An Ancient parish with a well-preserved historical heritage
by A H Wakefield
WHICHEVER WAY YOU GO to Shorwell you will travel along beautiful country roads dropping down into a hollow, for the village is encircled by hills. Any approach is pleasing, but go, if you can, from the Carisbrooke side, and, as you pass through the wooded chute, white with garlic in the late spring, and under the rustic bridge, you will be delighted. Stop for a moment to look at the thatched cottages by the green, and the solitary shop with its quaint bow-windows. Then sit for a while in the garden of, the Crown Inn. There you may feed the ducks, listen to the cooing of the fantail pigeons, and, if you can be there in early summer, enjoy the beauty of the arum lilies massed on either side of the stream.
Four ancient manor houses in one parish — surely there must be some mistake. But there they are, solid and tranquil, looking much as they have looked for well over three hundred years. Billingham Manor, once the home of J B Priestley, lies two miles away, separated from the village by little Kingston, but the other three manors — Northcourt, Westcourt, and Woolverton — are all close to the parish church, whose fascinating history is bound up with their own.
Oldest of the three houses is Westcourt, on the road to Brighstone, and it bears the date, 1579, above one of its entrances. For many years the home of the Way family, its sons were sent out to look after other family farms in the district, and life must have been very confusing when the village charities were administered by two churchwardens both named Henry Way.
Across the fields from Westcourt lies Woolverton Manor, a brave effort on the part of a yeoman farmer to keep up with his wealthy neighbours. An earlier Woolverton stood to the north of the present house and the course of its moat is clearly visible. But when building grand houses became the fashion, John Dingley, the owner, made a reckless bid to be like the rest. Stone was quarried from the grounds and a house in typical late Elizabethan style was erected. The south wing was completed, but the north side and the back of the house were never finished off, and parts remain hollow shell to this day. Many interesting families have lived at Woolverton and there are enough stories of curses and hauntings to satisfy the most demanding lover of the occult.
To Shorwell in the middle of the sixteenth century came John later Sir John — Leigh, a young man destined to play a great part in the story of the village. He married Elizabeth, the eldest Dingley daughter, and lived with her family at Woolverton for some years. He bought the third of the Shorwell manors, Northcourt, and it was he who built the present house, one of the handsomest in the whole of the Island.
Each of the manors had its own small church and it was the tiny church built for the Northcourt family and their employees about the year 1100 that formed the earliest part, the north-east corner, of the present parish church. This was later extended, and aisles were added for the Woolverton and Westcourt families, so that by the end of the fourteenth century there was the broad 'three in one' building we see today. The rarest feature of this development was the magnificent stone pulpit, set unexpectedly in the middle of the church, with a doorway for the preacher cut through one of the pillars. It was at this stage that the walls were decorated with paintings, two of which survived until the middle of the nineteenth century.
This Pulpit is unusual in that it is situated towards the west end of the church, not near the altar, in fact the north door is just to the left of the sketch out of view. It was built in 1440 at the same time as the arcade, because the pier behind it has been constructed with an entrance arch and staircase tip to it. On the left hand side of the Pulpit is an iron hour-glass stand, the hour-glass itself is of a much later date. The Canopy is a good example of Jacobean carving and has the date 1620 on the lower spandrels. (Drawings are by R Norton)
The picture of the Last Judgment over the south entrance was obliterated, but over the north door there is still to be clearly seen a magnificent painting depicting the story of the whole life of St Christopher. Completed by 1440, the mural is full of humour and movement and it is not hard to imagine the gaiety and vitality of the young artists who designed the lively cartoons surrounding the central figure, the work of a brilliant master painter.
Later on Sir John Leigh was a generous benefactor, making many valuable gifts to the church. During his lifetime, windows were added to the north-west corner, a spire with a weathercock bearing the date, 1617, a fine carved oak canopy above the pulpit, a beautifully carved lid for the font, and an hour-glass to time the sermons, set in an iron holder beside the pulpit. At the age of eighty-three Sir John Leigh died and his great-grandson, a nine-month old baby who died some days later was buried with him. The memorial on the north wall of the church shows the old man facing, rather surprisingly, away from the altar. Behind him is the kneeling figure of the tiny boy, and as the verse underneath announces that great grandfather has taken him to Heaven to 'wait upon his age', the memorial is known as the Little Page.
Another unusual memorial is the brass to the memory of two wives of Barnabas Leigh, Sir John's eldest son. The first wife is depicted with her 'fifteen hopefull children', the second, who had none, stands alone, but from her mouth come the words, `Am I not more to thee than ten sons?'
The church is rich in treasures telling the story of the benevolence and interest of 'Shorwell people through the years. There are three rare Bibles — a chained copy of the Great Bible printed in English in 1541 by order of Henry VIII, a Vinegar Bible, and a Breeches Bible. Two charming plaques to the memory of Elizabeth and Catherine Susanna Bull, mentioned in the diary of Fanny Burney, are a reminder of the wealthy family that came to Northcourt when the Leighs died out. So great was the grief over Catherine Susanna that her 'once happy' father and sister built a temple to honour her in the grounds of Northcourt.
General Sir James Willoughby Gordon, a later owner of Northcourt, though secretary to the 'noble Duke of York who had ten thousand men' loved carving better than fighting. The poppyheads in the church are his work, and also the small altar on the south side of which he carved the four evangelists. This altar has travelled widely, for it was made as a desk and used by the General for the writing of dispatches in the field during the Peninsular War.
A more recent addition to the church is the unusual roof beam, with the ascended Christ as its central figure, Gabriel and Michael on either side, and the ugly stone heads of death and sin set down beneath their feet. These figures, made about 1900, were paid for by parishioners when Canon Jeans was the vicar. This noted historian did much to beautify the church.
Shorwell people have a great sense of history and intend that future generations shall have a beautiful and well-maintained heritage. Some are engaged in embroidering exquisite kneelers for the church, and a parish record book is being made with descriptions of significant local events and thumbnail sketches of the villagers. It tells how the village pound, near Westcourt, was restored in 1951, how the school, given by Lady Mary Gordon of Northcourt, celebrated its centenary, and what dismay there was when the school had to be closed in 1971.
This is a busy, happy community, with flourishing church, chapel, Autumn Club for the elderly, Youth Club for the up-and-coming, drama, music, children's and adult organisations, something for everyone. Shorwell is still small enough to retain its family atmosphere, and neighbours know and care about each other. Small wonder that a resident, appreciative of the beauty of his surroundings and the kindliness of the people, was heard to quote, "All this and Heaven too?"