February 2 – Oxfordshire Church Micros and 39 Steps

Woodstock, Elsfield, Stanton St. John, Great Milton, Great Haseley, Little Milton, Stadhampton, Stoke Talmage and Wheatfield.

Hello from 1066 – A Medieval Mosaic

Last night I organised a great trip to find more church micros around Oxfordshire and St Thomas of Canterbury church in Elsfield was the first of the day. A church has stood here for nearly 800 years. It was built mostly between 1200 and 1250 and in 1273 the church was consecrated. Thomas Becket was one of the most popular saints of the middle ages as he was Chancellor to Henry II and a friend and companion of the King in many secular pursuits. The chancel arch of 1170-80 is the earliest surviving Romanesque feature and there is also a plain Romanesque font.

The churchyard contains the grave of John Buchan, 1st Lord Tweedsmuir (1875-1940), who bought the Manor of Elsfield in 1920 and formed a deep attachment to the village and the church. As well as being the writer of thrilling adventure stories Buchan was also a serious historian and biographer and a statesman. He was Governor-General of Canada from 1935 until his death.

The church was open and some ladies were in the partitioned area at the back having a craft morning. The chancel and sanctuary walls and floors have some lovely mosaic work but the “Last Supper” in mosaic makes a fabulous reredos. There were three mosaic angels on each side of the centrepiece as well. There was even some wall painting though it was not very distinct.

The cache was a 200m walk through the snow but the footpath is well used so easy walking. We found it easily and on the way back I was wondering why it was so far away from the church then thought that maybe there is another cache at the church and sure enough, there was a cache called “Thirty-Nine Steps” which we just had to do too.

Mike and I both had to read “The Thirty-Nine Steps” by John Buchan when we were at high school some 50 years ago, which left a lasting impression. We had to clear the snow off the round headstone but soon collected the numbers. My pen was refusing to write as I dropped it in the snow. Soon we had the coordinates and walked the short distance to the cache. It took a couple of minutes to find, not sure why as it was pretty obvious. Another couple came walking through the snow towards us and kept looking at us which made it difficult to return the container. I managed to between curious glances and I put in a new piece of paper in as the other log was manky. Today we saw several kites gliding in the blue sky. They are such majestic creatures. I love geocaching in England and finding birth, life and burial places of famous people through history.

The parish church of St John the Baptist is the oldest building in the village of Stanton St John with the north arcade dating from about 1200. The chancel was built in about 1300, the aisles in the late 14th century and the nave windows and tower date from the 15th century. John Milton’s parents are buried here in this churchyard. The chancel and sanctuary were blocked off for renovation but it had some very nice grey windows and the choir stalls with very unusual poppyheads of people and animals. There was a lovely carved wooden pulpit and a George Royal coat of arms painted on the chancel arch wall. We collected the numbers for the multi despite the snow and made an easy find. We had lunch in a lovely sunny spot with a great view and watched some teenagers tobogganing on a partially snowy hill.

The cache at St Mary the Virgin church in Great Milton took a few minutes to find but then I saw it and we finally understood the hint. The hint was “Pinus incongruous, but you’ll lych this Cach” so I knew it was on the lychgate but I could not see a pine tree nearby. Then I saw half a pine cone sitting at the bottom of the lych gate and knew I had found the cache.

As we drove away we saw, right next door to the church, “Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons” which is Raymond Blanc’s hotel and restaurant. It was very beautiful to see especially in the snow but I think a look from the gate will have to suffice although I would love to eat there and wander in the garden. I am a great fan of Raymond Blanc and a few years ago Michael and I made a chocolate cup and saucer filled with chocolate mousse (after watching his “how to” video) for the family on Christmas Day. It was a pretty good effort though not with Raymond’s finesse. LOL.

The highlight of the day was Great Haseley with its 17th-century manor house and St Peter’s church. We parked in the village and then walked on a driveway that goes through the manor house gardens to St Peters church. This seemed a bit strange and as it turned out there was another way to the church but other people were walking this way so there didn’t seem to be a problem. The church had some fantastic stained glass windows which were quite modern. The most modern was the Sower and the Reaper which was made for the Millennium by Stewart Bowman. It is a colourful window showing historical and farming scenes including the wheat harvest, the windmill, stone carving and church building but also modern day scenes with a tractor and a harvester. At the very top is the solar eclipse of 1999. When I researched Stewart (Nicky) Bowman, I found that he passed away just last month on the 10 January 2019 at the age of 83.

Well, when it comes to the church micro at St James church in Little Milton the difficulty of four is apt. Parking was ridiculously hard, the road was more like the M25 there was so much traffic, the church was closed and despite looking for ages we simply were unable to locate the cache. Also, we could not remember the answer to the hint which was Fred Flintstone’s daughter. That would certainly have helped but all we could think of was Bam Bam. We looked very well but found nothing. Having said that I bet it was there and we were just having an off moment. Maybe we will find it another time.

St John the Baptist church in Stadhampton dates from 1146 but has been renovated many times especially in the 16th century. St John’s Church is also fairly unusual in that as well as holding regular Sunday services it also serves as the Stadhampton Village Hall, which can be hired out for various village events. Our GPS seemed to take us to a highly unlikely place so we followed our instincts and found the cache straight away in a place marked with two geocaching rocks. The church was closed but had four interesting looking cupolas on the roof of the tower. It is looked after by the Oxford Preservation Trust.

St Mary Magdalen church in Stoke Talmage was built in the 13th-century. The two medieval bells are believed to be the oldest on Oxfordshire. One was cast in 1350 and the other in 1360. Unfortunately for us, the church was closed. My mission for today was to go to Wheatfield church but as we were driving right passed we did not like to miss this one. The church was closed and all the collection of numbers was a bit different to any of the other multis we have done. Soon we got the hang of things and worked out the coordinates. We walked down a road but we could have reached the other side which would have been better as we were very visible from one house opposite. As we left the churchyard we saw a flock of kites flying overhead. What wonderfully majestic birds these are with amazing colours on their undersides. This turned out to be our last find of the day as it is getting very chilly.

We did go to Wheatfield church but it was closed and right out in a field. Mike walked around it but we did not collect all the numbers as the snow made it too difficult and by not finding the cache it means that we might return sometime between March and October when it is open to the public.

Wheatfield is a deserted medieval village. The church is now a grade 1 listed building and there is no water, gas or electric supply, but candles are used. The church was built in 1202 and it is not possible to enter the church, except when there is a service.

On the way home, we stopped at Sturdy’s Castle for an early evening meal.