Saturday, 13 April 2019
Iffley on the Isis
'Isis' as in the Thames from its source in the Chilterns to Dorchester in Oxfordshire, but more specifically in the environs of Oxford. I should have followed its route years ago from near Christ Church Meadows up to this prettiest of villages - swamped at weekends, I'm told - and one of our most remarkable churches. We approached it on this occasion from the new home of our friends (and newlyweds, though far from newly together) Juliette and Rory, Fellow of Magdalen College, where he currently teaches in the Department of Oriental Studies, though soon he'll be off to take up a new post at Durham University. Very tempting that you can be out in the country within five minutes. I'd especially wanted to see Iffley Meadows which, like Magdalen, are famed for their fritillary display at this time of year, but in neither were the snakeshead bells flourishing. In fact we didn't see a single one other than in someone's front garden, but at least I'd had my vision in Kew a few days earlier.
Iffley soon looms into view with the church beacon-like above the Isis
and you approach via a series of bridges
and islets with a series of locks, an attraction in itself, before walking up the hill to the Church of St Mary the Virgin. We ended up approaching it from above, with a good view downwards to the Rectory, the ground plan of which is 12th-13th century, though its (Tudor?) brick chimneystacks are the most impressive feature from the outside.
Primroses were flourishing in the shade as we approached from the north-east what Pevsner calls 'a magnificent little church, lavishly decorated with sculpture'.
The first door you see from this side is the north one, of three from the time of the church's building (1170-80, courtesy of the wealthy St Remy family), with scallop capitals - plain compared with what's to come, though treasurable enough in itself.
Then you round the corner and are struck by the fabulous west door pictured up top. The ensemble looked like this in the 1830s
and you'll see that the Perpendicular Gothic window has now been replaced by what is deemed 'a successful reconstruction of the original Romanesque oculus, carried out by the architect and antiquarian J. C. Buckler in 1856' (the church guide I bought is superb and well illustrated, though a bit pricey at a fiver).
Not quite sure about the application of limewash to this and the south door. It was applied in 1981, with a 'new sheltercoat by Sally Strachey Historic Conservation' added in 2017.
The gable was raised in 1845; the detail around the top window is in tune with the authentic work below.
As the guide neatly describes it, 'the ceremonial doorway at ground level is flanked by blind niches with moulded arches. This doorway has three continuous orders, one decorated with chevron, one with beakheads on a spiral roll moulding and the third with beakheads on a plain roll', best seen here
and, later when the sun was fully on them, the two orders of beakheads in closer range.
Around and above are medallions containing sculptured figures and beasts, starting in the above photo with Aquarius, Pisces and Virgo. Close up on Virgo with ?gryphon? below.
In the centre, a dove (for the Holy Ghost), followed by the Lion of St Mark.
Now let's head in through that door, now the main entrance of the church. leaving J, Juliette and Rory in the sunshine on a bench where one could spend many happy hours with a good book - on a quiet weekday, at any rate (and no-one else came or went for the whole time we were there).
Looking east, the whole is of unity and a rich perspective which the photo doesn't quite capture, looking towards the sanctuary through two tower arches with Tournai marble octagonal shafts.
The first 'cell' as approached this way is the Baptistery. There's a fine unsculpted font, also in Tournai marble, and the rose window glass is fine, of 1856 by the firm of John Hardman & Co, but in tune with medieval precepts.
Much more remarkable, though, are the two contemporary artworks which fill the Romanesque windows here. In the north window, Iffley resident Roger Wagner's inspiration happily mixes Christ on the cross, a tree in May blossom and the river of life.
Especially felicitous is the flock of sheep by the river under the blossom. Very Samuel Palmerish in design if not in colouring.
Opposite it is the more famous design of John Piper, a very unusual treatment of the Nativity executed by David Walsey. At its foot there's a quotation from Christopher Smart's 'Rejoice in the Lamb' (set to music by Piper's good friend Benjamin Britten), and in this Tree of Life, the cockerel crows 'Christus natus est' ('Christ is born'), while the goose asks 'Quando? Quando? ('When? When?'), the rook replies 'In hac nocte' ('On this night'), the owl hoots 'Ubi? Ubi?' ('Where? Where?) and the lamb baas 'Bethlehem! Bethlehem!'. I'd seen a reproduction before but didn't know it was here.
I missed the Gothic angel high up in the Nave - a detail of this fine one in Oxford's oldest parish church, St Michael, which I visited the previous afternoon, will have to do -
but not the Coat of Arms of John de la Pole after his marriage in 1452-3 to Elizabeth, sister of Edward IV and Richard III (hence the Tudor rose).
Here's a view looking westwards from the tower
and beyond is the Romanesque sanctuary (now the chancel) with its fine boss at the centre of domical vault, depicting a winged serpent entwined and animal heads at each of the cardinal points, and pinecones pointing outwards towards the chevroned vaulting.
The sedilia seems to have been installed late in the 13th century, after the death of the anchoress Annora. Her cell may have been behind where the aumbry and piscina (beyond) are now.
And so out into the brighter light - though the church is far from dark on a sunny day - and to examination of the third glorious door, on the south (also limewashed).
Its fine state of preservation may be due to the fact that it stood within a porch which was removed in 1807. Here, as in the north door, there are three orders and a band of rosettes, but again the detail is fascinating. Here you might make out Samson and the lion, Ourobouros and a bird with a snake (in the slightly over-exposed middle band),
Curiouser are a merman,
a green cat (rather than a green man)
and a beast seemingly trapped behind a pillar.
And so we strolled back down to the Isis
and walked back along the other bank to lunch with Juliette and Rory, after which we went our separate ways - J in a cab to the station, I along the river this time Oxford bound, to catch the trusty Oxford Tube.
Soon the dome of the Radcliffe Camera and the tower of St Mary came in sight, with Merton Chapel's tower through the trees
and Magdalen's, the noblest, across Christ Church Meadows.
I passed Christ Church
where the previous evening we'd heard half of a superb Evensong with the choir still in residence (though university term time had ended, the cathedral school boys keep this one going). There I heard for the first time Kenneth Leighton's Mag and Nunc of 1959 (his 'Magdalen Service', no less); you hear where MacMillan, a slightly older contemporary of mine at Edinburgh University, got some of his juicier chord sequences from. The Leighton work is counterintuitive in that neither Gloria is a blaze, but they're all the better for that. And why only half a service? Because we were due at Worcester College at 7 for a dinner to celebrate the Irish presence in the Oxford Literary Festival, and I'd forgotten that Saturday evensongs are longer than the ones in the week.
So - returrning to the Sunday retreat - round towards Magdalen
and time for a quick spin around the Botanic Gardens, courtesy of my Kew card. They're slow to come to life in early spring, as I remember from previous occasions, but there are the daffs, of course, Merton tower in the distance,
some splendid miniature tulips on the Alpine rockery
and the last of the magnolias in profusion (I realise I haven't bored you with the magical glade in Kew Gardens yet).
In 24 hours we found ourselves in front of another fine church facade, this time that of the Duomo in Sarzana, quickly reached from Pisa Airport en route to Lerici and Tellaro on the Ligurian coast. But that chronicle is for another day.