Recently I decided to make a trip that I’ve planning for weeks if not months. It was an exploratory visit for a future Hidden Wiltshire project. So I set off on a cold misty day on the 45 minute drive to the very edge of Wiltshire and its borders with Berkshire and Hampshire. In fact it was so close that I couldn’t resist going those extra couple of miles into bandit country. And if you’re bored with my blogs based on churches then I wouldn’t bother reading any further if I were you!
My destination was to be the little village of Ham and its beautifully simple church of All Saints. A place I’ve long wanted to visit having seen the signs to the village countless times from the A338 in the days when I used to commute to Reading. More recently I’ve travelled this way for Hidden Wiltshire en route to Tidcombe and Hippenscombe. My usual route is to drive to Collinbourne Ducis then up and over the beautiful and lonely road across Fairmile Down. I love this road and have cycled it many times, always stopping to enjoy the glorious views across the county and neighbouring Berkshire and Hampshire. But on this day that wasn’t to be.
As I turned left at the crossroads by The Shears Inn near Collingbourne Ducis there were signs in the road announcing that the road would be closed from that very day. Knowing that the alternative would require a long detour I took a chance and ignored the signs, hoping that the roadworks had not yet started. Passing more signs I stubbornly ploughed on. Cresting the hill as the long straight road crosses Fairmile Down, a few hundred metres in front of me were the roadworks – in full swing. Serves me right! So I did a U-turn in the road just as another hapless motorist approached, obviously also disbelieving the signs. But I’m glad I did drive up here. I’d already passed it on the way up but as I was on a mission I didn’t stop. At the side of the road in the adjacent field was the underground reservoir and tree you can see in the photograph. A photograph I would never have made if the roadworks hadn’t been there. The dense mist high up on Cow Down made the slight hump of the reservoir look for all the world like a long barrow with a lone tree planted on top - faint, mysterious and ghostly high above Wiltshire.
Returning to Collingbourne Ducis I continued the long detour along the A338, which runs parallel to the disused Andover to Swindon stretch of the Midland and South West Junction Railway. Turning east then onto a minor road through the village of Shalbourne (somewhere I intend to visit on another occasion) the increasingly narrow lanes led me to Ham. On arriving at any small village I normally head to the church in search of somewhere to park (more of this later) but equally I am mysteriously drawn to the pub! And sure enough there were a few places to park on the road opposite the Crown and Anchor.
It was a bit early for a pint, although throughout my time in Ham the pub did not open at all (I subsequently discovered it doesn’t open on Monday or Tuesday) which is probably just as well. But it looks like a terrific pub so I will definitely return. Meanwhile I followed the signs for the short walk to the church, where it transpired that there were indeed a few more parking spaces.
Now I have a bit of a guilty secret to confess. I’m a huge fan of Andrew Rumsey, the Bishop of Ramsbury. Ham falls within his benefice. I’m not a religious person but I would describe myself as spiritual, and pathetically for a man of my age I might be a bit of a fan boy of Andrew’s. He is one of those ridiculously talented individuals who appears to excel in everything he does. He has written a beautiful book, English Grounds, and is a terrific folk musician - his recent album Evensongs was one of my favourites from 2023. In fact my daughter’s partner bought me a vinyl copy for Christmas (don’t know what he’s after but someone needs to tell him I have no money). Andrew and I have followed each other on Instagram for a couple of years now. I went to see him play live at St Thomas’s church in Salisbury last week. One of the best performances I’ve seen in a very long time. Afterwards I went to say hello. Bearing in mind we had never actually met before he welcomed me like an old friend. I was so bowled over I think I blushed! So apart from all his other talents he’s also a thoroughly nice bloke. Sickening!
Anyway, apart from the obvious, what I hear you say is the connection with All Saints church in Ham? Well Andrew recorded Evensongs in the church on a summer’s day in 2023. In one take! Anyone who knows anything about recording, that is just crazy in this day and age. In a previous life in the early 1980s I was a (mediocre) professional musician, a bass player. Even in those days of fairly rudimentary recording studios we’d never have dreamed of recording an album in one take, let alone in a church with all the attendant acoustic challenges. But it is a truly stunning album which I would urge you to buy if you like English folk music. And if you get a chance to go and see Andrew play live – do. Apart from his haunting voice and beautiful guitar he is a great storyteller and will have you in stitches. And there’s barely any religion involved at all! In fact Andrew is playing a number of dates in Wiltshire at the moment including Keevil Village Hall, Trowbridge, and Marlborough where he is supporting another Wiltshire musician Nick Harper (son of the legendary Roy Harper for those that know him – someone to whom Andrew’s music bears an uncanny resemblance).
Right, enough of the fan boy stuff and back to Ham. When I first arrive at a new church location I like to spend a while just absorbing the atmosphere before getting my camera out. I’d brought a flask a coffee with me so I spent a good half hour or so sitting on one of the chairs in the chancel in front of the altar, just watching the way the light played around the white washed walls, the dark polished furniture and simple memorial plaques. Whilst there is reference to the manor of Ham dating back to a Saxon charter of 931, there would unlikely have been a church there. By the time of the Doomsday survey there was a village with a population of 60 people. Not until 1171 was there a reference to a church. The church was literally built of rubble at first with a roof of thatch. Now the exterior appears crudely rendered in pebble dash with a bit of red brick and flint thrown in for good measure. Above the entrance porch was a first floor window which looked curiously out of place.
Inside the walls show the usual characteristics of the puritans’ whitewashed walls and of the Victorian restorers’ standard fare of encaustic tiled floors. Above the font and below the tower at the western end of the church is the minstrel’s gallery where the church organ still sits. The window above the porch opens into the gallery.
There are a small number of plaques on the walls between the plain glass windows commemorating local dignitaries over the ages. I won’t describe them all but a few of note are:
· The brass, stone and wood memorial to one of the several John Hunts can be found on the north wall of the nave above the manorial pew. This John Hunt lived from 1500-1590. In the church yard next to the porch are three near identical tombs containing three further John Hunts who died in 1719, 1733, and 1754. They clearly weren’t very imaginative in those days, but the Hunt family owned the manor for hundreds of years!
· Above the chairs where I spent a while sipping my coffee, again on the north wall, is an elaborate memorial to Reverend Richard Gillingham who died in 1719, the same year as a John Hunt. Much of the restoration of the church that that took place in the 18th century was funded from bequests by Gillingham and Hunt. You can see who had the money in those days! Look out for the curious wooden finial atop Gillingham’s marble memorial. Perhaps his ecclesiastical stipend ran out before it could be completed?
· Above the door in the south side of the chancel is another simple memorial this one to the Reverend Sumner Smith who died in 1813. I’m not sure what his story is but I liked the name!
As I left the church I went in search of the gravestone of blacksmith Alexander Shearman who died age 79 in 1763. It reads:
My Sledge and Hammer lies reclin’d
My Bellows too have lost their Wind
My fire’s extinct my forge decay’d
And in the dust my Vice is laid
My Coals are spent my Iron’s gone
My Nails are drove my work is done
Unfortunately I don’t have a photograph of it as by this time I realised my camera had developed a fault and would not focus properly. But I did stumble upon this amazing website
The Location Index is a fantastic resource and you will find a photograph of Shearman’s headstone there under Ham. Also in the churchyard is buried Sir Robin Darwin, great-grandson of Charles Darwin.
Before leaving Ham I wanted to explore the wider village a little further. Next to the church and sadly largely hidden from prying eyes by high walls is Manor Farm.
Returning to the village centre, passing a colourful little summer house on the way, next to the pub is Rose Cottage with its jetty overhanging the ground floor.
Beyond is the village green bordered by some very grand houses, including the nearby Old Rectory.
But what I really wanted to see was Ham Spray House, built in the late 19th century by Henry Deacon Woodman who is commemorated in the church. Woodman was the illegitimate son of a Aldbourne farmer, who rose to become the owner of much of the parish by the end of that century. Ham Spray House was later bought by the Bloomsbury Group from a Major Geoffrey Huth in 1924 and Lyton Strachey, Dora Carrington and Ralph and Frances Partridge all lived there. It served as a refuge for the group until 1961. I hadn’t realised until I got a phone signal that the house was about 1.5 miles along the road to Inkpen so I returned to the car and drove.
Unfortunately Ham Spray House is at the end of a long avenue which is not accessible to the public. It is only possible to catch a glimpse of it from the road. However I believe it can be seen from the Inkpen Hill high above to the south, or perhaps from the Mid Wilts Way in the valley closer to the south. But this will be for another day.
Having come this far I thought I would venture over the border into Berkshire to see the church in Inkpen. As is my usual habit I drove straight to the church to see if I could find a place to park whilst I paid a quick visit. On this occasion my strategy proved to be fruitless. I returned down the hill driving towards the village but there was quite literally nowhere to stop. It was getting late and I was running out of options so I returned to a little pull-in by a farm gate opposite the church. Luckily my car is very small so I had just about enough room to squeeze it in the gap and off the narrow road. I prayed that the farmer wouldn’t need access to the field for 15 minutes and went up the steep hill to the church.
I’ve long wanted to visit St Michael’s Church but before you even reach it the scene is dominated by the late 17th century Inkpen House, the former rectory possibly built by Dr Colwell Brickenden who succeeded his father as Rector in 1703 and who in 1710 was made Master of Pembroke College, Oxford. It supposedly has lovely extensive gardens, a miniature Versailles, but none of this is visible to the public (unless there are Open Days of which I am unaware).
Passing through the church gate the contrast between All Saints and St Michael’s is stark. This church is much smaller with a squat tower with fish scale tiles that glowed orange in the gloomy late afternoon light.
Once inside this 13th century church the contrast is even more striking. The plain whitewashed walls of All Saints are replaced by colourful friezes over bare stone walls, and ornate woodwork including the carved rood screen, all the work of the zealous Victorian restorers.
But I won’t write any more about Inkpen in case the Internet police scold me about it not being in Wiltshire! Nevertheless I would thoroughly recommend a visit. Perhaps on foot.
In conclusion this is a particularly beautiful part of Wiltshire to which I will return often. However, I was left with an observation that dogged me throughout the day. That is the sheer number of large country houses that appeared to be uninhabited – curtains, blinds or shutters drawn, bristling with intruder alarms and some with CCTV. Then it occurred to me that Hungerford and its train station on the line to Paddington is only four miles away. So I assumed these were all weekend homes belonging to some very wealthy Londoners. I then recalled that a wealthy friend of mine used to have a weekend home in nearby Kintbury, his main home being in Hampstead. But with a holiday home in southwest France myself, who am I to judge?