May: An Annual Trip to a Splendid Chapel

May: An Annual Trip to a Splendid Chapel

Last Sunday afternoon I went to sung Evensong in All Saints Chapel in Nuneham Park which is no longer in use but has a service once a year with the Dorchester Abbey choir. The voices singing out brought life back to this splendid little Chapel, returning it for a moment to its former resonant glory,  the stalls filled once more, as visitors walked through the gardens to find this perfect little classical temple. It was designed as an eye-catcher in its Capability Brown landscape as much as for worship and with its glimpsed views of the Thames and on to Oxford and her dreaming spires in the distance, the choice of site is obvious.  This afternoon a 1940s tea shop had popped up beneath the Portico complete with checked tablecloths and country flowers. There was clotted cream and strawberry scones, gingerbread and chocolate brownies, as Stephen Dawson and I, both members of the OPT team, practiced our Bake-Off skills on the unsuspecting crowd enjoying a cuppa after the service.    

The Chapel has been cared for since 1977 by the Churches Conservation Trust which this year celebrates their first 50 years of saving churches. As I live not far away, once a year I use my culinary skills in their favour and Stephen Dawson has his own CCT favourite in St. Katherine’s at Chiselhampton, much loved by former OPT Secretary John Betjeman who wrote a poem about it.  Watch out for events there as Stephen bakes a mean chocolate brownie.

Nuneham’s glorious position and views is what drove Lord Harcourt’s determination to build himself a house here in the 1760s.  The fact that there was already a village here seems to have been no obstacle, as he simply moved the village, knocking it down and rebuilding it in its entirety, out of sight, a mile away along either side of the main Oxford road.  This new ‘model’ village is one of the earliest of its kind, and if you drive south along the main A423 Oxford to Henley road  you soon reach it. Nuneham Courtenay village with its red brick cottages hugging the pavements of the village street east and west and remaining remarkably intact, thanks to its conservation area status and a  legal agreement  with South Oxfordshire District Council, which was the brainchild of Dr. Malcolm Airs when he worked there in the 1970s.  I wonder if its importance has slipped the minds of those who plan for thousands of new homes at Culham, Berinsfield and Chalgrove as the traffic will surely need to pass through its heart.  Immediately to the south lies the Harcourt Arboretum, originally part of the Nuneham estate, now owned by Oxford University and open to the public, expertly run by the Oxford Botanic Gardens.  The Nuneham estate passed to the University after the Second World War, but they never used the main house instead letting it to others so that today it is a Brahma Kumaran retreat, currently closed for refurbishment. The University unexpectedly put the estate up for sale in 2017, bar the Arboretum and it has been bought by a private individual who has put in place a good team who are getting to know the history and heritage of the estate. OPT’s particular interest is the Carfax Conduit, a folly in the landscape originally designed as a stone water conduit to stand at Carfax, from where people drew their water.   It was there from 1610 until 1787 when it was removed to Nuneham to allow the road to be widened for coaches – Oxford and its traffic. 

In the 1970s there was an idea to return it to the city and a life size wooden model of the conduit was made, mounted on wheels and trundled around the city centre to see where it might fit,  perhaps in Broad Street, or so a photograph at the time records.  In the event it did not happen, and belongs where it is, a scheduled ancient monument with a story to tell.  We organise regular walks to it and look out for it at Oxford Open Doors.