St James the Great Church

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This is a tiny church in a small village just off the A38 to the south of Tewkesbury. Blink and you will miss it.

From the outside it looks a small, rather insignificant white painted building with nave and chancel and a small bell cote with a golden cockerel weather vane. It isn’t on the tourist route and gets few visitors which is a shame as it has wall paintings dating from 1200 to 1723.

It was built about 1160 as a chapel for the Lord of the Manor. Dedicated to St James the Great, it was regularly visited by pilgrims travelling from the north or from Wales to Compostella in Spain. There is a reference on the web to incised pilgrim’s crosses on the south door, but these are now hidden by new plaster render and paint. The nave is substantially unaltered since it was built, although the chancel arch had to be replaced around 1300, probably as a result of sinking of the south pier. The problem still seems to exist today. The chancel was rebuilt in the C14th, explaining its slightly different feel and lack of paintings. The larger windows were inserted in the C15th. It escaped Victorian restoration which blighted so many church interiors.

There is always a sense of excitement when we open a church door, as you never know what you will find inside. This was no exception.

We pushed open the heavy wooden door with huge iron hinges and peered in. There was a sense of timelessness to the church with its wonky chancel arch and walls covered with wall paintings.

The plaster roof has wooden beams across and the church still has its old wooden pews. The Jacobean pulpit has spirally carved panels. At the back is a Norman tub font with interlaced Norman arches. The chancel is very simple with organ, C18th altar rail and small table altar.

Having absorbed the general feel of the church, we turned to the wall paintings. Unfortunately there is no guide book although there is a certain amount of written information and drawing of the paintings pinned up on a wall by the door. Many of the paintings are in poor condition and incomplete. They have also been over painted several times which does make it quite difficult to interpret them.

The earliest painting is the story of St James de Compostella which is set between two borders and was painted between 1180-1220. It is the only example in Europe but unfortunately the scenes are fragmentary and confusing.

In the C16th, it was overpainted with inscriptions in black script. Again many of these are fragmentary, but there is a Lord’s Prayer and part of the Ten Commandments which had to be displayed in every church from the reign of Elizabeth I.

The decorative scrolls round the windows date from 1663. Above the chancel arch is a Royal Coat of Arms, painted in 1723.

In medieval times, all churches were covered with wall paintings. These were covered by whitewash after the Reformation as they were regards as being Popish. Many churches had their walls stripped of plaster by the Victorians to reveal the bare stonework. Many wall paintings have been lost because of this. St James was lucky to avoid the Victorian makeover and has retained its paintings. They may only be a shadow of their former glory, but are still worth going to see,

Information on the web suggests the church is open daylight hours. It isn’t. It is opened up every day by a volunteer. It was still locked when we arrived at 9am. Fortunately we went back after visiting St Mary’s Priory Church in Deerhurst and found the church open. There is a church car park behind the church, but this is also kept locked. There is parking on the road outside.

The nearest p[ostcode is GL52 7SH and the grid reference of the church is SO 917282

There are more pictures here.

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