The New Forest has a rich heritage of religious buildings and churches. Perhaps the largest and best known is Beaulieu Abbey which in its day was larger than Winchester Cathedral but was demolished by Henry VIII in 1538 during his dissolution of the monasteries and now only part remains. However, within the Forest there remain a number of places of worship with considerable interest in terms of either their architecture, history and historical associations. Several also contain the final resting places or memorials to prominent figures and events from history.
St. MICHAEL’S CHURCH, LYNDHURST
High on a mound dominating the Forest’s capital, Lyndhurst, stands the church of St. Michael and All Angels. Whilst a comparative newcomer to the scene it is a fine example of Victorian Gothic style architecture. The present building, the third on the site, was built between 1858-69 during the height of the village’s popularity with Victorian gentry. It was designed by William White (1825–1900) who was an English architect, noted for his part in 19th century Gothic Revival architecture.
The caricature image above is from the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and shows the previous church on the site and refers to the Duke of Gloucester’s stables. The Duke of Gloucester (1743-1805) was the younger brother of King George III who was appointed Warden and Keeper of the New Forest in 1771.
Some of the windows of the present church were the work of prominent craftsmen and artists of the era including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, both of whom were closely associated with the pre-Raphaelite movement. Other windows feature the work of Charles Kempe who was the pre-eminent stained glass designer of the time, who is estimated to have produced over 4,000 stained glass windows during his lifetime including the Cathedrals at Chester, Gloucester, Hereford, Lichfield, Winchester. and York.
One of the church’s most notable features is the fresco behind the altar by the artist, Frederic Leighton (later Lord Leighton – President of the Royal Academy of Art) depicting the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. It can be seen from the calibre of the craftsmen and artists involved that Lyndhurst had become a very fashionable village with Victorian society at the time of its construction.
The church is also the final resting place of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Alice Liddell was the fourth child of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, was a close friend of the Liddell family and Alice is said to have been the inspiration for his children’s classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Alice subsequently married Reginald Hargreaves, a man of considerable means, in Westminster Abbey after which they lived at Cuffnells, a country mansion on the outskirts of Lyndhurst. Alice Hargreaves outlived her husband and two of her sons who died in action within a few days of each other during the First World War. She died, aged 82, in 1934 and was buried in St Michael’s churchyard.
ALL SAINTS’ CHURCH, MINSTEAD
The site on which the current Minstead church stands has been a place of worship since Saxon times. In the 12th century a Norman Church was built and various additions have since been made. Although the present church building is not mentioned before 1272, parts of the church are definitely of an earlier period.
In the 17th century a three decked pulpit was added, of which few examples exist, and this is one of the most interesting features in the church interior. Originally, the lowest ‘deck’ was used by the Parish Clerk, where he sat and was responsible for saying the ‘Amens’. The scripture reader and the preacher took their places in ascending order. The church font pre dates the church and is believed to be Saxon in origin. In 1893 Henry Abbott, who was doing some gardening, dug it up in the Old Rectory garden. He wheeled it up to the Church in his wheelbarrow and it was placed where it belonged!
The churchyard is visited regularly by tourists who come to see the grave of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur died at his home, “Windlesham” in Crowborough, Sussex, on 7 July 1930. As a Spiritualist and a non believer he was initially buried upright in the rose garden at Windlesham in accordance with his wishes. When his wife died in 1940 she was interred beside her husband in the rose garden. On the sale of the Windlesham estate in 1955, both bodies were exhumed and re-interred at All Saints Church, Minstead, just a few miles from Bignell Wood, where Sir Arthur had purchased a country retreat as a gift for his wife. He and his family spent long periods in the tranquillity of the New Forest and Minstead figured prominently in his historical novel “The White Company”. His gravestone reads “Steel True, Blade Straight, Arthur Conan Doyle, Knight, Patriot, Physician, & Man of Letters”. In view of the fact that he was a “non believer” his re-internment was conditional upon him being laid to rest in a horizontal position and his new grave was to be positioned at the edge of the village cemetery.
St MARY’S CHAPEL, BUCKLERS HARD
Perhaps the smallest house of worship in the New Forest is situated in the middle of a row of terraced cottages that run down to the river at Bucklers Hard. Formally a ship workers residence and then a school, this quiet contemplative Chapel is half-hidden in the row of cottages with only a bell, sign and statue as clues to what lies behind the front door of number 82.
The property was used for church services in the 1880s when the Rev Powles used to conduct services in this room. It had been used previously as a dame school (a school set up by unqualified teachers in their own home), and when the Vicar celebrated Holy Communion in those days he used the mistress’s desk as an altar. Later it was furnished as a Chapel. It has a special link with the sea as some of Nelson’s ships were built at Buckler’s Hard. There is also a memorial to Sir Francis Chichester who set out from Bucklers Hard on his solo circumnavigation of the world in 1966.
Hardly bigger than the lounge of an average house, it seats only 40 people but welcomes thousands of visitors and tourists each year. A viewing window in the floor next to the altar reveals a cellar below. Beaulieu River was a major landing point for smuggled goods in the late 18th century and this cellar was probably used as a store for contraband.
BEAULIEU ABBEY CHURCH
The original Cistercian monastery at Beaulieu was founded in 1204 by King John, and its Abbey Church dedicated was in 1246. Most of the Abbey fell into ruins after the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII, but the domus, cloisters and refectory still remain. The refectory (monks’ dining hall) of the original abbey became the parish church of Beaulieu, and has remained so ever since, making it one of the oldest church buildings in the Forest. The church’s stone pulpit was originally used for reading religious works to the monks during their daily meals.
Near the pulpit is the Tubby Clayton Memorial, in memory of the co-founder of Toc H, who lived in Beaulieu as a boy and returned regularly to preach throughout his lifetime. Toc H is an international movement instigated by the Reverend Philip Thomas Byard (Tubby) Clayton as a way to perpetuate the Fellowship developed in Talbot House, a soldiers’ club run by him in Poperinge, Belgium during WW1 from 1915-1918. It is from the contemporary phonetic alphabet for TH (Talbot House) that Toc H takes its unique name.
The Standard of 84 Squadron RAF is laid up in the Abbey Church to commemorate the founding of the Squadron as part of the Royal Flying Corps on the nearby Beaulieu Airfield during the First World War in 1917. Shortly after its formation the squadron was despatched to France and during its 15 months service in WW1 the Squadron’s pilots proved very successful and destroyed 129 enemy aircraft and 50 observation balloons.
St NICHOLAS CHURCH, BROCKENHURST
St Nicholas Church in Brockenhurst is regarded as the oldest church in the New Forest and is the only Forest church still remaining that was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086. The church is situated just outside the village on a manmade mound which pre dates the church.
The Church has had various alterations and additions over the centuries and was enlarged by the Victorians but in the south wall of the old Nave there is some Saxon herring-bone masonry. The South doorway is a fine example of Norman work with chevron mouldings and the Purbeck stone, lead lined font, is also Norman.
In Norman times, the Manor and its grounds were adjacent to the church and it is recorded that the Lord of the Manor was obliged to accommodate the King when he came hunting in the New Forest and it is certain that Norman and Plantagenet Kings, and their entourages, must have worshipped in St. Nicholas. King William II (William Rufus) is known to have visited Brockenhurst, possibly worshiping in St Nicholas’ church, as at least two writs were issued by him from the village.
Perhaps surprisingly, in the heart of the New Forest, the churchyard contains a Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot which cares for 100 soldiers’ graves, among them 93 New Zealanders, 1 Australian and 3 Indians who served with British forces during WW1. In 1915 due to its proximity to south coast ports and its railway connections the War Office chose Brockenhurst as a hospital centre for injured troops. This consisted of the main section known as the Lady Hardinge Hospital, a 500 bed tented and galvanized hospital complex, known to the locals as “Tin Town”, and two minor sections at the requisitioned Balmer Lawn and Forest Park Hotels, known as the Meerut General Hospital. The hospitals treated soldiers from the Indian Army Corps fighting in France and Flanders. Almost 300 Indian wounded were treated in Brockenhurst before they were posted to Egypt in November 1915. In January 1916, the hospitals were taken over and became No.1 New Zealand General Hospital, when hutted accommodation was erected in Church Lane. Over 21,000 New Zealand casualties were treated here during the war.
The churchyard is also the final resting place of one of the Forest’s best known “characters”, Harry Mills, better known as “Brusher”. Born in the Forest, he worked as a labourer until his forties when he moved into an old charcoal burner’s hut in the woods near Brockenhurst, and took up catching snakes for a living. He sent consignments to London Zoo as food and sold others for ointments to treat snake bites and other ailments. It is thought that he caught tens of thousands of snakes during his lifetime during which he gained a certain notoriety and became a tourist attraction in his own right. Visitors to the New Forest regularly had their photographs taken with him and listened to his yarns. He died in 1905 and was buried in the churchyard with a marble headstone which was paid for by locals.
St JOHN THE BAPTIST CHURCH, BOLDRE
St John the Baptist church, Boldre is set on a hill just over a mile from the village. The church dates back to 1200, but there is some speculation that the site may be considerably older, as three sarsen stones have been found in the foundations – many megalithic monuments in southern England, such as Stonehenge, are built with sarsen stones. Like many other churches of its age, it has been altered and extended over the subsequent centuries.
The north chapel of this medieval church was built by Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon, one of the wealthiest women in 13th century England. She resided mainly in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, which she owned, although her main wealth was derived from estates in Devon, Yorkshire and parts of Hampshire, including Boldre. It is said that she ruled the Isle of Wight in the manner of a medieval Queen.
The Reverend William Gilpin was rector from 1777 until his death in 1804. He had graduated from Oxford and prior to taking up his position at Boldre was Headmaster of Cheam School. Gilpin was an artist of distinction and the first President of the Watercolour Society. He is also credited with the founding of the “Picturesque” movement that gained ground in the 18th century. He travelled extensively and produced many tour journals which were published as were his religious essays. He was well known and well regarded in literary and artistic circles and his work, “Remarks on Forest Scenery, and Other Woodland Views” was based on the scenery of the New Forest.
When he arrived at Boldre the local population was quite lawless were said to be ‘little better than a gang of gypsies, and without the opportunity of the humblest education, or the means of religious instruction‘. He worked tirelessly and successfully to improve their morals and behaviour and improved conditions in the parish by supporting a project for a new poor house which was a model of its time. He had enlightened views on educating and disciplining the young, and personally built and provided an endowment for a parish school that now bears his name. He used proceeds from his writing and an auction of his original drawings to fund these projects. Both Gilpin and his wife are buried in the churchyard.
The church was also well known as being a store for smugglers‘ contraband goods but whether Gilpin knew or condoned this is not known. There is no doubt that many of his parishioners would have been involved in the trade.
Like the churchyard at Brockenhurst, Boldre church contains a number of war graves. The twenty-three war graves in the north west corner of the churchyard include those of fifteen Canadian airmen stationed at nearby RAF Beaulieu during the Second World War. The church is also closely associated with HMS Hood, the last battle cruiser built for the Royal Navy, which was sunk by the German battleship “Bismark” during action in May 1941 with the loss of 1415 men. Among the men lost was Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, who had been a regular worshipper at Boldre for many years with his family. After the War when it became clear that no official memorial was to be made, his widow organised a Commemoration of HMS Hood at Boldre. The church porch displays a framed photograph of HMS Hood, two Vice Admiral’s lanterns, a small stained glass window of St. Nicholas (patron saint of sailors) and two long oak benches carved with the ship’s badge of a Cornish chough. An annual memorial service is held to remember Admiral Holland and the crew of HMS Hood on the Sunday nearest the anniversary of the ship’s sinking.
THE CANADIAN MEMORIAL
Situated on the crest of a hill in a remote area of the New Forest can be found a less obvious place of worship. Close to the roadside at Mogshade Hill, near Bolderwood, stands a simple wooden cross made from New Forest oak. A plaque reads: “On this site a cross was erected to the glory of God on 14th April 1944, by men of the 3rd Canadian Division RCASC“. The Royal Canadian Army Service Corps were encamped in this area during the early part of 1944. By then the Forest had became a vast camp prior to D-Day, with Allied troops waiting to leave for the invasion of Europe. The original cross was erected by the Rev. Perdue, the padre of the 3rd Canadian Division RCASC. He held services here until the troops left for the beaches of Normandy on the 6th June 1944.
On D-Day they landed on Juno Beach in Normandy with the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade. They initially encountered heavy resistance from the German forces and the first wave of assault troops took heavy casualties in the opening minutes of the first wave before sheer force of numbers won the day. The RCASC (Royal Canadian Army Service Corps) was responsible for supplying the assault troops with food, ammunition, fuel and any other necessary equipment, moving supplies from rear areas to the battle zone.
Each year a simple non denominational service of remembrance is held on Armistice Sunday and on the anniversary of D-Day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. These services attract large crowds who come to pay their respects and leave poppies and other mementos of loved ones.
Click on the blue markers on the map below to show each church’s location.
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