Never judge a book by its cover.
If you drove past St Nicholas, in the tiny village of Hurst in Berkshire, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a Victorian conversion with all the usual pompous crenelations and preposterous improvements.
Because on the outside, it does look very Victorian. But if you ever find yourselves in this corner of the world, get the church warden to bring a key, and step around it. Inside, there are parts of it that remain as reminders of the 13th century.
Men of power and influence lived in places like this, close to London, and I’ll tell their stories another day; but the walls are covered with their memory; Richard Kippax, a member of Elizabeth’s Star Chamber; the court which was founded to enforce the laws of the land against prominent and powerful people when ordinary courts would never dream of convicting the influential. Thomas Dundas: the commander of the Naiad, the ship which reported the movement of the combined fleet back to Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar. Sir Henry Saville, Queen Elizabeth’s tutor in Greek.
And it has moments of utter splendour, couched in the language of a little village church.
I came to see the hour-glass. The sand timer, which sits by the pulpit, was instigated to limit the time a clergyman could spend preaching to his congregation. Hurst’s vicar would not have been allowed to ramble on, not with important men in the pews. The hour-glass is extravagantly marked with the year of its iron stand: 1636.
BUt the hour glass is a tiny fragment of the story of St Nicholas, told in stone and wood and glorious flamboyant colour, tucked away behind a flint facade.
Gems can be hidden, can’t they? Dusty, or tarnished, lost under a piece of furniture or packed away in an attic.
This church, hidden down a winding road beneath a Victorian cloak of flint, is just such a gem.