The Churches Conservation Trust protects and conserves churches at risk, restoring the ancient buildings and bringing new life into their communities. The charity cares for nine churches in Hampshire, all fascinating historic buildings which are well worth a visit.
Historic churches, particularly those no longer in regular use, are ideal places for the Slow Traveller to visit. They make perfect stopping places on a walk or cycle ride, some with convenient benches for the weary. They are free to visit, yet any donation will contribute massively to the upkeep of these buildings which guard our religious and social history across the ages.
St Mary’s Ashley, Kings Somborne, Hampshire
This church lies next to the site of a 12th century castle, known as Gains Castle, and was probably built at the same time to serve its population, as it is within the bailey. The nave, chancel and font all date from the 12th century. The windows date from the 15th and 16th centuries, with the porch being added in 1701. Many of the windows are splayed, with one in the south of the chancel showing a 13th century painting of a human figure.
A very unusual feature is a 17th century alms box carved from a tree trunk. On the wall is a monument to Thomas Hobbs, father and son. The elder Hobbs was physician to Charles II, James II and William III. His son was only 17 when he drowned in the River Rhine while a student in Utrecht. Unusually, three tombstones are set into the wall of the church, one relating the inevitable sad deaths of infants in the 18th century.
Separating the church from part of its churchyard is the moat which surrounded the medieval castle. You can cross the moat and what remains of the ramparts to enter the area. The castle was built in 1138 on the site of an Iron Age hillfort by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother to Stephen, claimant to the throne at the same time as Henry I’s daughter Matilda.
King John is known to have visited and, while a visitor there, dealt with royal business as well as hunting. The castle was used as a place by Bishops of Winchester in the 15th century, but abandoned in the 17th century. There is very little left to see but, with some vivid imagination, it is possible to eat your picnic in the centre of the site and imagine the flow of medieval life around you.
All Saints, Little Somborne, Hampshire
A tiny church, set in an equally tiny village in a downland valley, this building originated in Saxon times and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is very simply constructed in flint rubble with stone dressings, and the walls have been rendered and colourwashed. The roof is tiled and there is a wooden bellcote at the west end. The north and south doors are both Norman.
At one time the church had a longer chancel, but in 1170 the Normans extended the nave, leaving only a tiny area for the altar. This in turn was removed in the 17th century, the chancel arch was filled in with a wall, and a window was inserted. In the north wall are the remnants of a doorway, possibly linking the church to a 13th century hermit cell.
Outside is the grave of Sir Thomas Sopwith, the pioneer aviator, who lived in Compton Manor in nearby Kings Somborne and was buried here in 1989, having died at the age of 101. The church has helpfully provided a brief biography of him, looking at his company’s important production of planes like the Sopwith Pup, Camel and Triplane during WWI, and his role in the production of the Hurricane and the Lancaster in WWII.
You can visit an original 1916 Sopwith Pup plane at the nearby Army Flying Museum.
St John the Baptist, Upper Eldon, Kings Somborne
In one of the tiniest villages in England you will find the very simple 12th century church, set just off a single track road and in the private garden of Eldon House. The entire building is only 32 feet long by 16 feet wide, and is just a single cell with one south door and three lancet windows.
Photograph © John Salmon
It could easily be mistaken for a medieval barn. Its congregation must always have been correspondingly tiny and by the 18th century it had fallen into disrepair. In 1864 it was in use as a cowshed. In 1973 a report stated that “Its sole occupant is a beautiful white owl”. The church passed into the hands of the Churches Conservation Trust who carried out some repairs, retiling the roof and re-plastering the interior. Around the church is a private garden, but you can also see nine consecration cross stones – each one a small circle which formerly held metal crosses.