Hampshire churches 6 – St Swithun, Headbourne Worthy

The church of St Swithun at Headbourne Worthy has a Saxon foundation that predates the Conquest, so it demanded a visit. It also has a lovely setting, in a grass plot with a stream at its southern boundary, and a churchyard not overcrowded with tombstones.

What they don’t tell you is that there is nowhere to park a car or even stop briefly anywhere near the church. The nearest parking place is about 650 yards away.

From a busy B-road you go down a few steps and over a stream to a shaded and ornamental lychgate . And there before you is a lovely old church.  I say ‘old’, but in fact while the oldest parts of the building are early C11, there have been many additions in the intervening thousand years. Happily, I found the outer door open to the autumn sunshine and the inner door unlocked.

Oldest first: the north and west walls of the nave, and the original portion of the chancel, are early C11, probably c.1030. The chancel was extended in the thirteenth century, and a tower was added at the south-west corner of the nave.

Historically, the most important feature of the church is a C11 rood (carving of the crucifixion) on what was originally the outer west wall of the nave, now protected by a small vestry added in C16. The stone carving of Christ, the Virgin Mary and St John, larger than life size, was destroyed by iconoclasts during the Reformation. What remains is their outline on the wall with the hand of God reaching down from a cloud towards Christ. Pevsner regarded it as a work of international stature, on account of its size and antiquity. Simon Jenkins calls it a ghost.

Yet despite its antiquity, the interior of the church has a Victorian feel, helped along by smart tiles laid diagonally, polished wood pews, Victorian stained glass, and gleaming brass wall memorials.

In the chancel there is an unusual C19 organ with hand-painted pipes, made by a Plymouth maker, Helle.

A C13 canopied piscina in the south-east corner of the nave and a C13 stone sedilia under a compound arch bring cheer to those of us whom the poet Larkin, rather mixing his metaphors, dubbed ‘ruin bibbers, randy for antique’.

A C13 stone font has a beautiful carved oak lid. The lid is divided into eight triangular segments each of which has carvings of leaves and berries representing oak, ivy, hops, holly, blackberries, grapes, hazelnuts and wild strawberries.

The hand-lettered guide book tells us the carving is the work of the Rev. Slessor, Rector, 1861-1905. A beautiful piece of work.

The guide book includes an exceptionally clear and detailed plan identifying and dating all the main points of interest in the church. It would be nice to find such a well drawn plan in more church guides.

Web album here.


2 thoughts on “Hampshire churches 6 – St Swithun, Headbourne Worthy

  1. Well observed and recorded, Stephen. I see from the plan that the holy water font is labelled – “a piscina” and wonder how that word, which is modern day Spanish for “Swimming pool” came to be used in such an ancient church.?

  2. In churches, a piscina is a small basin with a drain, usually in a niche near the altar, in which the sacred vessels were washed. The derivation is Latin piscina, in turn from piscis, fish.

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