I regularly drive up and down the Meon Valley in Hampshire. The road is the A32 and runs from Alton in mid Hampshire, right down to the South Coast. It follows the route of the River Meon, which has been part of people’s lives for 1000s of years, and used for food, water and transportation. The river meanders left and right, following the contours of the South Downs landscape and the road runs with it. Sometimes it is parallel to the river, even if high on the side of a hill with the river below. Sometimes the road and river break away from each other, then come back and crosses one another. They really are entwinned.
There are many villages along the route that the road passes through. Some villages are a little further away from the main A32 with smaller roads leading to them, indicating a previous route the ancient road took. There’s a wonderful dog leg as the road goes through West Meon (interestingly, East Meon, the sibling village few miles away, features as a diorama in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in Bayeux). It passes watercress beds, which have been used for hundreds of years and snakes past Old Winchester Hill (historiersmiscellany). One of the main ancient centres it goes through is Wickham, which was a major medieval market town. If you are ever there, take a look at the size of the market square, which indicates the importance of the town as a centre of trade during the 12th to 14th centuries.
One other village it passes through is Corhampton. Corhampton is very small, and lies between two other very small villages, Exton and Meonstoke. On face value anyone may think it is one village. They are all in a stone’s throw from one another, but the river and boundaries separate them. Each one has a church, as well as pubs and a shop. Not bad for a small population.
Corhampton, the central of these three villages, is on the junction of two main roads. The A32 runs north to south and the other road the B3035, works its way west to Winchester and Bishops Waltham. All these roads are ancient routes or follow ancient routes if not on the actual same position. They pass through the villages, join other routes, and link up the landscape.
Corhampton must have been quite a focal point when it came to rivers and roads. The three roads join, and the river is crossed. The Meon River was more substantial in the prehistory to the late medieval periods. It was navigable, so used for trade and transport. Old Winchester Hill is not far away and can be seen from Corhampton. It is more than likely that the River Meon was used for transportation when the hillfort was active, which dates back to the 2nd century BCE. Perhaps this point at Corhampton, the river was a ford and easily crossed, thus the junction with the roads. Maybe the was river narrow enough and the ground just right to construct a bridge. I’d like to know if there was a settlement at this point during the Iron Age. There are Iron Age field systems and a circular earthwork in the landscape to the west of the village.
Just to the north of this point, the river, the bridge, the roads converging, is Corhampton Church. The church is very small; the smallest of the three. It doesn’t have a dedication, which is surprising and I am not sure about the significance of that. Is it unusual for a church not to have a dedication? Suffice to say that over the past many hundreds of years churches have been dedicated, stripped of dedication and rededicated. What is noticeable about it, and what draws the eye to the Church, is that it is on a small, quite distinct, almost perfectly round hill. The landscape surrounding is full of hills, being in the South Downs, although just to the north, it becomes pretty flat for a few miles, making it a flood plain for the River.
This hill, looks odd, and not in keeping with the landscape. As I said, it is small, quite modest and really only big enough for the church and graveyard. It holds a modestly prominent position, not dominating like the surrounding hills and hill forts, but elevated within the local, immediate landscape. It draws attention because it is very picturesque and is on the side of the main A32 road, so people see it. I also said it is round. Well, maybe it’s not. It looks like it should be round, but observing the immediate boundaries and Archi Maps, it is rectangular on a north to south orientation.
The church is Saxon in origin, and it looks it. Like the hill it is on, it is simple and modest, with a Saxon shaped tower, although that was a 19th century addition. It is made of stone and brick and said to date from 1020. What is interesting is that Corhampton Church predates the other two churches in Exton and Meonstoke. Perhaps there was an earlier one on this site that was made of wood, and this stone building replaced it. Often early churches were initially made of wood, and so there are no remains. They were pulled down and a more substantial, expensive one was built in stone. Within the external wall of the church is a tide dial, which could well be earlier. It is certainly made of a different stone to the rest of the church.
There was settlement in this area before 1020. In fact, I literally stumbled on the Meonstoke Building Facade in the British Museum a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for something else and by pure serendipity, found this large wall on display. It is part of a large Roman barn-like building on a villa estate, built in the early AD 300s. This facade fell flat onto the ground and was preserved in that way. There are some holes cut through it which are foundations for a wooden structure of the early 5th or 6th century. So, early Saxon settlement in the area.
The Meon Valley has a Saxon connection with St Wilfred, who possibly visited Corhampton. St Wilfrid spent five years in the kingdom of East Sussex during which time he established Selsey Abbey. The story has it that this area of England, stretching down the Meon Valley to Titchfield was the last area in England to be Christianised and it was St Wilfred who was supposed to have achieved this. It is recorded that he was in Sussex during the 680s and at this time he came over to Hampshire and “Christianised” the Meon Valley.
The people of this area were called the Meonwara, which quite literally means, “People of the Meon”. During the 680s, there was a constant shift of politics, alliances, take overs and invasions, involving the Mercia, South Saxon and West Saxon Kingdoms. Incidentally, one of the three villages, Exton is apparently named after the East Saxons. The area may well have been significant in that it was the boundary of the kingdoms and with a river going out into the Solent, which links with international trade. The history is complex which is probably the reason why most of the local literature glosses over the story and keeps it simple. Maybe the first Christian church dates to this period, the 680s.
Corhampton Church has a wonderful peaceful atmosphere. That may have been because I was there by myself, and because it is small and intimate. Such buildings will make a personal connection with us. Compare it with the impact of a cathedral or large church with vaulting and huge, thick columns disappearing into the heavens imposing upon us, making us feel in awe. It has simple arhitecutre, small wooden pews and faded wall paintings. Small churches though, are intimate spaces, leaving no space for power to overwhelm us. The feeling makes us feel close to God in a very private sense.
Outside is the small graveyard perched on top of the hill. There is a small path heading off westwards, possibly following the road to Winchester. There are a few gravestones dating from the 18th century, a few mature trees, and right in the middle, in fact on the pinnacle and central to the hill, is a yew tree. It isn’t uncommon to find a yew tree next to a church, in fact one should expect it, but this yew tree is huge. I have never seen a yew tree with such a large trunk. The branches extend outwards and lollop down to the earth, where some of them reconnect with it. You walk into its canopy, and enter a separate world, the branches creating walls and ceiling. Right in the middle of the trunk of this Yew, is a dead part of the yew tree. As time passed, the older part has died away and the younger new growth has almost enwrapped it. There is only one thing to say about this yew. It is old. It looks older than the world. Yew trees live a long time, which gives then a close relationship with the graveyard; the passing of time, the ancient and not forgotten. This one, must be the oldest I have ever seen.
The other significant thing about the yew tree is that it is on the centre of this small hill. It is at the top of the hill, the pinnacle. The Yew tree takes centre stage. The church on the other hand has been built into the side of the hill, with the north front extending down another story. I only spotted this when I walked around the hill. I would have expected the church to be front and centre, making the statement of power and importance. But no, the yew tree is in the centre and obscures the church from one side.
It was obvious that the tree is older than the church. It at least must predate the stone church. It is interesting that when the stone church was built 1002 years ago, the builders did not place the building on the centre of the hill in the prominent position. Was the site and the yew already special when it was built. Was there a temple, or an important burial there before the wooden, 680s church? My thinking is this was a sacred site before the first Christian church. It is generally accepted that churches were built on pre-existing sacred sites. It makes sense really, a new religion absorbing older ones. I have no data or evidence to support this, of course, it just struck me when I took a good look at the hill from the road.
Others have written that there “may” have been something predating the Christian buildings. The word “may” means there is no evidence, so others have felt the same way. I have read that the hill itself could be “man-made”, which makes perfect sense to me. When you look at it, it does sit oddly in the landscape. Roman settlement has been excavated in the vicinity and it was a significant area in the middle Iron Age. Again, my questions, was the mound constructed for a something special, elevated up high, looking down upon everything else and everyone else looking up to it? Or was it simply keeping out of the way of the potential flood area? I have talked before about the power of water, religion, and Roman temples to Minerva or the “Celtic” Sulis, being association with rivers and springs (Minerva and the water god).
My gut feeling is that it is older, prehistoric. Again, no I have no evidence for this, just the landscape, ancient routes and the river. It may have been the time and the place that influenced me; the solitude, the sounds and the smells of church, the wood, the stone. I admit, it connected to the soul and felt ancient and spiritual. Even with the noise of the passing traffic didn’t detract from the feeling of spiritual intimacy and a safe place. I sat down in a pew, and in that moment, I said a prayer to whatever Pagan or Christian God, for the people in Ukraine.
Saxon history of the Meon Valley & St Wilfred – The Meon Valley (Provincia Meanwarorum) | Saxons in the Meon Valley
The Meon Bridge Benefice – Corhampton Church – Meon Bridge Benefice (bridgechurches.org.uk)
Yew Trees – Ancient Yews of Hampshire (ancient-yew.org)