Wight Life

Ancient Parish of Calbourne

-its historical and literary associations

by W J Roberts

Drawing of Calbourne Church

Drawings by R Norton

FOR SO MANY Island tourists, to visit Calbourne means little more than a stroll along Winkle Street with its row of assorted stone houses overlooking a swiftly moving stream with tiny waterfalls and bridges. The parish no doubt took its name from this brook, the Caul Bourne, one of the feeders of Newtown Creek. Yet, for those for whom the romance of history has any appeal, there is so much more to discover. On a steep bank overlooking Winkle Street stands its church, a site where people have worshipped for nearly 1,000 years. Nearly opposite, a fine early 19th century mansion on an estate of 30 acres was the original Calbourne manor mentioned in the Domesday Book. Now known as Westover, it was once the home of the Moulton Barretts with close associations with the Barretts of Wimpole Street. Within this large parish too, is the 'Upper Mill' (also dating back to 1086) where visitors can recall the milling traditions of this village. Finally, on the road to Newport, lies Swainston, historically one of the most interesting houses in the Wight.

CALBOURNE CHURCH illustrated above, is unusual in that originally the tower was on the south side of the building instead of the more usual west end, the small chapel having been added much later. When the upper two-thirds of the tower were even- tually restored after the disastrous fire a small steeple was added which is similar to many other Island churches, but they have now mainly all disappeared. This illustration shows to advantage, the lancet windows mentioned in the text. To the right of the priest's door shown in the centre is a mass dial, this functioned by putting a stick into a prepared hole and observing the shadow cast on to a ring of points thus giving the time.

The most significant fact about the history of Calbourne is its long and very close association with the See of Winchester. Land was granted by King Egbert in 827, thus forging the first link between Swainston and the Bishops of Winchester who, as recorded in the Domesday Book, held extensive lands here until the 13th century, and have held the advowson of the church until the present day. Swainston was to become a Bishop's palace, the remains of which can still be seen about a mile or so from the church.

The church of All Saints is one of the very few on the Island mentioned in the Domesday Book where we read `Malger holds the Church of this manor.' Little remains of the church of this Norman priest apart from some masonry in the west wall, but there is much, externally and internally, in this lovely building of interest to students of architecture. We can detect so much that was achieved by craftsmen in the long reign of Henry III (1216-1272) and can recognise the considerable alterations made mainly in the Victorian era.

The 13th century reconstructions included the addition of the north and south aisles as well as of the chancel. The north aisle was for the tenants of Swainston, the south for those of Westover. The deeply splayed lancet windows in the aisles, barely seventeen inches across, are fine examples of early English architecture. The eastern windows, particularly in the chancel, illustrate so well the first steps towards the decorated style, for each consists of two fair-sized lancets with masonry dividing them, and with foliated circles piercing the wall above. The tower, too, was first built in this period at the western end of the south aisle and the keen eye of the antiquarian will observe, first, the difference in the masonry of the lower from the upper part of this tower, and also the inscription, 'I am risen from ye ruins of near 70 years.' This 13th century tower was struck by lightning in 1683 and was not rebuilt until 1752, as this inscription indicates.

The 19th century changes mainly affected the interior of the church. Some of these are inexplicable. Why, for example, was a 14th century table tomb of great artistic worth, broken up, and the brass effigy of the knight, in whose memory the tomb has been built, ultimately placed on the wall of the south chancel?

It is the figure of a handsome man, his feet resting on a dog and the details of dress and armour artistically carved. It now forms one of the two brasses in the church and is the delight of brass rubbers! It is believed to represent William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, or his son killed in a tournament in 1383.

The font, too, is one of the oldest in the Island and was originally square, but had its angles chopped off to convert it to an octagonal design. Other changes, in the Victorian age, were largely the work of Sir Richard Simeon, the new squire of Swainston. At a personal cost of some £3,000, he transformed the north transept of the church into a Barrington- Simeon chapel, and in the south aisle the Norman pillars and arches were replaced by an arcade of pseudo-Early English shafts similar to the genuine pillars in Shalfleet church. Also the somewhat dilapidated northern entrance to the church was drastically altered, some claiming that it is now 'a fine interpretation of Norman style.'

The old home of these families, the Mantacutes, the Barringtons and the Simeons, was the house and grounds of Swainston, surely one of the most important of all our old Island houses. It has been, in turn, a Bishop's palace, a royal manor, a baronial hall and, for four hundred odd years, the residence of two very distinguished Island families. The oldest part of the present house escaped the disastrous war damage of 1941 which affected its other more modern wing, and so we can recall the long association of Swainston with the Bishops of Winchester, one of whom, in the l2th century, built the first hall, with its two light round-headed windows, surely one of the oldest windows in the Wight. A century later the long narrow room, 51 feet long and 15 feet wide, also with interesting fenestration, was the work of another Bishop, possibly to provide a new hall and a chapel. Royal displeasure had robbed the See of Winchester of this property in the reign of Edward I, and close royalist associations were maintained even after Edward III had granted the manor to William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. The Montacute family, through marriage, had links with the last native King of the Isle of Man. Their connection with the Isle of Wight began in 1331; the second earl was Lord of the Island under Richard 11 and his family coat of arms are to be seen on the buttress of that portion of Carisbrooke Castle, the building of which is attributed to him.

Drawing of Swainston House

SWAINSTON HOUSE, showing the attractive facade of the south aspect. At the right is seen part of the ancient ecclesiastical building which is likely to have been a church, no altar exists, but there is a small piscena in the wall and the architecture suggests a building where services were held or meetings.

What tales these ancient walls of Swainston could tell of important gatherings here in mediaeval times! Here, in 1256, Aymer de Valence Bishop of Winchester gave the borough of Newtown, always so closely linked with Swainston, its first Charter. In 1285 Edward I spent six days here and confirmed the rights of the burgesses of Newtown. Later, he was to order his bailiff, William Russell 'to repair the King's Chapel in the royal Manor of Swainston,' and the Keeper of his Wood at Parkhurst 'to let Russell have as much timber as shall be necessary.' Through the turbulent days of the 15th century, the house and lands changed hands five times, and the Lords of the Manor include famous families such as the Nevilles and the Poles. It was because the niece of Cardinal Pole, Lady Winifred, married into the Barrington family that the three hundred years association of this Essex family with the Island began in the reign of Queen Mary I.

It was the Barringtons who built the wing of Swainston that was so badly damaged during the second world war. It is still an imposing building in the classical style with bays, columns and pediments externally, and pairs of columns in the entrance hall. The post-war restoration was in keeping with the work of 18th and 19th century architects, so the house has retained the character of the place beloved by Tennyson, a frequent visitor when Sir John Simeon was the squire. The Simeons, through intermarriage with the Barringtons, had come to Swainston in 1832 and the death of Sir John was one of the most sorrowful events of Tennyson's life. He had already been inspired to write parts of 'Maud' at Swainston and now, under a cedar of Lebanon, still to be seen in the lovely wooded grounds of this place, the poet wrote an elegy to his great friend beginning:

Nightingales warbled without
Within was weeping for thee
Shadows of three dead men
Walked in the Walks with me
Shadows of three dead men and thou
avast one of the three

Usually round about April 25th, nightingales can still be heard here. It is indeed a setting for romance. Across the road from Swainston itself is the Temple of Boreal, an 18th century temple of love, linked like other parts of Calbourne with a popular Victorian novel 'The Silence of Dean Maitland.' The author was the daughter of a Newport physician and is supposed to have worked on her novel in the Rectory whilst her father was visiting village patients. Calbourne has indeed a rich historical and literary heritage to add to its rustic charm.