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The Campiun window
This tiny mediaeval window in the north aisle is dedicated to Will Campiun, the mason who helped build the church of St Mary Magdalene at Helmdon in 1313
Meet Wills Campiun, the Master Mason
who built Helmdon church

It was a sad occasion that first led me to the church of St Mary Magdalene at Helmdon, but ultimately a happy one. Sad because I went to the funeral of Sue Gidman.
Sue had worked with me at the very start of the Banbury Cake, and as she was a much-loved member of the Helmdon community, the church was packed for the service.
Happy because once we had all said our farewells there was a chance for me to look at the church and see its beauty; and so I returned a few weeks later to learn more about this 12th century church which was built from stone quarried in the village itself.
We know that one of the masons was Wills (William) Campiun for he is
commemorated in a small segment at the top of the window in the north aisle which is closest to the chancel.
There he is with stone mason's sharp edged mallet in hand and an inscription which reads Will's: Campiun: Fecit: Hoc: Op: Lapi: Dis Anno Dni MCCCXIII, which shows that our Wills worked on the fabric of the church in 1313.
The actual window is of exceptional interest as it is one of the very few English mediaeval windows to depict an artisan with the tools of his trade. The only others are in York Minster and
   
Stained glas   Stained glass
Detail from the fine east window which was installed in 1917 and which bears comparison with the best stained glass anywhere.

St Mary Magdalene
St Mary Magdalene Church at Helmdon with the nature conservation area in the foreground

St George's Chapel at Windsor.
The leading of the window which was almost intact before the window was conserved in 1976-7 is preserved behind glass in a frame on the north wall. It was too weak to be re-used so the window is now safely preserved in new lead.
Helmdon has other similar fine small mediaeval stained glass at the tops of the windows in the north and south aisles, and Wills is in good company for the arms of the Earls and first Duke of Lancaster, and the Warennes Earls of Surrey are displayed, along
 
Inside the church
The interior of the church shows the many arches leaning outwards.
with scraps of former windows which are above the Lady altar in the south aisle.
However the finest window is in the east behind the altar. Commemorating the death of Florence Wonnacott, the wife of a Rector, in December 1913, it was installed in 1917 and represents from left to right, the birth of Christ, his death and resurrection, and while one usually just absorbs the overall effect of a stained glass window, this one bears closer study. The work, especially in the faces is exquisite, and at least proves that glass makers in the early 20th century more than equalled that of the great Victorians.

One of the figures which adorns the reredos
One of the figures which adorn the reredos

The church, like so many in the Four Shires was thoughtfully restored by those Victorians in 1874 and retained many of the original features.
For instance the fine three seated stepped sedilia in the chancel
 
Inside the church
has some splendid decorated hood mouldings, and there are mediaeval carvings of heads abounding, and while they could be members of the same family, one stopped me short in my tracks. For quite clearly there was one of a long eared dog - and immediately I felt a glow of admiration for the family who had obviously loved their pooch so much that they had immortalised their pet in stone.
The church has three piscinae (the stone bowls where the communion vessels were washed). There is a finely decorated one by the sedilia, a much smaller one (originally on the other side of the chancel) which is just inside the door of the north porch, and another in the exterior north wall by the vestry building corner, which provides a home for a nesting bird. That one could have been in the wall of a former chapel, or it could have been used for services outside the church during the times of the lepers and plagues.
The south porch has very sensibly been turned into toilets, and there are kitchen facilities. When our churches are nowadays returning to part of their original function in mediaeval times as social meeting places, they are
  essential, but one wonders what the privy arrangements were centuries ago.
The two porches were built in the 15th century, while the original church was the nave which was built in the 12th century. The chancel is 13th century, and the tower was rebuilt in 1823 after it had been struck by lightning, although the useful notes about the church in a freely available pamphlet declares that it was a copy of the original which was built in the 14th century.
In the belfry are six bells and the oldest were cast in 1679 - the tenor has an inscription which reads: "That all may cvm and non may stay at hom, I ring to sermon with a lusty bom. 1679".
Moving back to the chancel there is a single manual organ built by Henry Jones, of Fulham Road, London, with a thoughtful memorial plaque to Marjorie Rose Brown, organist, who died on March 16th 1977.
Little, one suspects, remains of the original chancel floor, for the 18th century memorial tombstones are almost worn away, and while the church itself was built with local Helmdon stone, much of the floor appears to have been laid much later with Hornton blue stone.

A piscina
One of the three piscinae in the church. This tiny Early English example was originally near the organ

Outside piscina, now home to a nest
The outside piscina, now home to a nest

A dog in stone
 



A typical decorated window with
even more faces
The four clerestory windows on the north of the nave and the three on the south side have their original glass, and for those interested in church architecture the pillars form an interesting comparison. Those on the north side - 18 inches in diameter with octagon capitals are rather finer, and appear later than the south side with their 21 inch quatrefoil capitals.
It was not too easy to get to the mural tomb in the south wall because some genial workmen (could they have been Wills' descendants one wonders?) were working on the porch housing the kitchen, but we are told it is covered with black granite with traces of ornamentation.
However by the time this appears in print I am sure you will be able to see for yourselves if you take the trip to this charming Northamptonshire village near Brackley.
However, clearly visible above the Early English arch keystone is the stone helmeted head in the style of those worn for the crusades, so it's a reasonable assumption that the tomb is of some long forgotten Helmdon crusader.

Four faces by the sedilia, which could well have been part of one family, and was the dog on the left the family pet?

These small windows are all that are left of the original mediaeval glass, and some depict the arms of famous families, such as the Earls and first Duke of Lancaster, and the Warennes Earls of Surrey

Probably at the Victorian restoration the musicians' gallery in the west end under the tower was removed - probably when the organ was installed, and another Victorian item is the rugged font by the north door.
Have a look at the fine kneelers which were created by a large number of people in the last decade of the last century.
The church guide says: "The overall colours have been chosen to tone with the nave windows, and the chancel carpet, but the designs have been the choice of both workers and sponsors, to remember many individuals and village organisations and buildings. The smaller and differently coloured Noah's Ark kneelers were stitched by pupils in Helmdon School".
However to see the many designs you do not have to turn them all over for they have been preserved in albums by the church door which have colour photographs of them all.
Walk round the outside of the church and prepare to be amazed by the massive yew tree at the east end of the church. The Conservation Foundation Country Living Yew Tree Campaign certifies that it is at least 1,700 years old! The trunk is between eight to nine feet in diameter, and it has marvellous natural growth designs.
The face of a crusader?
Was this the face of the crusader who lies in the mural tomb in the south wall of the church? It is in the keystone of the arch above the tomb.
   
You will have to walk under the exterior branches which almost touch the ground to see the trunk, but it's well worth the trouble.
One tree you just can't ignore is the stark remains of a fir tree at the edge of the churchyard which points its ragged fingers to the skies.
There are many monuments, many of them to farmers and schoolmasters on the exterior of the walls, plaques recording the tower restoration, and on the stone of the south porch, with many more carved heads above the
  windows. The churchyard is one of the largest I have yet come across in a village and is beautifully maintained. It was good to see beautiful lawns alongside the area on the south side which has tall grasses allowed to grow freely in a conservation area, and which encourages a variety of lichens. The air must be good!
There are seats at good vantage points, and lovely views for contemplation. Alongside many ornamental stones from the 17th century and later, I came across a very simple wooden cross which had the name George Batchelor picked out in scrabble tiles, and one hopes George is now happily adding up his scores in heaven.
Finally, because the church, with its memorials to its farmers, is so much a rural sanctuary, I was taken by this sampler inside the church, called The Farmer's Prayer. It reads:
  "Let the wealthy and great
Roll in splendour and state
I envy them not I declare it.
I eat my own lamb, my chicken and ham,
I shear my own fleece and wear it.
I have lawns, I have bow'rs
I have fruits, I have flow'rs.
The lark is my morning alarmer
So jolly boys now
Here's God speed the plough
Long life and success to the farmer".

It takes 1,700 years to produce the patterns on the giant trunk of the yew that dominates the churchyard
You might think this was some relic from the 17th-18th century (and the poem may well be) but it was worked by Ann and Tony Smith in Helmdon in 2000 - and good health to them both for sharing it with us.

Reproduced with kind permission from The Four Shires Magazine, August 2002.
 
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