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My chum Dave was at it again. Like me, Dave is tickled by the past and finds there’s more and more of it each day. “You must visit Swinbrook,” he said over a pint at The Olde Ruptured Duck one Friday. “Fettiplace memorials in the church. Amazing. Would go well on A Bit About Britain.”
Anyway, I found myself motoring through Oxfordshire in a very wet January, as you do, and discovered Swinbrook nestling in a little valley just north of the A40, on the edge of the Cotswolds. When I say, ‘discovered’, I should point out that other people had got there first, not least the good folk that had evidently lived in this charming village for many centuries. The church, St Mary’s, sits on a slight rise above a bubbling stream, the Swine Brook. The rain no doubt helped the bubbling no end; most of south-east-west England was a soggy mess that day.
It never ceases to amaze me how much history there is behind country churches in Britain. It shouldn’t be surprising really, since most of them have been there for the best part of a thousand years or more. But as well as getting a sense of all of those that have gone before, you often find yourself encountering bits of a bigger picture – Cromwell’s troops sharpening their swords on the gravestones, that sort of thing. In the case of St Mary’s Swinbrook, there are those extraordinary 17th century Fettiplace memorials, a sad story from the Second World War and links to a sometimes notorious family, all inside a church that is a joy in its own right.
Most of the church dates from the 12th or 13th centuries but the rather odd tower was built in just six weeks in 1822. Inside, the church is full of memorials to local families, including the Fettiplaces and Mitford-Redesdales. Fragments of medieval glass, retrieved when a German bomb exploded nearby in 1940, now reside in a newer window. A particular treasure is a set of four 15th century misericords – a misericord is a small wooden shelf, a ‘mercy seat’, where clergy could get comfort for their legs and bums during long services. They are often beautifully carved with grotesque or humorous figures – as is the case at St Mary’s.
But what draws the eye – and the church tourists – are the Fettiplace memorials, two sets of 3 reclining figures carved in marble. The Fettiplaces were a landed English family of Norman descent, who were once very influential around Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Their manor house at Swinbrook was said to be a fine place, but has long since gone. The first set of memorials commemorates Sir Edmund Fettiplace (d1613), his father and his grandfather. The figures, resplendent in Tudor armour, look a little posed and uncomfortable. The second memorial is a little fancier and honours Sir Edmund Fettiplace II (d1686), his uncle and his father. This triumvirate is far more relaxed, as though they’ve had a few too many gins and are just waiting for the girls to get back from the hen party.
Another memorial caught my eye. It is to the officers and ship’s company of RN submarine HMS P514, which was rammed in error by Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper HMCS Georgia off the coast of Newfoundland in lonely dark fog at 0300 hours on 21st June 1942. HMS P514, which was built in San Francisco and was previously the USS R-19, failed to identify itself and the Canadian commander assumed it was an enemy U-boat. There were no survivors. The memorial is self-explanatory – I believe quam dilectus means ‘how beloved’.
Outside in the churchyard are the simple graves of three, arguably infamous, Mitford sisters, Nancy, Unity and Diana, with a fourth, Pamela, buried nearby. The Mitfords were originally from Redesdale in Northumbria. David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron of Redesdale, built Swinbrook House in 1926 and raised his six daughters and one son there. It was, by all accounts, a curious upbringing; allegedly, their governess taught them how to shoplift from Woolworths. Baron Redesdale had what we would consider somewhat unconventional ideas. His daughter Jessica wrote that her father detested ‘outsiders’, which “included not only Huns, Frogs, Americans, blacks and all other foreigners but also other people’s children.” Imagine not liking other people’s children. In any event, the beautiful Mitford sisters have been said to be a trifle eccentric and they have been caricatured in summary by the author Ben Macintyre as “Diana the fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the novelist, Deborah the duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”. Their brother, Tom, was killed in action in World War Two.
Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) was a popular writer, producing ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’. Unity Valkyrie Mitford (1914-48) was a strange Hitler stalker who got close to Der Fuhrer and shot herself in the head in Munich when Britain declared war in 1939. She survived and lived the rest of her days on the tiny Island of Inch Kenneth off the coast of Mull, dying when the bullet, which had been left in her head, caused complications. Diana Mitford (1910-2003), caused a scandal by leaving her first husband and marrying Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Their marriage took place in Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ house. Hitler, apparently, was a witness. After the war, Diana became a writer and book reviewer.
After all this, you’ll be in need of some refreshment. The Swan pub in Swinbrook is supposed to be good. It was owned by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, aka Deborah Mitford (who died on 24th September 2014 aged 94) and has appeared in the TV series Downton Abbey. It was also a favourite local of ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, who treated French President Francois Hollande to lunch there.
Meanwhile, thanks Dave (my chum, not the ex-PM), for the inspiration. Landord – two pints of Old Roger’s Nippleteaser, if you please.