across Reverend Canon Andrew Neaum’s entertaining and compelling welcome to the church and immediately understood the attraction. As a lapsed Anglo-Catholic with fond memories of singing in a church choir some 70 years ago, I felt a regret that I didn’t live closer to St. John’s.
The church of St John the Baptist is surely one of the most picturesque churches we have visited since we began this diary a little over a year ago. Its hilltop position in open countryside away from any village adds to its attraction. For centuries, St John was the Mother Church of the southern New Forest and this possibly explains its unusual position in that it was intended to serve several communities rather than just one village.
There seems to be some uncertainty as to when the site was originally a place of worship but the discovery of three sarsen stones in the foundations suggest it could have been as long ago as 2000BC. The earliest Christian Church was constructed in the 1080’s – the 900th anniversary was celebrated in 1987 and a commemorative plaque to mark the occasion can be seen at the eastern end of the south aisle. During the 13th century the north Chapel was built, the south porch added and the nave lengthened resulting in a building substantially similar to the one we see today.
The entire Norman Church occupied the space within just the central part of the nave beginning at the point where it has been extended to the left. In the 12th century the south aisle on the right was added
A view of the nave, chancel, north aisle and 14th century barrel roof. In 1958 several of the bosses were taken down to be repainted and have woodworm damage repaired. However seven could not be removed from the strong iron spikes holding them in position, so a member of the congregation volunteered to climb the builders scaffolding and repair and paint them in situ.
The ornate pulpit was designed by Norman Shaw (he who designed New Scotland Yard). It was given in memory of the Reverend Charles Shrubb, curate then vicar for 57 years from 1817.
Traditionally, in exchange for one guinea and a goose, the vicar of the day has been expected to deliver The Wild Beast Sermon on the Sunday nearest to March 18th to commemorate the escape of a member of the Worsley family from a wild beast. This could be quite a challenge as it was uncertain whether the animal concerned was a wild lion in Africa, a wild boar in the New Forest or an escaped lion from a travelling menagerie, all of these versions having been advanced at one time or another. In the 1990s the endowment set up to fund the payments was amalgamated with another parish charity.
The lectern was carved over a period of twenty years from two pieces of oak from nearby Boldre Grange. The impressive wall tablet is a memorial to John Kemp, MP for Lymington in 1640 and is one of just a few busts to have survived the Cromwellian age unvandalised.
The beautifully engraved Millennium window shows the church in its rural setting with trees, river, flora and fauna each having a symbolic meaning.
It was commissioned by the Parish Church Council to mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ and was designed and engraved by Tracey Sheppard and installed in April 2000.
When HMS Hood was sunk in Icelandic waters in May 1941 by the German battleship Bismarck it became the worst naval disaster of all time. Of the crew of 1,421 just 3 survived. Vice Admiral L. E. Holland who, with his wife and family, had been a regular worshipper at Boldre was among those who were lost. After the war, when it became clear that no official memorial was to be raised to those who had died, Mrs Phyllis Holland planned and carried out the scheme to bring the HMS Hood memorial to Boldre Church. The illuminated book of remembrance can be seen in the north-west corner of the north chapel. Many of the church kneelers and the two fine oak benches in the porch depict the Hood’s famous badge featuring a Cornish Chough grasping an anchor. In the poignant photo below those same iconic Choughs can be seen on the tampions fitted to protect the Hood’s two 7.5 inch gun barrels from sea water. I find this photo of the Hood incredibly sad, with the relaxed crew, sailing in warm waters, far from the terrifying Icelandic sea. Mostly young lads, who should have had a long life ahead of them destined for an early and violent end.
Boldre Church has long been a favourite subject of artists attracted to this picturesque corner of the New Forest.
During one of the earlier visits when I took the drone photos, I had the pleasure of meeting the church mouse catcher, Pam Knight as she emerged from the building with a recently caught victim. I was only too pleased to be able to help her remove the animal from the trap which she quite rightly insisted must be well away from consecrated ground.
The Fleur de Lys
The little community of Pilley, not much more than a mile from the church, is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, and in the centre of the village is the Fleur de Lys, the oldest pub in the New Forest. Depicted in this Victorian painting, it is only nine years younger than the church having celebrated its 900th anniversary in 1996. A list of landlords is held at the inn and goes back to Benjamin Stones in 1498.
Out of Town Religion
What on earth is the mother church of Brockenhurst and Lymington, both thriving communities, doing sitting isolated atop a hill in splendid isolation?
Did the occupying force of the Norman invaders foresee that one thousand years later the arrival of the motor car would make this site and its large car park a magnet to the area? Is this yet another case of Norman Wisdom (one for the oldies)!
On the morning of our visit we arrived to find a funeral taking place at the church, and the large car park was full with a sizeable overspill on the road, and so in deference, we made the decision to divert to dining first.
After a good meal, more of that later, the church had returned to its quiet and isolated best although we happened upon a pair of hikers in the porch drying their soaked clothing. I was struck that even in these modern times the church was offering shelter and rest to those on foot.
Built within a few years of the conquest this Norman structure was probably placed on the hill to show the populace “who’s boss”. However the site is very beautiful and the building sits exquisitely in the large graveyard with its seats and trees offering places of quiet contemplation in an ideal situation. The fine squat tower is placed to the south of the chancel and the grouping is pleasingly symmetrical.
The entrance porch has two benches carved with the “Cornish Chough”, the emblem of the stricken cruiser HMS Hood whose memorial is inside the building.
The interior is largely unaltered since the 13th century, its Norman heritage is given away by the eastern bays on the southern arcade with the remainder early Gothic. The pleasing light in the building is the result of modern windows which, despite being decorative, also allow the natural light to penetrate the interior.
This is particularly true of the modern east and west windows, designed by Alan Younger whose semi-abstract designs although conveying deep spirituality do not exclude daylight.
It is difficult to escape the ghost of William Gilpin who in the 18th century arrived to find his parishioners ‘little better than a set of bandits’ – perhaps the New Forest rivalled at this time Sherwood Forest. His memorial is in the North Chapel but his paintings and enthusiasm for the countryside reached out to the wider public and he made the local area popular.
Although this seems an odd landlocked situation to find the memorial to HMS Hood sunk in the Second World War, the Vice-Admiral on board was a local man and so the church became a moving memorial to those who perished.
And so to lunch and very good it was, the nearby Fleur de Lys is probably the oldest inn in which I have drunk, as the first pint recorded was downed in 1096.
This was very much on my mind as I sampled a taster of Jail Ale brewed on Dartmoor which was so good I ordered a flagon. Throughout my life I have often found that longevity is no guarantee of quality, but I am pleased to report that in this case it was.
After placing myself almost in the inglenook wherein blazed a comforting log fire, I made the mistake of having a starter, a large bowl of excellent homemade soup with bread.
With advancing years I must learn to discipline myself, as I was unable to finish the excellent liver and bacon due to my gluttony, which was a shame as the main course was a delight. Hopefully in future I will learn from this lesson.
- Leek and Potato Soup BQ & MW
- Calves liver, creamed potatoes, buttered cabbage, red onion sauce BQ
- Chicken and ham pie, creamed potatoes, root vegetables MW
- Dartmoor Jail beer BQ
- Chilean Merlot MW