The church of St Mary and St Michael at Stoke Charity has every ingredient to enchant. If you are coming from the south you travel up a long country lane through agricultural country with no suggestion that you are ever going to arrive anywhere. And when, finally, you reach Stoke Charity, the location of the church is by no means obvious. A sign announces ‘Private property and church car park only’, but still the whereabouts of the church is unclear. It turns out to be across the road, up some steps, through a gate and a hundred yards down a fenced path between fields.
It is more than worth the trouble. From the outside it is just another quite attractive country church with flint walls, a tile-hung belfry and a splayed spire.
Through a wooden porch and a door mercifully unlocked, you find yourself in something like a miniature cathedral.
To quote the church’s excellent little guide book: “The gloriously unspoilt church of St Mary and St Michael is a treasure house of beautiful and ancient objects. The building dates mainly from the 12th and 13th centuries, the Norman nave and chancel perhaps being added to a small Saxon church which then formed the north aisle of the enlarged church.”
The most obvious feature is a Norman arcade of two large bays between the nave and the north aisle, with a central pier of enormous girth. There is also a striking chancel arch with Romanesque decoration.
The area around the chancel and the side chapel will be a nightmare for those who are no longer sure-footed. Not only are the floors uneven but there are unexpected steps and changes of height at every turn.
What a cornucopia of treasures this church is! Exotic monuments and details abound. A 12th century font, some 14th century tiles, a rare 15th century stone carving, a fragment of medieval wall painting – and many striking monuments with fascinating inscriptions. For me, the only jarring note is a modern carving, in oak, of the Virgin Mary, commissioned to celebrate the completion of restoration work and the approach of the millennium. It sits uncomfortably in its present company, nor can I admire the work itself.
A fascinating detail is a double ‘squint’ – an aperture in a wall that allows someone to look through to the other side. In this case it allows the priest at his prayer desk to observe both the main altar and the altar in the side chapel. It is one of only three double squints in England.
It took me an hour and a half to photograph the most obvious points of interest in this small church. You could easily spend twice that long, so much is there to see and read about. The major tombs are thoroughly documented by quite lengthy framed texts; the guide book is thorough but more concise.
More images here.