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Long before Christianity ever came to England our forebears showed their reverence for water, and it is not hard to imagine the awe in which they would have held the powerful, silent surge that we later came to know as Upwey's Wishing Well. How natural, then, that in pagan times the whole adjoining area should have been thought holy and that, with the coming of Christianity to this part of Dorset, a chapel should have been built upon it ‑ no doubt at first a wooden one, to be replaced at some time after the Norman Conquest of AD 1066 by a stone structure.
We do not know exactly how long a Church has stood on this site, but there is documentary evidence dating from 1201 relating to a Richard Burgis, chaplain to the Bishop of Sarum, and an Alan de Bayeux to St Laurence of Wey. In 1243 a little Chantry was founded by John Bayous, son of Alan, whose family name was derived from the Norman Bayeux ‑ famed for its Tapestry of William the Conqueror.
You may easily look at a typical village Church like St. Laurence's and think it the end product of centuries of undisturbed tranquillity. When you have looked round here you will know how little truth there is in that idea.
The recorded list of priests of the Parish begins with John Wydeston in 1267. Only 80 years later the epidemic of bubonic plague which we call the Black Death arrived in England through Weymouth: the Upwey priest was one of the first to be struck down.
Only a short piece of wall remains to show us quite clearly that there was a Church here in the 13th 14th centuries, but because of plastering it can only be seen outside.
If you go outside and turn left and left again to the angle made by the tower with the back of the Church, you can just see that 4 feet (1.25m) to the right of the window there is a rough vertical join in the stonework. To the right of that join is the earlier wall. This section of wall is in line with the four arches and would have been deliberately left standing when they were inserted about 1500 AD to enlarge the Church by the addition of the north aisle.
Like the greater part of the walls of the Church it is of Upwey stone. There is a quarry of good building stone (not unlike a Portland stone) only a bowshot from the Church itself.
It is the enlargement of the Church of the late 15th to early 16th century that provides us with work of real interest to study. If you stand in the Church facing the East Window, all the stonework on your left is of this enlargement in the Perpendicular style which took place some 500 years ago probably about AD 1490 1520 when the Wars of the Roses had come to an end.
You entered the Church through a fine Porch of the same period with a shapely outer doorway and with the space that was needed in the days when the first part of the marriage and baptism services took place in the porch itself. Its roof of rough stone slabs is well worth another look, and there is an amusing water spouting Gargoyle just above it on the left with a boy holding open a wolf's mouth.
Then you walked through the doorway with the original iron studded 500 year old door of oak planks on one side and elm on the other, complete with its fine strap hinges. At the doorway you passed through the North Wall with the painted text to which we will return in a moment. Then you passed under one of the arches of the Arcade. They are of fine quality and their simple style does much to give its character to the Church. The capitals with their carvings of stems and leaves are in Ham Hill stone, brought 20 miles from West of Yeovil for the purpose. One unusual capital is on the pillar nearest to the tower. The stems come out of the mouth of a carved face. This is the pre Christian Green Man, or Jack in the green, familiar to us in many an inn sign.
We are so completely accustomed to churches with bare or plain painted stone walls that walls almost wholly covered in painted decoration seem to us most unusual. Surviving touches of paint in St. Laurence's tell us that most of the surface of the oldest walls once showed patterns or pictures, while the columns of the arcade are believed to have been blue and gold.
Although through all the rough patches of our Church's history most of these painted surfaces have been destroyed, or covered over, we are lucky that those which have survived are of historical interest. Nor are they quite the only ones that remain. We know that there are good traces round the Northern arches of the nave of a painted border probably about three hundred years old. Those traces are now hidden, but if you look up on your left you will notice that two of the spaces between the arches ‑ the spandrels ‑ have painted Tudor Roses against a simple background of leaves. These were in part seen by the Victorian rector of 1891, and his report on the improvements of that year gave enough of a clue to enable their re discovery under old wall paint, and even under inch thick plaster, when expert conservators from Webb and Kempf of Ilminster searched for them in 1988. They were further restored in 2006. Perhaps we shall never solve the mystery of why the Roses were painted there ‑ a rarity in a village church, but we do have some fascinating clues, especially as the building of the arcade itself is thought to date 1480 1520 AD.
In 1471, Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of the Lancastrian King Henry VI, landed at Weymouth and was given hospitality at St Laurence's before intending to journey on to Beaulieu Abbey. However, she went to Cerne Abbas instead and ultimately to exile in France following the defeat of the Lancastrians by the Yorkists under Richard III.
In due course, Henry Tudor (of Lancaster) ‑ the red rose ‑ defeated his arch rival Richard III, who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 AD. (It is the latter who Shakespeare has crying out "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" before he is cut down.) With the ardent encouragement of Cardinal Morton, his new Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry VII then married Richard's niece Elizabeth of York the white rose ‑ in 1486, and the Tudor Rose mixing red and white petals was established to help to end the animosities of the Wars of the Roses.
So, with the arcade dated to 1480 1520 AD and the Tudor Rose to some time after 1486 AD, we can be reasonably sure that St Laurence's Tudor Roses were part of the arcade's original decoration, painted as soon as it was built. We also know that Cardinal Morton was born at Milborne St. Andrew and educated at Cerne Abbey, both a mere 12 miles from Upwey, and had been a strong supporter of Margaret of Anjou. He had probably met her at St. Laurence's when she paused for refreshment on her return to England, and then escorted her to Cerne as she continued her interrupted journey. So it may well be thanks to Archbishop Morton that we have our lovely Tudor roses. Perhaps we shall never know.
Now look through the arches at the battered painted text upon the wall to the right, east of the porch. Here too there is work born of England's strife.
The bottom right hand corner carries lettering too damaged for us to know whether it is Latin or English. Like the Roses it may date to the building of the wall itself. The top left hand corner of the paintwork is another matter; it gives a text drawn from three verses of the Book of Proverbs (chapter 24, v 20 22), in the Authorised Version of the Bible of 1611 AD.
20 There shall be no reward to the evil man: the candle of the wicked shall be put out.
21 My son fear thou the Lord and the King: and meddle not with them that are given to change.
22 For their calamity shall rise suddenly: and who knoweth the ruin of them both?
It is the middle verse that tells us that we are pitched into politics once again and seemingly at a time when King Charles I was faced with the turmoil of the Civil War, and was desperate for the support of his countrymen. Upwey was in an area where both sides were strongly supported. War broke upon England and the defeated King was executed.
The triumphant followers of Parliament and the Commonwealth revelled in the destruction of much that was magnificent in craftsmanship ‑ not least the old stained glass ‑ and of course those verses about the King had to go. The passage with words about him was gouged off the wall and the rest of the offending work was painted over.
Then, when England tired of the austerities of the Commonwealth, the King's son was called from Holland to reign in our country as Charles ll. He earned the affectionate title of the Merry Monarch.
The original text from the Book of Proverbs was painted on the wall once more, some of it necessarily on a thick new layer of plaster, and all in a slightly larger script than before. One can just imagine the laughing delight of the old men who had hated the earlier destruction and could now revel in the restoration, once again fearing their Lord and their King as the text commands.
Turn now to the tower. The tower arch has tre foil headed panels, each of which would have held a painting of a saint. Such arches are a notable feature in Dorset.
The font is mediaeval but has been so thoroughly re cut and tidied up that it has lost quality. In the early Middle Ages, Baptismal Rights were given to a Church, and when the font was replaced, it was often kept in the Church. At St Laurence's, the builders of the time guaranteed its survival by using it as a pedestal for one of the pillars, where it can still be seen at the base of the rear pillar of the North Aisle.
Look through the panelled arch to the West Window in the tower. Like the capitals, it is worked in Ham Hill stone. The little pieces of yellowish glass are all that survive in their original place. The greenish glass above is a replacement put in perhaps when the glass smashing left the Church too airy for comfort.
The tower houses the belfry which carries 6 bells. The 3rd and 4th by George Purdue are of 1617 (re cast 1912). The 5th is by James Smith 1767 with the legend "soli Deo detur gloria" (To God alone be glory given). The 6th is also 18th century by William Knight (re cast 1912). The other 2 bells were added in 1912, the 1st being given by the Sprague family in the United States, and the 2nd by the family of the Rev. Canon W. Gildea the: rector of St. Laurence's on the occasion of his golden wedding. The Church Wardens' accounts for 1802 show "Paid for Bell Ropes £1. 9. 2." (£1.46)
Against the inner wall of the tower a gallery was built in the 17th century with painted inscription "ex dono Mri Nicol Gould AD 1685". Under the Green Man you can see how part of a column was chopped away for the stairs. Galleries were later built against both the North and South arcades; all three were taken down in 1891.
The first organ was installed in the 1685 gallery, no doubt ousting the village minstrels. In 1891 this organ was moved to the South Aisle. Four years later it was replaced by the present organ, which has two manuals and was built by William Sweetland of Bath at a cost of £250. Dedicated in September 1895, it was moved 11 years later to its present position in the new organ chamber
Ray Pinwell, evacuated to Upwey from London for safety at the beginning of World War II, remembers being the organ blower when a boy in the 1940's. For his services in pumping air for the playing of the organ he was paid £1 per quarter He says he particularly loved weddings and funerals for which he received an additional shilling (5p).
Now turn still further to face the South Arcade, which matches the arcade you were looking at before. Matching is the right word, for the arches and the wall beyond them were built in 1838, and were a deliberate copy. The instructions were to erect an aisle "on the South side to correspond with the aisle at present existing on the North side of the said Church". Amusingly enough the pagan Green Man was not copied.
The finely carved Royal Coat of Arms is Queen Victoria's.
Next look above those arches, on both sides of the Church, and you see four windows each side forming a Clerestory. Of course adding those windows and raising the roof cost money. There is something distinctly modern in the decision of the Vestry Meeting of 1841 "that for the purpose of defraying the necessary expenses the old lead should be sold and the new roof covered with slate".
St. Laurence's came almost unscathed through its Victorian "restoration". The three galleries were removed. The deal box pews, which had given cramped privacy to families, were taken out and replaced by the fine oak pews we have now, on one of which a carpenter pencilled "E.Mayo and B. Cobb 13 July 1891".
What was to prove the most vital of the work carried out under the Faculty (authorisation) of the 5th February 1891 was the result of a Vestry Meeting decision that there was "at times a sickly unhealthy smell from the floor". Five burial vaults were filled in and the whole floor was, as we should now say, concreted over to provide a solid base for the wood blocks under the new seating and the re laid stone paving in the passages between. This work meant that the foundations of the Church stood firm when the crisis came over half a century later: and it was dramatic indeed.
On 18th July 1955 Upwey had light rain, but over Blackdown (Hardy's Monument) the rain was torrential. The water heading for Upwey swept along the valley and the flood charged right into the church. You can see the level the water reached if you look at the pews. The bottom 10 inches (25 cm) or so are a little paler than the rest because the silt and water inside the church lightened the polished wood.
In our day we have brought back some colour into an attractive though rather austere setting with the introduction since 1985 of hassocks worked in a variety of colours and designs chosen by the embroiderers.
Turn now to face the East Window. The hole in the wall from the North Aisle to the Chancel is a squint (or hagioscope ‑ "for seeing holy things"). This enabled the mediaeval congregation in the new North Aisle to see the Holy table.
The 17th century pulpit used to be on a higher base; but it was moved across the church and given its stone base in 1891, while retaining the old carving with a strapwork frieze and enriched cornice. The three carved figures on the wall of the church may well have been the lower part of the former pulpit: but there is a possibility that they were merely bought in Bath by an early 19th century member of the Gould family. The estimated cost of all the work of 1891 was £950.
Beyond the pulpit the whole of the Chancel as well as the vestry and organ chamber were built in 1906 to replace a slightly smaller chancel which had become in a "dangerous condition", so bad in fact that good furniture was moved out in case of accident. The stone used came from the quarry on the Bincombe side of the so called Roman road.
The glass in the East Window above the Holy Table is noteworthy. The three panels of it were given by the Rev. George Gould of Fleet (whose memorial is on the wall nearby) in 1840, the greater part of the glass being of that date. Round the edges of the two side panels the broken pieces of glass were obviously important and may be all that is left of the Church's original stained glass, smashed some three hundred years ago during the Parliamentary period after the Civil War. The sepia engravings in the centre panel are of 17th century glass of German and Flemish origin; the lowest picture is regarded as being of high quality. The largest one is a copy of a Durer work. All this was re used in the 1906 re building, and even the window to the left of the Holy Table was moved there from the South aisle as part of a general post of windows.