Saturday, November 1, 2008

Wickham, Berkshire

The elephant in the gloom

Grubbing around in Berkshire looking for a Gothick gatehouse that escaped my searching, I found myself in Wickham. The church looked immediately appealing and I was sure I’d read something about it. But what?

Well, I was immediately impressed by the tower, which is Saxon and has little paired windows, high up, which are typical of church architecture just before the Normans arrived in 1066. The rest of the building looks very different, though – perfect 14th-century Gothic, with fancy window tracery and flint walls. When I got inside I realised, once my eyes had adjusted to the incredibly dark interior on this dull, cloudy day, that it’s far too perfect to be medieval. The main body of the church is a Victorian recreation of 14th-century Gothic, full of elaborate carvings of foliage, curvaceous arches, and angels looking down from the roof. It was the creation of Benjamin Ferrey, pupil, follower, and biographer of the great A W N Pugin himself.

The real surprise comes when you look up at the roof of the north aisle. The timbers here are supported by angels, but with the addition of elephants. These elephants, which are made out of papier mâché, of all things, were shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1862 before being presented to the Nicholson family, one of whom, Rev William Nicholson, paid for the construction of the church. The tuskers, of which there were originally four, were intended for the parsonage, but they turned out to be too big, so four more were made and this octet of elephants now looks down from the roof of the north aisle. The wooden font cover, carved by Maoris (I am not making this up) came from the same source.

Ancient stones, a quiet village, a leaf-strewn path: you think you have a parish church taped. And then, again and again, the building produces something to amaze you. Looking up at the elephant in the gloom even made up for the terrible weather.


Anonymous said...

Yes, they are rather amazing aren't they. I rarely revisit churches (because I visit so many) but I have been here four times over the past 12 years.

This area of Berkshire has quite a few interesting and curious bits (one e.g.: Combe Gibbet).

Peter Ashley said...

Ah, Combe Gibbet. Apparently it's still in the tenancy agreement of a neighbouring farm that they are responsible for the maintenance of the gibbet.

But oh those elephants. Must get down here again, and apart from anything else re-visit one of my old haunts- The Hatchet Inn near Chute Causeway.

Chris Partridge said...

The Nicholson family made their money by selling gin at a penny a pint, which proves that alcohol is good for you (as long as other people drink it). Did they install the elephants in the church as a sort of tribute to booze? Are they 'totally elephants'?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Interesting how things always get around to alcohol. I don't know if the elephants are 'elephants' but I needed a drink after groping around in the church. The weather was so bad, and the glass so stained, that it was like night in there and verging on the spooky.