A Trip to Leonard Stanley on Shakespeare's Birthday
Last week I went to see Leonard Stanley – not as the name suggests, a comedian from the nineteen fifties, but a village in the Stroud valley, just south of Stonehouse, in the lee of the Cotswold escarpment. It is a village that you could easily pass through and think little of or, more likely, by-pass altogether. Yet, like so many forgotten places, it has a history and once would have made a thriving contribution to the Cotswold cloth trade. You have only to look at the names of the houses – Weaver's Cottage and Tannery House among them. And it must have been considered important before that, considering its hefty church, which was originally part of a significant priory, which had strong links with what was the Abbey Church of St. Peter and is now Gloucester Cathedral. The priory no longer exists, although the general layout is still visible and some of its buildings, including what is though to have been the original Saxon parish church, have been absorbed into the adjacent farm. The original church has been a barn probably since the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII. Before that, from when the current church was built in the 12th century, it may well have served as the priory guesthouse, or a chapel. Part of the wall has recently collapsed. Tragically, it is unlikely to be repaired very soon, as any repairs will have to be sanctioned by the conservation powers that be, who will inevitably insist on the sort of pointless authenticity that will render reconstruction absurdly expensive and time-consuming.
I know that I tend to highlight churches in these accounts, but the fact is that even today in rural areas churches tend to be the focal points of small villages, the histories of which are invariably linked to ecclesiastical influences. The current church is an unusual building. The nave is aisleless and at the crossing are two huge Norman arches below the tower, from which the bell ropes dangle in full view of the congregation. In the chancel is a pair of remarkable 'picture' capitals, one with a carving of Mary Magdalene anointing Christ's feet, the other representing the birth of Jesus. These are unique in Gloucestershire.
Our timing was good. It was the day before St. George's Day, which is also Shakespeare's birthday and the day after the Queen's birthday. We were generously invited to go up the narrow tower steps, passing by the great bells, and on to the crenellated roof, where a local man raised the English flag. Below, we could trace the layout of the old Priory, complete with monastic fishpond; and catch the glint of the River Severn in the wintry sunshine. The church is dedicated to St. Swithun, who is often associated with rain. It has not stopped raining since our visit.
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