Nothing prepares you for the church of All Saints, Minstead, in the New Forest – not even the description by Simon Jenkins in his ‘Thousand Best Churches’.
Viewed from the lychgate, the church could easily be mistaken for cottages, were it not for the brick tower that was added in 1774.
As soon as I saw the outer door of the porch wide open, I felt sure that access would not be a problem, and I was right. The massive oak door was unlocked. Stepping inside revealed an interior unlike that of any church I have been in before. It is smaller than I had imagined, with a low ceiling at the west end of the nave, owing to the gallery above. The atmosphere is homely, though not lacking in spirituality. In various places around the church there are neatly written little texts on white card extolling the merits of shared worship. While not necessarily disagreeing with their sentiments, I felt their placement did nothing to enhance the church’s aesthetics.
The wooden altar is adorned with an embroidered cloth and the simplest of wooden crosses. Nothing else.
At the foot of the three-decker pulpit is an ancient stone font. It is said to be the oldest stone in the church, believed to be of Saxon origin. It was spared destruction by the Puritans by being buried in the rectory garden, where it remained undiscovered for 200 years.
This little village church has a disproportionately large south transept, longer than the nave. It was once the private pew of one of the grand families of the parish.
The church interior is predominantly wooden. The west gallery has deep wooden parapets, the three-decker pulpit is of wood, the nave has oak pews while those in the transept are of pine.
The one remaining enclosed private pew has a gate into it from the chancel and has been designated an area for quiet reflection. Its bookcases suggest it may also be a haven for children. I don’t think its fireplace is still used.
In the graveyard with views over meadows and woods, two tombstones are of particular interest. One is the memorial of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. An object resting at the foot of the stone cross caught my eye: a smoker’s pipe with a curly stem. A lady with whom I fell into conversation in the church told me it has been there for several years, but it looked too shiny to have weathered any winters in such an exposed position. Either way, how long would it have lasted in any urban or suburban churchyard? But should tombstones be adorned with trinkets?
Near the path that leads from the lychgate to the porch is a tombstone whose inscription has had one word excised by a skilful mason. The gravestone originally bore the words ‘faithful husband’, but it seems that after his demise his widow learned that he had been unfaithful, so she had the word ‘faithful’ cut out. Poor man, his human failing pursuing him beyond the grave.
The little booklet about the church is written with unusual warmth and humour. If you are anywhere near Minstead with half an hour to spare, try not to miss this church.
The images above, and a few others, can be seen more clearly here.
Postscript, 17 November 2013
Two years ago, Yaany and Mimi Mellersh, aged 8 and 6, died in tragic circumstances. Yesterday, a memorial statue created by their grandmother Jeanie Mellersh, who lives in Minstead, was unveiled in the churchyard in a beautiful and moving ceremony.