This morning I made my first foray in a new hobby – photographing country churches. I chose a tiny, remote rural church, St John’s, Farley Chamberlayne, in Hampshire. The church is at the end of a narrow lane in agricultural country, a lane that leads nowhere else except an adjoining farm and a house, perhaps once the vicarage.
The church is quite small. It can seat just 70 people, but then according to information in the church, there are only 60 parishioners.
Dating from the 12th Century, almost everything within looks old except a striking modern font commissioned to celebrate the Millennium. Funds for the font were raised by a sponsored walk from Farley Chamberlayne to Canterbury
I bought the only remaining copy of a flimsy little history, priced at £1. Visitors are urged to give as generously as possible. A notice says that it costs £7,500 per annum just to keep the church in its present condition, without leaving anything for future maintenance needs. The repository for donations is a little cardboard box with a slit cut into the lid. No security whatsoever, though it says it is emptied daily.
To my untrained eye there didn’t seem to be much that gave clues about the evolution of the church. I was puzzled by the date on a black memorial tablet on the east wall: MVCXXII. I don’t understand the placement of the V, which seems to be at odds with the subsequent XXII. It seems I need to brush up on my Roman numerals.
One feature that my untrained eye missed until the little history prompted me to take another look, was a mass dial incised into the wall beside the south door. It worked like a sundial (or would have done, before the porch was added): you put your finger into the hole above the radiating lines, and the shadow cast by your finger shows the time of the next mass. Barely credible in an age of smart phones.
I spent over an hour exploring the church and taking photographs. Outside the sun was shining on one of our best summer days yet. So when I’d finished exploring, I decided to sit on the bench in the churchyard to read the history pamphlet. You can hear no traffic other than the occasional distant tractor. No one else had appeared since my arrival.
Soon after I sat down, a little hatchback drew up and all its doors were opened. But to my surprise, only one of the occupants, a woman, got out and went into the church. A good while later, a second woman also got out and went into the church. The third occupant never left the car. None of them were the sort of people you’d expect to find visiting a country church, which did trigger some instinctive alerts. Eventually first one, and then later the other of the two women came out, and in due course they drove away.
Hating myself for my suspicious mind, I went back into the church and examined the donation box in which I had left a two-pound coin and two 50p pieces. Only the 50p pieces remained.
It was such a dispiriting conclusion to what should have been an uplifting outing. There is no explanation that stands up to scrutiny other than that it was an act of impulse. Certainly no one would drive that far just to take £2 (and then leave a further pound in the box). It’s been suggested that they may have been the offical box emptiers, but as they signed the visitors’ book (with the comment ‘Best Church Ever. Feels Real Peacefull X’), I think they can only have been unofficial collectors.
You can view an album of Farley Chamberlayne church photographs here.