Author Richard Wheeler on his love for the churches of Oxfordshire

If you’ve ever been to Waterperry Gardens, you might have visited the little church there; but then again maybe not. Given the other things vying for your attention – gift shop, coffee shop, art gallery, museum and the gardens themselves – you’d be forgiven for overlooking it. It stands off to one side, oddly proportioned and with a wooden tower that looks unfinished. It doesn’t look anything special.

Step inside, however, and things become more interesting. Neat box-pews line a whitewashed nave; a recumbent knight pins a lion against a wall with his feet; a man and woman kneel face to face in the stained glass above, sons and daughters bunched in cobalt blue behind. Looking down the nave, a rounded arch emerges from a wall, betraying the Saxon origins of a building that has stood here for the best part of 1,000 years.

Time and again, as I roved the county looking at churches for this book, I was struck by the riches that lie on our doorsteps; struck by how easily overlooked churches are precisely because they are all around us. And often it was the smaller, less well known churches that brought me up short – not always because they contained extraordinary things, but because a simple intimacy lent them an atmosphere that, particularly when visited alone, tugged at you not to leave. Oxfordshire, I soon found out, teems with enticing churches, from humble little boxes to colossal treasure chests – a veritable paradise for church crawlers.

My interest in churches dates back to my childhood in Herefordshire – another county full of lovely churches. My parents were (still are) keen church crawlers, and I often accompanied them on their forays. My parents also instilled in me a love of books – the house was always groaning with them – and I was lucky to get an early opportunity to combine both interests after studying photography in Cardiff.

While travelling around the Welsh border region doing photographic jobs, I would pop into the nearest church. With the go-ahead of a local publisher I wrote a book about the churches I visited. To my surprise, the resultant book – a labour of love on an obscure topic – found a readership: it seemed I wasn’t alone in being drawn to churches and their stories.

The book on Oxfordshire churches came about for a number of reasons, chief among them being a move to the county in 2001 and the discovery that there was no up-to-date book available on the subject. The process of writing the book was a lengthy one, and began with the almost impossible task of deciding which churches to include out of 550 possible candidates.

There were the obvious choices, widely known and celebrated (such as Dorchester, Burford, Iffley or St Mary the Virgin in Oxford), but there was also a much longer list of ‘possibles’, all of which needed visiting before a final selection could be made.

Waterperry was one such ‘possible’, but it was only later that I realised I’d overlooked its greatest, yet most elusive, treasure. Beneath the larger of the two red carpets in the nave lies a brass to Walter and Isabel Curson (the same couple who kneel before one another in the stained glass).

What adds immeasurably to the interest of this monument is the fact that the Cursons were not the first people to be represented by it. Remarkably, the brass began life laid in a London church in c.1440 to serve the memory of another couple, Simon and Margaret Kamp, only to be taken up at the Dissolution and reused a century later for the Cursons.

The doctoring of the brass involved a new head and shoulders being grafted onto the body of Simon, and his shoes rounded off (as per current fashion) – and, even more remarkably, Margaret being sliced off at the waist, the sheet of brass flipped over, and the reverse engraved with an image of Isabel.

If Oxfordshire’s Best Churches has an overarching aim, it is this: to throw a light onto things hidden in plain view – and onto things hidden from sight.

Oxfordshire’s Best Churches, new in paperback, published by Fircone Books, 10 April, £15.99.
Available from good bookshops or