What a strange little church this is, with its hedge bordered garden, squeezed in between two up-market residences in the oddly named village of Freefolk. On entering, the interior appeared to be virtually unchanged since the last refurbishment in 1704 and it was only a well-used visitors book that indicated just how many people, quite a few from overseas, make the journey to see this unique survivor.
A church on this site was recorded in the 1086 ‘Great Survey’ of England (commonly known as the Domesday Book), but no other details of that building has survived. The present church was completed around 1268 after the local nobleman petitioned for permission to build a chapel on his estate, following local flooding which prevented residents travelling to their nearest parish church during the winter months. This would have been a significant problem as it was at the time when Sunday church attendance was a legal requirement.
The church forms a simple rectangle, 36ft by 15ft, and is the smallest church we have visited. The Victorian font and modern chairs look oddly out of place
The grandiose Jacobean Monument enclosed by wrought iron railings is in memory of Sir Richard Powlett who died in 1614 and it dominates the diminutive church. The memorial consists of a recumbent effigy of Sir Richard on the tomb chest, and the figures kneeling in front represents his two daughters
As was common practice at the time, Sir Richard’s helmet, together with a single spur, hangs over his tomb
In medieval times, most of the congregation would not have been able to read, and so church walls were decorated with paintings that would not only embellish the interior, but also convey religious messages in a way worshippers could understand. These frescos often showed scenes from biblical stories or from the lives of saints. Following Henry VIII’s reformation the great majority of these portrayals were whitewashed over in order to eradicate all evidence of Catholicism. However, instead of destroying the images, the whitewash often had the effect of preserving them by protecting them from light. In the second half of the 20th century skilled restorers began carefully removing whitewash revealing paintings that had been hidden for over 400 years.
On the walls of St Nicholas’ Church there is a confused jumble of paintings, many of which overlap. Our guidebook tells us that there are three separate layers dating from 15th until the 17th century. I was unable to find the images of either St Christopher or a unicorn that it mentions, but I could clearly see and photograph this unusual portrait. It looks vaguely Scandinavian to my eye which is unlikely. If any of our more learned readers has a better suggestion, please do let us know.
In 1896 as the local population increased, a new larger church, St. Mary’s the Virgin, was constructed and can be seen here in the background. The various functions of St Nicholas’ were transferred across, but it wasn’t until 1974 that St Nicholas’ was finally declared redundant. Two years later it was taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust
This remarkable 600 feet long terrace is situated between the two churches. Manor Cottages, as it is known, consists of 18 homes and is the longest span of residential thatch in Britain. When it was built in 1939 the over-riding emphasis was to create a frontage that would impress and it certainly does that. However, in contrast the rear of the building is extremely utilitarian and until recently, the back yards consisted of just a small patch of concrete – all fur coat and no knickers as I heard it described.
Recently though, the landlords have provided each property with an individually landscaped garden more in keeping with their attractive frontage. A mystery remains however, as to why they were originally built. Our Hampshire guidebook describes them as almshouses, but while we were having lunch in the village pub, we met two Manor Cottage residents who told us they originally accommodated workers from the local paper mill.
The Watership Down
We had hoped to have a quick look at the replacement church, St Mary’s, but unfortunately it was locked, and so we moved on to the nearby village pub for our lunch. It is known locally as ‘The Jerry’, but nobody seemed to know why, either that or they weren’t telling! In reality, when it was built in 1840, it was called the Freefolk Arms, then later renamed the ‘Watership Down’ in honour of the local author Richard Adams and his hugely successful book about the adventures of a band of rabbits fleeing their doomed warren as a result of a planned housing development. ‘Watership Down’ was later made into an equally popular if sentimental film in 1978. I remember that it really captured the public imagination to the point where there was national outrage when a butcher unwisely tried to cash in on the publicity by stringing up a line of rabbits in his shop window with a sign saying ‘You’ve read the book, you’ve seen the film, now eat the cast’.
Our first impression was that the pub exterior could benefit from a good tidy-up, but inside it was warm and welcoming and the staff friendly and efficient. Special thanks must go to our excellent waiter Rory and to Steve the chef. Our meal was outstandingly good and would not have been out of place in a rosette endowed restaurant. My mixed vegetable, coconut and coriander curry was quite simply, superb – an inspired mix of subtle flavours that blended together with perfection. I advocated a five star rating but BQ, whose need of cloth napkins borders on obsession, persisted in maintaining that the top award couldn’t be given without them.
We came across this early photo of the pub in the bar. I imagine it was taken in the late 19th century. The no-nonsense landlady watches over the proceedings in a proprietorial manner while a bearded gentleman looks out suspiciously from a doorway. A moment, frozen in time, long gone. How many of the countless digital images captured on modern phones will have such longevity? Surprisingly, with equal longevity, part of the word ‘STRONGS’ on the sign is still just detectable under the window of the right-hand building in our photo taken well over a century later. A tribute to Victorian materials!
The Whitchurch Silk Mill
I had been interested in visiting this picturesque mill ever since it recommenced weaving silk on its Victorian machinery a few years ago and, as we had to pass through Whitchurch on our journey to and from Freefolk, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
The mill was constructed in 1800 on a plot of land known as Frog Island, but it was not the first water mill to be sited here, as the same Domesday Book referred to earlier, records one existing in 1086. By the mid 19th century the mill employed a staff of 108 including 39 children under the age of 13. The mill continued operating right up until 1985 at which time it was producing legal and academic gowns. The building is now owned by the Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust. The huge waterwheel is still in working order with the line shafts still rotating throughout the two floors of weaving machinery. However, these days the 15 looms are powered by individual electric motors.
Trouble at Mill
When I heard that in addition to our dine and divine duties, MW had as a bonus, arranged to visit a watermill on the Test river, my enthusiasm knew no bounds. With his usual careful planning he had made a dummy run a few days beforehand, and so when he picked me up on a misty cold morning the whole venture seamlessly unfolded.
Our first stop was to be the mill and, the night before, I had read excitedly about its history of printing bank notes and then later how it was converted into a distillery. However, instead of the home of Bombay Sapphire Gin, we arrived at the equally impressive Whitchurch Silk Mill. Having once ordered that particular gin for a colleague in a smart hotel, and then falling off the bar stool at the cost, I had been hoping for some freebies. Instead I was charmed by the impressive silk mill and its magnificent wheel and complicated machinery.
At one time there were five mills around Whitchurch, all functioning on the natural power generated by the river. What a modest carbon footprint, and our generation thinks it has progressed and meanwhile the source of all this unused energy still flows tranquilly by. But, we no longer employ children so perhaps somethings have improved.
St Nicholas Church, although no bigger than a large room, encapsulates a complete history of the church in England since the 13th century. The colourful, although damaged wall paintings being superseded by the firm written strictures of the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments after the reformation. The early Georgian pews had replaced the ‘standing only’ area and, dominating the nave, quite the most hideous memorial to a knight of the realm I have ever seen. It is so out of proportion to the lovely calm and spiritual interior, that it can only be regarded as bling. President Trump would love it! However, what do I know about these things, for as we crossed to the replacement church of St Mary’s I remarked to MW how attractive it looked from the exterior only to find that Pevsner, the ultimate authority of church buildings, demurred from this view stating; ‘the building does the architect Pearson little credit ‘.
By the time we left for luncheon I was salivating at the thought of eating my favourite meat, rabbit, for how could an establishment called The Watership Down serve anything else? My disappointment at its absence from the menu was passed on to our excellent and attentive waiter Rory who conveyed my thoughts to the chef Steve who, to his credit, then proceeded to produce mouth-watering delights of the highest quality with a genuine flair for presentation. My rabbit was soon forgotten as I nodded off on the way home dreaming of a large gin and tonic!
- Our lunch
- Pan seared fresh scallops with green beans and vanilla butternut squash purée BQ
- Locally sourced pan-fried pigeon breast with braised red cabbage and blackberries and roasted carrot purée MW
- Chicken and mushroom linguine in a tarragon sauce finished with Parmesan cheese and roasted garlic BQ
- Vegan mixed vegetable coconut curry with coriander and mushroom fried rice MW
- Great Expectations South African Merlot. BQ and MW