Thursday, 8 September 2011

Westmill, Hertfordshire

Westmill and St Mary the Virgin are both lovely but my favourite objects here were the four grotesques at the top of the tower and the lovely west door.

The back choir stalls are decorated with poppyheads. Two of these are original medieval work and two are Victorian copies, done with such skill that it is all but impossible to tell them from the originals. They date from 1876 when the Church was closed for a year while extensive renovation work took place.

ST MARY. It is only by looking at the SE angle of the nave that one can recognize the Anglo-Saxon origin of the church. No other feature  as early as that exists. The next in order of time is the N arcade (two bays). Two pointed arches, unmoulded, are cut through the Saxon N wall.They look later C12. Then comes the chancel, with one straightheaded C13 window. The others are C19. Altogether the church is too much restored to be very rewarding. The chancel arch is C15, the very tall tower arch and the whole W tower with diagonal buttresses and Herts spike essentially c. 1500. - FONT. Octagonal, Perp, with fleurons in quatrefoils, circles, etc.; also blank tracery. - CHANCEL SEATS. Some with poppyheads and very gaunt long human heads. - BENCHES. Simple C15, buttressed. - COMMUNION RAILS, with twisted balusters, late C17. - PLATE. Chalice, 1563; Paten, 1630; large Paten, 1713.

Grotesque (5)

Grotesque (12)

West door (4)

Westmill. It is a village of great beauty, treasuring its past and caring for its present. It has a charming little green and a row of old cottages, a giant chestnut shading an inn, an ancient barn, a library, a museum, and stones 1000 years old in its church. One other thing it has which must interest all, a little thatched cottage which belonged to Charles Lamb, though he never lived in it. It is called Button Snap and is a mile away at Cherry’s Green, and it has been happily passed into the safe keeping of the Royal Society of Arts for its own sake as a lovely cottage and for its association with Charles Lamb. We saw it in a coat of bright yellow and with more thatch than walls, attractive with little diamond-paned windows, and on turning up our Elia we found that in his essay on his first play he speaks with mock pride of this only bit of landed property he could ever call his own:

When I journeyed down to take possession, and planted foot on my own ground, the stately habits of the donor descended upon me, and I strode (shall I confess the vanity?) with larger paces over my allotment of three quarters of an acre with its commodious mansion in the midst, with the feeling of an English freeholder that all betwixt sky and centre was my own.

The museum is opposite the inn with the giant chestnut. Here, housed in an ancient thatched cottage, is a small collection of things recalling the old life of the village. Handmade iron implements, a wooden flail, the harvest horn which woke men from their beds, and pots and coins from the days of the Romans, whose Ermine Street runs by and whose bricks are preserved with Saxon stones in the walls of the church; we see them in the gable. The long-and-short stones of the Saxons are at a corner of the nave. An arcade of two great arches was added in the 12th century when the north aisle was built, and most of the rest of the church is 15th. From that time comes the spiked tower with its lofty arch and its newel stairway, the font and the roof, and two rare stone angels with flaming torches guarding the west door. The chalice is Elizabethan; the twisted altar rails are late 17th century. On the wall of the tower is a stone inscribed in Norman French to Nicol, son of the lord of the manor in 1277. The clock above it strikes on one of the oldest bells in the county; it is 600 years since its maker proudly wrote on it, William Rofforde made me. An old lady who loved to hear this peal of five bells ringing was Mrs Winnington-Ingram, whose son was for so long the popular Bishop of London; her father was rector here before he became a bishop, having the interesting name of Henry Pepys. There are some simple 15th century benches and poppyheads to the stalls.

One of the curates here gave up his pulpit rather than acknowledge Queen Anne as his sovereign; he was Nathaniel Salmon, who gave up the rest of his life to writing. He paid close attention to the study of Roman remains, wrote a history of Hertfordshire, and made preparations for histories of several other counties. His History of Hertfordshire is in the village library, which is housed in a tiny room of one of the almshouses. The village hall has been made out of an ancient barn, pleasant to look upon but not so noble in its antiquity as the thatched barn of ten bays supported on oak trusses reaching from floor to roof, belonging to the manor house.

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