It’s not every day that you get to walk into a building well over a thousand years old. I was visiting St Mary’s Church in Deerhurst, a few miles north of Gloucester, whose history goes back into the 8th century.
Set in a leafy churchyard and next to the old priory, the core of the building and its tower at the west end date to the early 9th century. Just inside the porch is the carved figure of the Virgin, the head smoothed stone onto which the face was once painted. Within the building each side of the door is flanked by two fabulous and rather vicious-looking beasts heads, their mouths open with long fangs visible, and typical of early 9th-century art.
The nave and side chapels are small, their windows high up and tiny, and this represents the early stone church which has stood here for about 1,200 years.
Of around the same date is the font. When it was found in the 19th century part was, bizarrely, being used as a trough for the animals in a farmer’s field, with the rest found at a local pub, the Coalhouse Inn, just along the River Severn. It’s simple but quite stunning, with groups of interlocking spirals across much of the font, and bands of weaving plants above and below.
As I stood in the nave looking around I felt a real sense of place, its long history stretching back to a time when England was made up from several different kingdoms. I realised that right here in this building prayers would have been said for the safety of Mercia and its people as the Viking army advanced in the 870s from the east having already conquered two other kingdoms, East Anglia and Northumbria. Really, that’s quite awe-inspiring.
Outside I’d followed signs to ‘the angel’. Taking me around the church through a narrow gap in the walls, the original east end apse appeared, destroyed during the Reformation and excavated by archaeologists. How I wished it was still standing. On one of the remaining walls, about 5m up is a small, slightly battered 9th-century sculpture of an angel. It’s not that easy to see (or photograph!), but well worth looking for, it feels like a little discovery all of your own.
A two minute walk away, through some rather robust floodgates, stands Odda’s chapel. A small chantry built in 1056 by Earl Odda, one of the most important men in England at the time. It’s now attached to a 17th-century farmhouse, Abbot’s Court, and was used as its kitchen for centuries.
Odda had it built for prayers to be said in memory of his brother, Aelfric, who had died in 1053. It’s small, just a nave and chancel connected by a lovely round arch, with a small door and two high windows, built from a warm, yellow local stone. In reality there’s not much to see but it’s a very pretty, quiet spot. When I arrived two old men were standing outside discussing masonry techniques and joins in the fabric. Maybe I’m not just not as interested as I should be in early-medieval stonework but this sweet little chapel hit me more on an emotional level. Nearly a thousand years ago a man was worried enough for his brother’s soul – or maybe he just missed him – that he had this place built so his brother could be prayed for. It’s amazing enough seeing a building this old but the story behind it was touching.
I ended up sitting on the riverbank near the chapel, just above where the cows come down to drink, watching the water gently drifting by. It all had a timeless feel which couldn’t have been more appropriate.
How to get there: Deerhurst is located between Gloucester and Tewkesbury just off the A38. Postcode GL19 4BX.
Parking: there’s a small car park outside Odda’s chapel. It cost me £1 to park, putting the money in an honesty box.
Walks: a lovely walk encompassing Deerhurst and the River Severn can be found the here. This takes you past the Coalhouse Inn, a pub right by the river, but note that it’s not open every lunchtime (as I found out having persuaded myself on the walk there that a pint and some chips were a really good idea! At least I had sandwiches with me).