My first encounter with Down Ampney was as a schooolboy at Nantwich and Acton Grammar School in the mid-to-late 60s when, for what passed as entertainment in those days, we were obliged to sing our way through "Hymns Ancient and Modern" from start to finish. One of the tunes was called "Down Ampney", which of course meant nothing to us at the time, although we did note that the music had been written by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who seemed to write the music to all of the hymns in those days.
One thing that it did do was to lead to the world's second-oldest joke (the world's oldest joke can be found on this page)
"How do you get down off an Ampney?"
"I don't know. How do you get down off an Ampney?"
"You don't. You get down off a duck".
It was in the mid-1970s when I first realised that it was in fact the name of a village. Driving along the A417 on my way to a rock festival at Swindon, I noticed a signpost. I resolved that one day I would go along to visit it to see what all the fuss was about, but despite 30 years and more of being a fairly regular traveller along that road either as a coach holiday tour driver, van driver, or visiting Sue in Swindon, I never managed to find the time.
Until July 2008 that is, when I found myself sleeping in a layby the locality, and I woke up earlier than expected in the morning.
So we can see why Vaughan Williams had an affection for Down Ampney. It was his birthplace back in the 1870s. And I supposed that the prominence of the sign giving details of his birth and death indicated that there wasn't an awful lot of anything else to write home about from here.
There are in fact 4 Ampneys around here - Ampney St. Peter, Ampney St. Mary, Ampney Crucis and Down Ampney. And it seems that Down Ampney is a place that you either love or hate. One person described it as "the most charming of the many Ampney villages in the Upper Thames Cotswold countryside". Another person dismissed it as having a "higher percentage of modern houses than those from the 19th Century or earlier, stating furthermore that there were "no shops, amenities or even a centre". I must admit that my tendencies veered toward the latter. I couldn't really see anything at first glance to distinguish it from any other Cotswold village.
On entering the village the first thing that you encounter is not a cross (more about that later) but in fact a signpost indicating that the village is straight on, but that the church is to the right.
This tells you one of two things about the village - either the inhabitants moved away from the old village centred around the church as a result of some natural catastrophe such as the Black Death, or there was a wicked local baron or something living in a manor house near to the church who didn't like the hovels of the village spoiling his view out of his window.
The nearby Ampney St Mary was a plague village. The inhabitants abandoned the village around the church during the Black Death and moved to the nearby hamlet of Ashbrook.
Well, I was right about the Manor House, or Down Ampney House as it is called, sitting here in splendour next to the parish church. It's said however that it was built in the 15th Century (i.e. after the Black Death) by members of the Hungerford family who were major landowners around here at the time.
The house was considerable altered by Sir John Soane, the late Georgian architect who designed inter alia the Bank of England and the dining room at 10 Downing Street (or Drowning Street, as it has come to be known just recently). This was towards the end of the era when many country houses underwent major alteration that there were many forced removals of the local peasantry so that they didn't encroach upon the view of the Lord of the Manor.
These days there is said to be an annual art exhibition at the property.
Well, there's certainly a very impressive church here. And a big stone wall cutting it off from the garden of the Manor House next door. The Lord of the Manor probably had his own private entrance and pews in the church, so as not to mix with the hoi polloi. It's quite usual to find the church next to the manor house in villages such as this. It has been suggested that this isn't simply a case of the Lord of the manor wanting to keep control over the church, but is something that goes back even farther in time.
Most villages of the UK today were pretty much established by Saxon times, and it was during the Saxon era that the conversion of the population to Christianity began. Urban areas were the first to take it up, and the term pagan had its origins in the contemporary word for the dweller in a rural environment - the same root in fact as the French word paysan. As Christianity spread into the rural environment, it would have been to the "Lord" of the manor (such as the manor would have been in Saxon England at the time) to whom the monk or missionary would have made his first approach, and who would have been amongst the first to have been converted.
The "Lord" would have been the one to have provided the facility for the monk or missionary to create a place of worship, and so even though the present church and manor house might date from a much later period, the suggestion is of something much, much earlier in villages such as this.
With there being an Ampney St. Peter and an Ampney St. Mary, this church trumps them all by being dedicated to All Saints. It's graveyard is nice and tidy, but only to be expected given the touristy nature of the area around here. Everywhere looks neatly manicured. But you have to admit that neatly manicured or not, it is a pretty amazing churchyard with a superb hedge at the back. All Saints Church is said to be famous for its yew hedge.
But then again this churchyard ought to be something special because this church has quite a history behind it and dates back 750 years to the time of the later crusades.
The crusades in early medaieval days promoted in Europe a tidal wave of church building of most magnificent proportions, fuelled by wealth the source of which has been subject to much speculation. This filtered its way into the Cotswolds and in the mid-13th Century the Knights Templar, the guardians of the Way to Jerusalem, erected this church in the Early English style and All Saints was consecrated in 1265. In 1315 after the suppression of the Templars, the church passed to the gift of the Abbey of Cirencester. After the Reformation, it became the gift of Christ Church College, the current patron.
The church tower is original (which is more than can be said for much Early English architecture, ruthlessly destroyed in "renovations" of the most appalling bad taste by many Victorian rectors) but the spire with its gilded weathercock was added a short time later.
The first thing to track down here in the graveyard is a gravestone to the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams, who died in 1875. He was the father of Ralph and was vicar at the parish at the time of the birth of the latter, in the vicarage as it happens, in 1872.
The death of Vaughan Williams pater obliged the family to move away to live with the family of his mother, the Wedgwoods of pottery fame. Today, the vicar of All Saints is a woman. Is nothing sacred these days?
Amongst the other gravestones in the churchyard is this one, quite clearly in the style of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and designed by a committee of artists led by Mr D.S. MacColl, Keeper of the Wallace Collection and Sir Charles Holmes, Director of the National Gallery, with a font designed by Mr Macdonald Gill, a caligrapher and architect better known for his work on the London Underground maps and in the House of Commons.
The grave is the last resting place of Private G Margetts, aged 20 and of the Wiltshire Regiment. It's the only other war grave here so it's unlikely that there was any kind of hospital for the war wounded in the vicinity, so it would be most likely that he was a resident from around here and was convalescing at home when he died.
As an aside, you will notice quite a few assumptions about the area in my meandering prose. If you would care to correct anything I write, give me more information, or just generally have a chat, then please feel free to . I like to interact with my audience.
This was a peculiar collection of artefacts laid out behind the church - well worthy of further inspection so I wandered over to have a butcher's. Just outside the village was an airfield of World War II vintage, and All Saints was the parish church for the airmen (and women) who served there during the war. Although I couldn't find any graves of serving personnel, many former personnel are remembered here, so I suppose it's something like a virtual meeting point for former comrades
And why this particular window? The window is actually modern stained glass and features an aeroplane of World War II vintage - a Dakota (A Douglas DC3) if I'm not mistaken. It is in honour of the soldiers who fought and died at Arnhem, a "bridge too far" across the Rhine in September 1944, many of whom flew to their destiny out of the airfield here.
You can't walk into the church and not be immediately drawn to the exhibition commemorating the life of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Of course, his major claim to fame as far as most people are concerned is as a composer of music for an endless stream of hymns that were pounded into the thick skulls of several generations of intransigent schoolboys, yours truly not excluded.
He was also the composer of many works of classical music. Now as far as classical music goes from my point of view, much of it is bad, most of the rest is appalling, and almost all of it is over-rated. Yet very occasionally there is a piece of classical music that is distinguised by its brilliance, and Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica, based on the score for the film Scott of the Antartic, has always been a particular favourite of mine.
He was also famous for his travels around the country at the turn of the 20th Century collecting the traditional rural folk songs that were fast disappearing, and writing them down for posterity. Many of his classical compositions contain extracts from these rural folk songs.
More interestingly from my point of view, at the age of 66 he began an affair with a poetess aged 27 and married her at the age of 81 after the death of their respective spouses. There is hope for me yet.
Something else that you can't really miss is here in the chapel in the south transept. It's the effigy of Sir Nicholas de Valers, or Villiers as the family went on to be called. He was instrumental in the building of the church and was one of the knights who set off to fight in the Last Crusade (although not quite the Last Crusade, as the bushbaby is fighting by his own admission a crusade against Muslims, aided and abetted by the B liar and now Gordon Clown).
Alongside his effigy is the effigy of the Lady Margaret de Valers. One account describes her as his wife - another as his daughter. She could be both. You never know. Some strange things about family life are recorded in early Medaieval England.
The inside of the church looks very nice, simple and clean. A pleasant change from other over-elaborate churches that can be encountered on one's travels.
If you look at the bases of the pillars you will see that there are two different types - round and square ones. The square ones are said to be Norman pillars - and that has me confused. The church was built in the mid-13th Century and that puts it in the early medaieval period. Norman architecture was the kind of architecture that followed the Norman Conquest of 1066 and had effectively died out by the 13th Century. Are they implying that there was an earlier church from the Norman period here on the site?
If this is indeed the case, then pillars of different epochs on each aisle in the nave would be nothing unusual. Originally, the nave would have been just the part between the pillars, and where the pillars are now would have been the outside wall. But as the population grew in the early Middle Ages, it would have been necessary to enlarge the church to fit everyone in. Widening the nave was quite a usual method of enlargement, and it's quite likely that the sides would be widened at different epochs to reflect the steady growth of population over the period.
You can see that there is a good deal of decent woodwork inside the church. Much of this was donated by the Gibbs family, who rented the next-door Manor House from Lord Eliot towards the end of the 18th century. The family donated over £10,000 to the church, a fortune in those days. Much of that money was spent on the woodwork.
The screen however is something else entirely. It's an oak screen dating from the Jacobean period. But what makes it interesting is that it is said to include part of the musicians' gallery from "the great church in nearby Cirencester". Whether by that they mean the old Cirencester Abbey Church (demolished after the reformation), or a discarded part of the magnificent Church of St John the Baptist, left over from one if its many restorations, is not clear. Nevertheless, it was said to have been found in a yard somewhere in the vicinity.
But in general, I like the comparative simplicity of this church. Jesus said "give all thou hast to the poor" and although it has been taken out of its literal context on so many occasions, nevertheless it's somehow offensive to see some churches stuffed full of priceless icons when there are so many people starving. Back in the late 1980s, one church in Bruges spent more on the security to guard its Michaelangelo statue than it gave in alms to the poor.
This barn is a good example of a structural engineer's nightmare. At the enquiry into the collapse of the original Tay Bridge, it was stated that of the 10518 tons of iron used in the construction, only 413 tons represented bracing, and that it was insufficient to withstand the effects of an intense gust of wind.
Looking at this bar, one can say that they have had a similar problen here - some of the struts have folded up under pressure. One can only reiterate the comments of Barlow and Yolland, two of the examiners, that "... a great increase of strength might have been given to the cross bracing, on which so much depends in resisting wind pressure ..."
This is the old road that runs past the church - from here on it becomes a bridle path. One can easily imagine it being the main road to Swindon back in the days when the village clustered around here.
The fields across the road could well be the likely site of the old abandoned village. Not that it would be so easy to tell these days because houses in early medaieval times were not the solid constructions that they later became as the weather cooled down during the mini ice age. There was even a law report containing allegations that someone had destroyed the fabric of someone else's house with his bare hands.
I couldn't uncover any information about the village cross here, except that it was restored in 1578, and again in the 19th century by the owners of the manor house.
I've no idea about its significance, so please if you have any suggestions.
Meanwhile, back in the village, it seems to be a hive of activity these days. There's a part-time village shop run by the villagers themselves, a part-time post office, a village hall, youth groups and the like. There's even two local bus services. Things are looking up for Down Ampney.