November 26 – A Walk along the Thames to Iffley

Magnificent Iffley Church

Hello from 1066 – A Medieval Mosaic

We decided to go for a walk down the River Thames in the opposite direction to Oxford today as it was such a lovely blue winters day, not very warm but definitely blue. The Thames is only about two blocks from the house. We put the boys’ coats on and headed off. The river had rowing boats both with eight rowers and with two sometimes with a coach cycling along the towpath giving instructions. There were also three fishermen, one with a huge long pole, three lengths of ten feet long and I think he still had one more length to add on. Not sure what that was all about, apart from missing the rowing boats. The towpath was busy with walkers, cyclists, dog walkers and joggers.

When we got down the river we came to the Iffley lock with a Mathematical Bridge over it. The arrangement of timbers is a series of tangents that describe the arc of the bridge, with radial members to tie the tangents together and triangulate the structure, making it rigid and self-supporting. This bridge was built in 1923 and is a replica of a bridge in Cambridge. The Cambridge bridge was designed by William Etheridge and built by James Essex in 1749. Although it appears to be an arch, it is composed entirely of straight timbers built to an unusually sophisticated engineering design.

The original Iffley lock was built by the Oxford-Burcot Commission in 1631 and the Thames Navigation Commission replaced this in 1793. The lock has a set of rollers to allow punts and rowing boats to be moved between the water levels.

After crossing the river we walked towards St Mary’s church at Iffley. The service had just finished and the congregation was just leaving as we arrived. The outside of the church was beautiful with magnificent decoration around each door but when we went inside it got even better!! Iffley church was built between 1170 and 1180 and was the gift of a rich patron, probably one of the St Remy family who held the Manor at that time. It is richly carved and decorated and is one of the best preserved twelfth-century churches in England. The font stands at the entrance of the church and is the same age as the church but has a new cover made by Nicholas Mynheer and Roger Wagner. Nicholas was actually in the congregation today and we saw him leave although at the time we did not know who he was. He also made the carving in the Aumbry, where the communion vessels are stored. The tiles and the gilded reredos were part of a restoration in 1864 and were very beautiful.

An outstanding feature of the church is the Norman arches with zigzag ornament and leaf or flower decoration. The boss in the choir vaulting has a dragon or snake scraping off its skin of evil, surrounded by pine cones, symbolic of rebirth. From four grotesque heads flow symbols of living water. There are also traces of four crosses painted on the walls, originally there would have been 12. These would have been made at the consecration of the church by a bishop in 1170. The Romanesque window in the west wall is a restoration of 1865 – ‘The Eye of the Lord’. The south window was designed by John Piper and donated by Mrs Piper in 1995. It shows the Tree of Life, with birds and beasts announcing Christ’s birth in Latin. The window opposite is ‘The Tree of Life’ by Roger Wagner. The North window was installed in 2012, depicts the Tree of Life in full blossom, with Christ crucified but in the glory of the coming Resurrection. From beneath the Tree flows the River of Paradise moving towards the baptistery font, the waters of which when blessed are symbolically from that River. Sheep representing Christ’s flock shelter under the branches.

When they restored the organ a few years ago they found a wall painting of St Christopher. Apparently, there was some discussion about not putting the organ back but the church is very narrow so I do not think there were too many options so the wall painting was covered up again.

Medieval churches always pointed East, with a door to the west. This doorway is famed for its ‘beak head’ carvings, signs of the Zodiac and the symbols of the evangelists. The south door is noticeable for its two horsemen, a king, centaurs, Samson and the lion and circular animals symbolic of eternity. The tower was restored in 1975 and the gargoyles were carved by Michael Grocer. The angel calls people to the church with the trumpet and the Devil warns of loose talk. At the four corners are symbols of the gospels, an eagle (St John), an ox (St Mark), an angel (St Matthew) and a calf (St Luke).

Annora, the Anchoress, or holy woman, lived and prayed here in a small room or cell adjoining the church from 1232 until her death in 1241. The grave slab here is probably hers.

There is an ancient yew tree which is over 1500 years old and it, therefore, predates the church which was built in 1170. This yew tree is the tree which Alice in Wonderland used to sit under. Lewis Carroll attended Christ College at the University of Oxford and wrote many of his books here. Under the yew tree is a churchyard cross which was restored in the 19th century. The original carving of the lamb was found, broken, in the rectory garden. It would have originally been on top of the cross but is now on the wall in the sanctity of the church. Behind the churchyard cross is also a stone carving of the lamb.

We were surprised that there was no church micro at the Iffley church as it is one of the most special churches that we have seen in our whole time in the UK. We did get two geocaches on our way home. and Mike made a new alphametic to commemorate the lovely day.