Helen McGowen Explores The Church in Dassett Hills, Warwickshire Life

PUBLISHED: 23:48 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013



Helen McGowan, from Divine Inspiration, explores an ancient and curious<br/><br/>church nestling in the Dassett Hills.

Helen McGowan, from Divine Inspiration, explores an ancient and curious

church nestling in the Dassett Hills.

There is a little pocket of Warwickshire that always manages to remind me of my Derbyshire roots. The Dassett Hills, gently rugged and exposed, are a little like the craggy Peak District. The drive up from the A4100 into this surprising wilderness, on a blustery and brooding day, made me feel like I was back on home turf.

This spot is well known and much loved by families and walkers, affording fantastic views in all directions across the Northamptonshire plain in the east and the site of the Edge Hill battlefield in the south. You'll find a 16th century Beacon Tower up there, standing proud and visible, from miles away. It is said that the Beacon Tower was used to send news of the battle, by fire, and some believe that Cromwell himself may have climbed to the top to watch the battle that was going on below him.

Today there are just a few homes scattered amongst the hills but during medieval times this place grew to be a thriving and lively settlement, a busy and prosperous place where regular markets were held. The wool trade was brisk but Sir Edward Belknap, who owned the land during the 1500s, wanted to make as much money as possible out of the hills so decided to turn out 12 tenant farmers and enclose the land for his own sheep. We would be appalled by this kind of behaviour today but at the time it was quite legal and the farmers and their families had no rights.

The Black Death had already made a substantial dent in the population and these combined factors meant that the Burton Dassett community never quite recovered.

Clinging onto the side of the hill and built into the slope of the land is All Saints Church. Records show that a place of worship has been on this site since the time of the Domesday Survey so the building has borne constant witness to the changing face of the hills and its highs and lows.

It is an astonishing building. It may seem shabby at first sight but this is not the case. It simply hasn't been over-restored and it is this healthy neglect that gives it such a tangible sense of history. The stones themselves seem to speak. It is an uncomplicated, spare space - there are no pews here now and no ornate Victorian additions - and the first thing you notice is the incredible slope, accommodating the natural landscape, from under the tower up to the altar. It is a hill in itself. It would have been easier for the builders to follow the contour of the land when constructing the church but this would have put paid to the traditional east-west orientation of church buildings.

There are plenty of intricate carving on the stone pillars dating from the 13th century when the church was established as an important building. The pillars closest to the porch door have intriguing images of animals and beasts, some curiously mythical, twined around them. As you enter the building you're greeted by a Green Man waving branches. There is a head of a lady wearing a wimple headdress and a gentleman, a priest or a monk perhaps, sporting a tonsure. Maybe the stonemason modelled these images on local people.

Father Philip Francis has been the incumbent here since 1987 and he understands just how special this place is to the many visitors who come again and again.

"All Saints draws people by its overwhelming beauty, peace and holiness. It is a place of pilgrimage and once visited, people often return, from all over the world, as well as in the region, tracing family links or coming back to the church where they were baptised or married or where they had such a powerful experience on their first visit."

The interior walls are now whitewashed but at one time the plaster was covered with colourful paintings which have begun to emerge over the last few years. Father Philip explains:

"In the 1960's the medieval wall paintings were uncovered for the first time since the reformation. Painted for the glory of God, the frescos above the chancel depicting Jesus crucifixion make a link between the altar and Calvary. As the priest stands at the altar offering the holy sacrifice of the mass, so the congregation would have connected with Christ's offering of himself upon the cross. The clouds of incense around the altar would have reminded them of their earthly offering joined with the heavenly one 'with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven' as they looked up to see the archangels in the painting with their golden censers

"In the Lady Chapel, we find the de Sudely family patron saints, St Kennelm and St Oswald of Northumbria painted either side of the window.

"A scheme is underway to conserve these precious wall paintings, so that future generations in awe and joy can behold them."

In the Lady Chapel you will find a rare ancient altar slab marked with the five symbolic crosses recalling the five wounds of Jesus' crucifixion. This slab was most likely used originally as one of the side altars, possibly in the Lady Chapel. It was removed from church during the 1500s when an Act decreed that altars like this should be destroyed, but it was carefully preserved, perhaps by the priest and community hoping for a return to more tolerant times. The altar stone was found buried in the churchyard and replaced here during restorations carried out in 1890 and is again used for mass today.

There is a table tomb in this chapel where visitors are invited to leave prayers and messages. The moving number left is an indication of the very different kinds of visitors that come here. Messages in Arabic, Chinese and many other languages prove that this place is for all, of any faith or none, to be still and to take time out to reflect.

As we left church on that stormy morning the skies had cleared and we looked across the bright landscape to see a herd of llamas galloping along the ridge in the fields below the church. We had expected sheep! An indication surely of how times have changed on these hills.

All Saints is open every day. 'Tea in the Hills' takes place over Bank Holiday weekends inside church. You will find further details on the Divine Inspiration website at www.divine-inspiration.org.uk or by calling Father Philip Francis on 01295 770400.

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