Country Matters: Parish gems on a preservation trail

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SOME agreed to sponsor me for 50p a church, others for pounds 1, on the 10th bicycle ride organised by the Gloucestershire Historic Churches Preservation Trust to raise funds for the repair and maintenance of ancient buildings. But everyone I approached asked nervously: 'How many churches will you do?'

'Oh, not more than eight or 10,' I answered airily. And to calm my supporters' nerves, I set an arbitrary limit of 10, as the most they would have to pay out for. Alas, I seriously underestimated the pedalling power of Sally Worsley, my mentor for the day, herself a churchwarden in the village of Hatherop, and a seasoned participant in this annual event.

After a spell of violent weather, the day of our ride proved mercifully fine, with only a moderate wind from the South-west. Punctually at 10am we rolled out of Sally's drive, heading first for her own church of St Nicholas. Immediately we encountered some of the problems that confront country churches in the Nineties.

St Nicholas's is relatively young - it was rebuilt in 1854 - but is now far too large for the congregration it attracts: of the 121 people in the parish, only a handful go to services. And the Victorians who rebuilt the church used timbers from its predecessor, and these have been found to contain deathwatch beetle. The threat of vandalism is so high that valuables, such as candlesticks, have to be locked away between services.

Sobered by such considerations, we sped downhill and crossed the little river Coln into the village of Quenington, where chestnut trees, already turning gold, set off the grey stone houses to perfection. St Swithin's is a jewel: a 12th-century church with extraordinary Norman carvings on the stone arches above its doorways.

Some of the weathered, crumbled faces are human, and one scene represents the Harrowing of Hell, in which Our Lord pierces Satan with a cross. Other heads are of animals and birds, and the strangest of all are the grotesque avian faces that are having their beaks gripped and twisted, apparently by the hands of unseen neighbours.

After a quick look round, we went on to the town of Fairford, a three-mile slog into the teeth of the breeze; but at the end lay a magnificent reward in the form of St Mary the Virgin, a large and handsome structure dating from the 15th century, whose serried ranks of gravestones are softened by a life- sized stone effigy and memorial to 'Tiddles the Church Cat, 1963-80'.

'A fee of 50p is charged for each person using a camera,' a notice inside proclaimed. And no wonder: 500-year-old stained glass is not something you find in every country church. As I gazed upwards in wonder, a local enthusiast volunteered information about the cleaning operation in progress.

Most of the windows, he explained, date from 1499 to 1517, and at present six have been taken away for cleaning and repair by Keith Barley, an expert based in Yorkshire. The work required is so delicate and intricate that the cost of putting a single window in good order can easily reach pounds 15,000.

After a pause on the outskirts of Fairford to inspect the Roman Catholic church of St Thomas, we headed west for the hamlet of Meysey Hampton and another immensely old church, St Mary's, which was consecrated in 1269. Early as the day still was, I found the sight of the Masons Arms hostelry powerfully attractive, and tried to steer my companion into the pub for a stiffener; she was made of sterner stuff, however, and said we should keep going.

Southwards again, therefore, for Down Ampney. On the way, we passed the kennels of the VWH hunt, and in a field across the lane saw the Huntsman out at exercise. Sally being a friend of his, we rode across the grass to greet him, and at once found ourselves handlebar-deep in a swirling mass of hounds.

On again, after an agreeable exchange of rural gossip, to All Saints' Down Ampney, also 700 years old, with a tall, slender spire topped by a weathercock. Two secular associations give this church particular interest. One is that Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer, was born in the village, and here wrote the tune 'Down Ampney' for the hymn 'Come Down, O Love Divine'; the second, that gliders of the First and Sixth Airborne Divisions left the airfield here for the great Allied landing at Arnhem in 1944. Nearly 50 years on, the occasion is recalled by annual reunions and services.

Next, a muddy farm track took us through the fields to Latton, a hamlet of 200 souls who somehow have to raise pounds 30,000 to repair the roof of their church, which is visibly riddled with holes. Then, at last, we turned North-west, and had the joy of riding with the wind.

As the day wore on, villages and churches began to blur into one another. At Poulton, the checker-in was seated comfortably with a gin and tonic at his elbow, and when I mentioned this amenity, he most civilly offered me one of the same (or a brandy if I preferred it). Declining both, we kept going on the biscuits and lemonade offered by the voluntary officials at most of the stops.

We never entered the church at Ampney St Peter, for we reached it at an inopportune moment: just as a bride was being decanted for her wedding from a squeaking, maroon-coloured Rolls-Royce. But no such obstruction barred us from Ampney St Mary, a tiny, 12th-century church standing out on its own in the middle of a field.

Here, in summer, two services are held every month, but in winter the church is closed, for nowadays it is more than a mile from the village. Aerial infra-red photographs, however, have revealed the sites of houses that used to surround it, and local people suppose that, after the ravages of the Black Death in the 14th century, the survivors moved to fresh ground.

On and on we rode - to Harnhill, to Driffield, to South Cerney and to Siddington, where St Peter's (also of Norman origin) is being re-roofed at a cost of pounds 28,000. 'It's a hard struggle for a community like ours to raise that amount,' said the man who received us, adding more sharply that villagers were not amused when English Heritage spent more than pounds 250,000 on re-roofing the Norman barn next door, but could not contribute to the church itself.

Passing through the fringes of Cirencester, we took a summary decision to cut out all eight churches in the town: we already had plenty under our belts, and a good distance to go. With the wind at our backs, we sped to Barnsley, Bibury and over the hills to Coln St Aldwyns, before grinding up the last slope past Hatherop Castle and back to base.

We had covered 35 miles and visited 19 churches. All day, we had passed and repassed other riders of every age and shape - many hundreds were in action all over the county - and we knew that some of them had notched up far higher totals than we had. Had we been ruthless, and snapped up all eight chances in Cirencester, we too could have pushed up our score. But since I had limited my sponsors to 10, there seemed no point in going for numbers alone.

As it was, I raised pounds 90 for the cause: a modest enough effort, but one that left me immensely impressed with the wealth - in both historical and architectural terms - of the heritage for which we had been riding.