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Thursday 22 August 2013

Three interesting church buildings on the Isle of Wight: an old church, a newer church and a church that isn't a church

Being a woodcarver with an interest in old buildings, I naturally like to pop my head through the door of churches when passing by to see if there are any interesting carvings or architectural features to be seen.

The Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, has many old churches but these three were particularly interesting, as I hope you'll agree.

St Mary the Virgin in Brading

This church is the oldest of the three, and the site is thought to be an ancient place of worship going back to at least 680 AD. The nave of the present church dates to 1180 AD.

The tower is interesting, as it is built on four supports (piers) in front of the entrance doorway and is one of only four churches in Britain to have that arrangement. The access to the tower is via wooden steps next to the entrance door.

The most interesting things inside, for me, were the carved wood and stone memorials on the tombs. One of the chapels is called the Oglander chapel and houses the tombs of members of the Oglander family, who were  the local gentry for 800 years from 1160 and lived at nearby Nunwell. Here are some of their memorials:

This tomb commemorates Sir Oliver Oglander and dates to 1536.  It shows his family (with him on the right kneeling) and would originally have been painted to look more realistic. It still shows remnants of the original paintwork in nooks and crannies of the carving.

These two carved and painted oak figures commemorate Sir John Oglander, who died in 1655 aged 70, and his son George who has the small effigy in the alcove above. The armour represents that of the 14th Century so was well out of date by the seventeenth century. The crossed legs were thought, in that time, to indicate a knight who had been a crusader. Sir John was obviously quite a romantic and saw himself as a crusading knight.

Image from

He was a staunch supporter of Charles I and tried to help him when the king was imprisoned at Carisbrooke castle on the island, even to the point where friends had to warn him off before he got into serious trouble. He was also a keen diarist and would, at times of high emotion, write entries in his own blood. It seems appropriate that would have his memorial looking the way that it does.

This oak effigy represents Wlliam Oglander, the father of John. He died in about 1609 and his son had this memorial put on his stone tomb.

This very grand tomb houses the remains of Henry Oglander, who died in 1874. It was designed in 1897 in the Arts and Crafts Jacobean style by J C Powell. Henry Pegson carved the two small angels at the front.

In another part of the church is the memorial to Elizabeth Rollo, who died in 1875. It is very Victorian and very melancholy (which suits something as sad as the death of a child I suppose), and is beautifully carved in white marble.

St Agnes in Freshwater Bay

This is the only thatched church on the island and was built is 1908 to designs by Isaac Jones. The land was donated by Hallam who was the son of Alfred, Lord Tennyson the famous poet.

There is a date stone on the vestry wall saying 1622, but this came from a derelict farmhouse nearby on Hooke Hill. Stone from the ruin was used to build this church.

I couldn't stay long here unfortunately, as some people were rehearsing for a wedding that day. A shame, as there were some very nice-looking Edwardian carvings on the rood screen. The whole building had a 'cosy' feel to it, in pleasant contrast to some churches that can feel very cold and austere, with stone tombs of the wealthy dead lining their walls.

St Helens near St Helens Duver

The church was built in the early 12th century and this tower dates to about 1220. In 1703, the church ceased to be used and the tower was bricked up. It is now a seamark, with a white-painted brick wall the height of the old tower facing seawards to give a marker for ships.

The sea off the village of St Helens is important for shipping, with the large commercial and naval port of Portsmouth almost within sight of this old tower. Lord Nelson stepped onto the deck of HMS Victory offshore from here, on the St Helens Roads, to sail to the Battle of Trafalgar. So where did the rest of the church go?

All over the world. Sailors would take pieces of the ruin (called 'Holy Stones') to rub down the wooden decks of their vessels to clean them. Maybe they also thought that these stones would bring them luck on their voyages. 

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