Chapter XII - Lechlade

Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide - Lechlade,
Map: Lechlade

Lechlade itself lies upon the left bank, half a mile above the lock; the only effective community that comes down close to the River all these long solitary miles up from Oxford. For what reason, unless to facilitate the ancient barge loading, should men have been willing to build this place so close upon the waterside, while Eynsham and Bampton and Faringdon, equal or greater in extent and importance, and almost every small village, lie so aloof that you can scarcely discern them from the River? And even considerations of trade seem but a makeshift and shallow explanation. Nor does the risk of floods appeal to me as a much stronger reason to affect so long a distance; for Osney at one end, and Lechlade at this, both lie at their mercy. And I think the Anglo-Saxon settlements approached much nearer than the modern villages. Perhaps the absence of important primaeval tracks marching close with the River is a true cause of the aloofness; the Faringdon-Oxford road, the only possible exception, never comes within about two miles of the waterside, and is usually much further removed; and runs moreover mostly upon the crest of the Berkshire Ridge. There is no parallel main road whatever upon the Oxfordshire side. Account for it as you may, there is the strange fact that along more than thirty miles of our largest river, in this close packed England, you nowhere get sight of more than half a dozen dwellings together in any one place.

It is a grey, bracing little town; "a praty old Village," says Leland,"and hath a pratie pyramis of Stone, at the West End of the Chirch. " It possesses a fine open market-place, whose not least beauty is the vicarage so thickly clad in green. The market was bestowed upon the town through the influence of Richard, Earl of Cornwall.

All the Lechlade landscape is dominated by the beautiful spire of Conrad Ney's late fourteenth century church of St. Lawrence. Specially beautiful is the pointed arch at the west end of the nave. A restoration was completed in 1882. It is the first of the Gloucestershire churches you reach going upstream; the first of all those religious houses of the county whose large number, said to be double and twice as wealthy as those of any other county in England, gave occasion to the old proverb: "As sure as God's in Gloucestershire. " The original dedication of the church, or of its predecessor, was possibly to St. Mary, like so many of the churches hereabouts. Edward IV's licence for the dissolution of St. John's Priory mentions "the chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lechlade church. " It seems an interestingly similar case to Langford. There are some magnificent gargoyles, quite the best in all the River country above Oxford. You will find them principally on the north side and the west; on the south side, away from observation, there are none; perhaps the gods were not expected at the back. The chantry priests are said to have resided in those houses immediately outside the churchyard gates.

On the south wall of the chancel is an inscription to an old-world grande dame de par le monde:

Near this Place
Lie the Remains
of Mrs. Anne. Simons.
Whole Life compleated the true Character
of the Gentlewoman the Friend and the Christian
She was sincere in her Friendship
Affable & candid in her Conversation
Pious in her Devotion
Liberal & secret in her charity
Her Acquaintance have lost a Real Friend
The Poor a daily and constant Benefactress
She lived to a good old Age
And tho she declined gradually
Thro the weakness and Infirmity of Body
Yet she retained a chearfull temper
And vivacity of Spirits to the last
She is gone to Receive the Reward of her Virtue
And has left her Friends to imitate Her example
She died the 24th of September 1769
Aged 76.

Another object of interest is the old penance stone with spirally fluted sides against the north door, on which offenders once stood in a white shroud to expiate their sins against the Church. A very uncomfortable pedestal it must have been, barely spacious enough for two efficient human feet; unless, as at Cumner, they were usually the feet of lonely women. Or was it surmounted with a wider stone disc? In St. John's, Cirencester, there looks to be another example, so completed. The church possessed the privilege of sanctuary.

It was in this churchyard that Mary, Charles Clairmont, and Peacock stood with Shelley one lovely September twilight in 1815 when he was inspired with the unforgettable "summer evening meditation."

The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset's ray
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

On the outskirts of the town stands an attractive old house called Butler's Court, whose name and records, says Mr. Hutton, date back to 1302, though perhaps only the foundations of the original dwelling now remain, It is well worth a little pilgrimage to see, though it is not another Yarnton, nor even another Northmoor. The Swan inn, in the town, is very charming to look upon; as, in another and later style, is the New Inn in the market-place.

There was a great trade in cheeses in old times from Lechlade and Cricklade, which were collected, as I have said, and loaded into the London barges down at the old storehouses at Buscot. One Ralph Alan Mould, of Newgate Street, cheesemonger, says in an old Report that "he receives great quantity of Cheefe from Leachlade by barges. " He goes on to complain of the rise in freights owing to new locks and increased wages. Truly one man's meat is another man's poison! He supposed "two thousand five hundred tons of cheese came down annually thence to London" in peace time; much more in times of war.

In an ancient map copied by Ireland there is marked a "projected canal" between here and Abingdon. He makes the curious statement that it was to be seen near Radcot Bridge, although the scheme had been successfully quashed in Parliament in 1784.

Long before Katherine of Aragon's tenure the manor was the property of "Siward, a baron," whose descent fabulously described by the old chroniclers. "The daughter and heiress of a great earl, of the royal blood of Denmark, walking in a wild forest, was ravished by a bear, and bore a son with ears like a bear. This son of a bear succeeded his mother in the earldom, and was father of Siward, who quits Denmark and arrives in England where he is kindly received by King Edward the Confessor"; and, dying,"arose out of his bed, and put on his armour, saying that it became not a valiant man to die like a beast; and so he gave up the ghost standing. " He had been with Hereward the Wake in his rebellion of 1071.

Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide - Lechlade,
Map: Lechlade