The Cotswold villages have a unique charm with their attractive honey-coloured limestone cottages, clustered together around fine churches. They make for an ever-popular tourist destination and a photographer’s dream.
In the summer season the famous villages, like Bibury (above), will be crowded with tourists. This time I’m visiting the quiet village of Elkstone with its 900 year-old parish church, high up on the wolds, well off the main tourist routes.
This tumulus near Hailer’s Wood is less than a mile from Elkstone. Pre-history goes back a long way here. But ‘Rome was here‘ too.
“On Cotswold edge there is a field and thatFrom ‘Up There’ by Ivor Gurney
Grows thick with corn and speedwell and the mat
Of thistles, of the tall kind; Rome lived here
………….As now the single kite hovering still
By the coppice there, level with the flat of the hill.”
The nearby Roman town of Cirencester (Cirinium Dubonnorum) was the second largest in Britain after Londinium. It was surrounded by a number of villas including the famous Chedworth Villa. Today Cirencester is the largest town in the Cotswolds.
Cotswold Village Churches
In the medieval period the winds up here blew over the close-bitten grass -this area was full of sheep. The profitable wool trade enabled the more wealthy to build the famed wool churches, as at Northleach not far away. The Cotswold limestone is especially good for decorative architecture. ‘The unique stones glow with ‘the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them.’ (J.B.Priestly)
Elkstone church is full of medieval carving. It’s also famed for its beautiful Norman chancel arches and for the natural amber light that shines into the sanctuary from side windows, Built in 1160 it’s the highest church in the Cotswolds and the village is mentioned in the Domesday book. Some of my roots are here. My mother grew up in this village, where her father was the rector (vicar) of the parish.
“Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.Malcolm Guite
….Open your eyes. This empty church is full,
Thronging with life and light your eyes have missed.“
This empty church is full
As we close the ancient church door behind us we find ourselves standing in a sacred stillness. There is a deep sense of peace here surrounded by the silence of 900 years. Centuries of praise and prayer have left their mark in this place. People have come here to seek God, to worship him, give thanks, and pray for themselves and others. This place is full of memories, of answered prayers, of blessings received and help given in time of need. We can sense also the faithful service that has been given to keep this church going. Quiet folk maintaining the fabric of the building, tending to the flowers, cleaning the church, caring for the sick of the parish, teaching the children. The crowds were never here. This humble place was set to serve the few in this remote village high on the quiet wolds, a small outpost of God’s Kingdom – and it still does.
There are thousands of places like this of which the same could be said. A ‘patchwork of little parishes and quiet shires‘ throughout England. Each one maintaining ‘rumours of God’, reminders of the Christian faith in an increasingly secular age. We need places like this. They can open the door into the Kingdom of God that seems, for modern minds, far off, yet which is near and to which, through Christ, admission is free.
The Village School
Life was spartan up here. But it did have a small village school. It seems to have been a world away from Laurie Lee’s rumbustious school in the Slad valley, just a few miles south of here. My mother spoke well of her school in Elkstone and its school teacher. Here, and in the quiet Cotswold lanes around, she learned to love the countryside and its wildlife and gain a wide knowledge of wild flowers.
The school here has gone. But it’s good to see that Elkstone is alive and well and that the church continues to be very much part of the community. ‘Small is still beautiful’ in this humble Cotswold Village!