How Old is our Church

No 7: Sarsen Stones a natural deposit

Fred Payne’s discovery of four large sarsen stones, apparently stacked one on the other, together with the digger driver’s memory of what sounded like a stone circle with a fire in the middle, all seemed to be exciting evidence of a pre-Christian religious activity at Church Knoll.

Sarsens at Church Knoll

In 1989, the present owner of Church Knoll built an extension to the east of the house and the foundation trenches revealed some 16 large sarsens. However, there was no evidence whatsoever that they had been touched by man. There was no bone, pottery or any other man-made artefact, no sign of post holes or foundations and all the stones lay flat with no stacking or shape. There was evidence of a disused well of unknown depth or date but this would probably have belonged to the school established there in 1746. In short, it was clear that the sarsen stones were a natural deposit on the site.

I belatedly came across a book, ‘Megaliths, Myths and Men’ (1976), by Peter Lancaster Brown, in which he recounts his own excited investigation of the site and how he so nearly jumped to the wrong conclusions. In 1974, he was invited to see the Griffith-Jones excavations in progress and he too thought the blackened stones were evidence of a fire, but a closer look revealed stains of organic leaf mould.

I got in touch with Professor A.S. Goudie at the School of Geography at Oxford, who was involved in the Geological survey of Britain and has written about sarsen stones in the south of England. He explained that the stones are found naturally in the Reading beds on the hilltops and could have been left behind when melting glaciers washed away the clays to form the Chiltern valleys. The stones could also have slid downhill at the end of the ice age as the top layer of permafrost melted to form an ice slide, a process known as solifluxion. A very shallow slope would have been sufficient and the resulting heap of stones would have remained as the water continued to erode the valley below it to form the knoll.

We must therefore accept that no evidence has been found of pre-Christian religious activity on or around Church Knoll. However, the focus of so many roads and footpaths on a large area of common land in the centre of the parish is likely to be a very old pattern, much older than Christianity. Presumably some sarsen stones were always visible on the surface and my own hunch, and it is no more than that, is that it would be surprising if such an evocative place was not recognised and used by our forbears.

© Miles Green, February 1997

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No 8: Minster priests; reasons for moving the church uphill.

A simple wooden church may reasonably be supposed to have stood on Church Knoll for at least a century or two before the Conquest. Christianity returned to England with St Augustine’s arrival in 597 and by 643 Birinus was appointed the first bishop of Dorchester and local tradition has him baptising converts in Bapsey Pond, Taplow.

F or the next two or three hundred years, religious life was focused in the monasteries or minsters which were often richly endowed with land and linked to adjacent royal estates. An important minster at Cookham is documented from the early 8th C and its ‘parish’ may well have covered the royal estate centred at Burnham which, I have proposed elsewhere, included Penn.

There were no local priests and it was the minster priests that went out visiting outlying areas, often performing their duties in the open air or in a wooden church. It was only when the large royal estates started to be broken up, to reward royal thanes, mostly from the 10th C onwards, that local manorial churches started to appear. Local churches were of different status, some with an attendant priest and graveyard and some without either. Tithes and taxes such as plough alms, churchscot and soulscot (burial fees), were a valuable asset and so were often a source of contention between the old minsters and new lords. Local graveyards were not always permitted at first despite inconvenience to far flung parishes.

No burials have been found at Church Knoll. Deadmans Dene, on the northern border of the parish, where an Anglo-Saxon warrior burial was found in 1828, is a possible early burial site and the field name ‘Bonescroft’ under part of Wheeler Avenue and the Middle School is suggestive, although the area lies firmly across the old parish border in Tylers Green.

The move of the church up to its present site probably took place in the century or so after the Conquest and there are a number of possible explanations that fit the events of the time :-

— It may have been part of a community agricultural reorganisation which introduced the rotating open field system and required the concentration of a previously dispersed population.

— It may have been a response to campaigns by several early Bishops of Lincoln to stamp out superstitious and pagan practices associated with particular places. Wycombe is specifically mentioned during St Hugh’s tenure (1186-1200).

— It may have arisen in the same kind of way as when a Lincolnshire landowner, in c1180, left a wooden church to a Priory on condition that a new church be built on 3 acres of land next to the road which he also bequeathed, requiring, that the bodies be moved from the old graveyard to the new.

— Or perhaps it was simply that when the fashion for stone churches arrived, around the time of Conquest (see part 3), the present site was considered more convenient or appropriate.

© Miles Green, April 1997

Articles continue with: Our Church in the Middle Ages

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