There are three Sombornes – Kings, Little and Up, all situated along the Somborne Stream, a tributary of the River Test. Kings Somborne is quite a substantial village. Little Somborne once was, but over the centuries the population has declined and Up Somborne is just a small hamlet. They all lie a few miles south of the town of Stockbridge.
Each of our three churches are situated in this general area and are within five miles of each other. They have much in common, they all date from around the 12th century, each one is unusually small and all have had some historical connection with Mottisfont. This great Augustinian Priory was founded in 1201 and, until the reformation, was a destination for pilgrims who came to worship the Mottisfont relic which was believed to be a finger of St John the Baptist.
As I had already briefly visited these churches a couple of weeks earlier to check that they were reasonably accessible and unlocked, it beggars belief that we somehow managed to get lost in a maze of narrow lanes in attempting to get to our first destination, Upper Eldon. In my defence the name Upper Eldon is unknown by my satnav and I only found it the first time by following instructions from the shopkeeper in Little Somborne. My irritation at not being able to recall these directions was compounded by BQ yet again expounding the advantages of the A-Z Road Atlas that had been his travel bible throughout his life. Ironically, it needed an even more traditional method, the humble signpost, before we were guided to our first destination.
Upper Eldon – Church of St John the Baptist
The Church of St John the Baptist has been claimed to be the smallest church in England and, with dimensions of just 32 ft x 16 ft, that may well be correct. Incongruously, it is situated in the garden of the 15th century Eldon House surrounded by well manicured lawns and we approached the building with a feeling of intrusion into a private space.
The church was built in the latter part of the 12th century as a single cell comprising a nave and an entrance door in the south wall. By the 18th century it had become so dilapidated that the east wall needed to be rebuilt in order to save it from collapse. Subsequently it deteriorated again and in 1864 a correspondent to The Gentleman’s Magazine complained that “To this day the shamefully desecrated parish church of Eldon has its regularly appointed rectors though it is used as a cowshed”.
In a report commissioned in 1973, it was described as having the appearance of a farm building – ‘its sole occupant is a beautiful white owl’. The church was declared redundant and became the responsibility of the organisation now known as the Churches Conservation Trust who fortunately carried out vital restoration including re-tiling the roof and re-plastering the interior.
An unusual feature of the church is the number of rare consecration cross stones that have survived since the time of the building’s construction. There are nine, five in the interior and four outside. Each bears an incised carving of a circle with five holes which are thought to have held iron crosses that would have been anointed with holy oil by the bishop during the building’s original dedication ceremony. Three of these square stones can be seen in the photo above.
At the west end of the nave there is a small square hole that pierces the building under the main window, clearly visible in this photo. Known as a hagioscope, it was designed to allow people outside to be able to see the altar when the church was locked and also it would have been used by lepers in order that they could join in the services without the risk of infecting the congregation. Local legend has it that Henry V’s archers prayed through this opening on their way to Michelmarsh where they assembled before their journey to France to fight at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
My curiosity was aroused by this little pump organ that sits in the north-west corner of the church. After some research I find that it is a chapel organ made by the Dominion Organ Company of Ontario during the late 19th century. It looks well used but I wonder how it found its way to Eldon.
Little Somborne – All Saints’ Church
The building that we see today dates from around 1170 although there are some reminders that before the Normans doubled the length of the nave and built a new chancel, this was a Saxon church mentioned in the Domesday Book. In the 13th century a hermit’s cell was constructed which could be reached through a door in the northeast corner of the nave. It was occupied by Peter de Rivallis, the wealthy benefactor of the Mottisfont Priory. He chose to live in seclusion from society for religious reasons, a Christian concept based on the Desert Theology of the Old Testament. Peter de Rivallis died in 1226 and was buried intramurally at the priory, giving rise to his posthumous nickname ‘The Holy Man in the Wall’.
No work of any consequence seems to have been done to the building after the 14th century apart from the removal of the Norman chancel and the hermit’s cell. By the 1960’s use of All Saints had declined and its condition had deteriorated. It was declared redundant in 1975 and came into the care of what is now known as the Churches Conservation Trust who carried out a major programme of repairs.
The deep window to the right of the altar is an oddity. Added in the 13th century, it is built of re-used Norman quoin stones with the splay taken down to ground level. In the 18th century it was made into a fireplace to heat a small chapel partitioned off at the east end of the church for the comfort of the local squire’s family during winter services.
The arch, from about 1170, was blocked when the Norman chancel was removed 300 years later, but the original columns with their fine scalloped capitals remain. The insertion of the square window is thought to be part of a general renovation carried out when there was a revival of interest in the church in the beginning of the 17th century.
There are relatively few gravestones by the church, but there was one that I found of particular interest marking the final resting place of Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith. Tommy Sopwith, as he was generally known, had a remarkable career. He was a champion motor cyclist, a pioneer of hot air ballooning, a challenger for the America’s Cup and a member of the British ice hockey team, but he is best remembered for setting up the Sopwith Aviation Company. The company produced 18,000 World War I aircraft for the allied forces including 5,700 Sopwith Camels, a single seat fighter which, like the Spitfire of the second World War, had a decisive influence on the final outcome of hostilities. He eventually retired to King’s Somborne and his 100th birthday was marked by a flypast of military aircraft over his home, Compton Manor. He died in 1989 aged 101.
His name rang a particular bell for me as my father was in the Royal Naval Air Service based at Calshott during the First World War. He told me many a tale of triumph, disaster and remarkable heroism that occurred while launching and recovering the new Sopwith Bat Boat, the first attempt at a military seaplane – one of Tommy’s less successful enterprises. Incidentally, I was surprised and pleased to find that the hangar where my father was based has been preserved in Calshott.
Ashley – St. Mary’s Church
And so, on to the last of our trio of churches, St Mary’s in the small community of Ashley, built in the 12th century to serve the long vanished Gains Castle. Until the reformation, priests at Ashley were appointed by the previously mentioned Mottisfont Priory, not a happy arrangement as it was felt that the Priory was taking more than its fair share of income from the church leaving the priest at Ashley somewhat underfunded. Nevertheless, Ashley remained a property of the Priory until the reformation when Mottisfont was closed then gifted to the Sandys family who lived as secular owners of Mottisfont and patrons of Ashley Church. During the next few centuries the patronage passed through the hands of several families, most of whom were not resident in the parish.
The local population has never been large and in 1976, when faced with a substantial repair programme, the parish decided this was beyond their means and, after much deliberation, responsibility for the building was transferred to the Churches Conservation Trust who carried out the much needed restoration. Thanks to an active local group ‘The Friends of St Mary’s, Ashley’ the church remains the centre of the small local community.
Construction is of flint rubble with chalk block dressings and quoins, all rendered with lime mortar, except that is for the east wall which is built in flint – a pleasant contrast to the rest of the building. Presumably this would have been erected after the chancel was extended in the 13th century.
The impressive chancel arch is Norman, but the two round headed arches either side would have been cut through in the 16th or 17th century in order to give improved sight lines to the chancel after seating was installed. Before that, it would have been customary for a congregation to be standing throughout the service.
The church has always been surrounded by high trees which may account for the additional large windows that were installed in the 14th century. As a result the nave and chancel are bright and welcoming. On the wall to the right is a fine marble monument to Thomas Hobbs, physician to three kings – Charles II, James II and William III. In the splay of the window just beyond the monument, a 14th century wall painting of an unknown figure is just visible.
The square Norman font is almost certainly the same age as the church, but the pews were fitted in 1858 and the tiled floor laid in 1901, a gift from the family who happened to be the patron at the time.
The Grosvenor, Stockbridge
After our lunch I felt guilty at having suggested this venue, particularly as BQ was picking up the bill, and it wasn’t cheap. I had been given a recommendation for the Grosvenor which has recently been acquired by the same people who own the nearby Greyhound-on-the-Test. This was the restaurant that we dined at after our visit to Nether Wallop Church last year, and it was one of the best lunches that we have had. I assumed that this high standard would have been transferred to their new acquisition, but I was completely wrong, for although the starters were good enough, the main courses were weird and pretentious, being comprised of ingredients that may be currently fashionable, but which just didn’t work in harmony. Furthermore the portions were vast to the point of being daunting.
If I hadn’t been feeling guilty I would have made an attempt to photograph BQ as he attempted to fish out the elusive mussels from the depths of his pot of vivid coloured broth with his fingers, the only practical method. Fortunately our kindly waitress kept him supplied with a succession of fresh linen napkins which kept his face and hands reasonably clean, but alas not his shirt.
The gulf between those two words dine and divine were sharply outlined in visiting three small abandoned churches and the over indulgent lunch that followed. The churches although redundant are cared for by The Churches Conservation Trust a deserving charity who is preserving the very fabric of our history. Only one, All Saints Church at Little Somborne originally dates from the Saxon era and is recorded in the Domesday book, the two others are both products of the Normans. It is fitting therefore that yet another anomaly is found in the overgrown churchyard, the grave of Tommy Sopwith a pioneer aviator and yachtsman who in the thirties had always represented in my mind Evelyn Waugh’s Mayfair set. How different the truth when I read that he accidentally shot his father when he was just ten and the horror stayed with him throughout his life.
By far the largest church of the three, St Mary’s at Ashley, was built on the ramparts of Gains Castle, long since vanished and which, at one time, formed part of the Norman occupation. The three opening chancel arch appears somewhat pretentious in this constricted space. The Jacobean alms box crafted from a log was difficult to access, my interest, I hasten to add, was to contribute. In past times it was customary to open this box once a year in the presence of the rector and both churchwardens, but in 1911 it was discovered that a miscreant had managed to get there first and as a result, the church was kept locked for a while.
If the Conservation trust looks after the structure then the gardens that surround the smallest church St John’s at Eldon are magnificent although private. The planting on the south wall is a delight and enhances this simple structure. Do watch out for the robotic mower which can sidle up to you and give you a nasty shock, evidently they are not hedgehog friendly so I personally prefer meadow grass.
All three churches on this beautiful morning were deeply spiritual and prayer came easily in each. However, as our stomachs began to advise us that it was time to dine, we slipped effortlessly from the sublime to the pretentious. The Grosvenor in Stockbridge is around 200 years old and it is obvious it has lived through the louche days of this town’s history previously described in our post on St Andrews’s church Nether Wallop. In the heyday of horse racing in the town, it was owned by the jockey and subsequent trainer Tom Cannon (who can forget Cannon and Ball) and we were ushered into a magnificent dining room once named after him but now re-titled The Danebury room.
As it was my turn to pay I settled for the set menu which had only one option in each category but MW astutely arguing his allergy to seafood, selected the a la carte menu. It mattered little as both of us were disappointed with our main courses and as MW asserted “less can be more” as they were both over complicated with a cornucopia of clashing tastes.
On leaving we noted that we were the only ones in the dining room but gazed in envy at a very full bar next door and its assembly of happy diners. Perhaps we, like them, were not ready for the toffs’ restaurant and would have been happier with the rest of the serfs next door.
On a positive note the edginess which was evident in our last visit to Arundel only resurfaced during my castigation of his satnav as we meandered aimlessly past places we had seen ten minutes before. MW then invited me to bring my Ordnance Survey map next time and do a better job, but at least he did not get soaked this time!
- Spiced sweet potato soup with coconut & coriander BQ
- Smoked chalk stream trout with rye bread & lemon creme fraiche MW
- Mussels with tomato, smoked paprika, chorizo, baby spinach and fries BQ
- The House Salad with crispy confit of chicken, mango, coconut, lotus root, ponzu, & soy and sesame peanuts MW
- Primordial Voigner (South Africa) BQ & MW
One final thought. The three little churches that we visited have existed for over 800 years despite surviving periods of neglect, dilapidation and even abandonment. They should be treasured as each one is a time capsule, a glimpse into the rituals of village life that changed little over the centuries. At a time when these buildings were at greatest risk, each one was saved by that worthy national charity, the Churches Conservation Trust. Incredibly, they currently care for 345 historic former parish churches, a number that increases by one or two each year. Although they get some funding from both the Government and the Church of England they increasingly rely on donations from the general public. If you too feel inclined to help, this is the link:- https://www.visitchurches.org.uk