Appleford Church is a landmark for miles around. Its tower and spire stand out boldly and prominently from the flat, open landscape of this part of South Oxfordshire, once North Berkshire. They are clearly visible from Wittenham Clumps and Sires Hill, from all the local roads, from the Oxford to Paddington railway and also from the River Thames and its footpath.
The church is dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul, whose joint feast day is celebrated on 29th June. It stands at the very eastern edge of the village, built on ground just high enough to protect it from the river floods that were common in earlier days. Its predominantly Victorian appearance and character, which are the result of extensive reconstruction in 1885 and 1886, make a strange match for its quiet rural setting next to a farm and open fields. They led the famous architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner to describe the building as “over restored.” This is still a more friendly judgement, however, than that of one earlier expert. In his official “Ecclesiastical and Architectural History of the Diocese of Oxford”, published in 1849, J H Parker curtly dismissed the pre-Victorian version as “a small poor church of mixed styles.”
Although nothing remains of it today, it is believed that there was a church on this spot in Saxon times, probably founded by Saint Birinus of Dorchester or one of his priests. Appleford, a place where apples from the Harwell orchards were carried across the Thames into Oxfordshire, was once a key crossing point along the river and it is known that there was another church, dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, at the south side of a now-vanished bridge.
The oldest features of the present building date from the times when the nave was rebuilt in the Twelfth Century and the chancel in the Thirteenth. There are two round-headed Norman doorways from the Twelfth Century. These are the entrance door, which is approached through a Victorian timber porch, and a blocked doorway immediately opposite it in the north wall. The attractive font, octagonal above and round below, and the pillar piscina by the alter also date from the late Twelfth Century. A second blocked doorway, in the south wall and visible only from outside the church, is Thirteenth Century.
The communion rails date from about 1730 and the unusual and famous organ, built by Samuel Green in 1777, is a special treasure. A chamber organ, intended to be played in a drawing room, it belonged originally to the Abbey House at Sutton Courtenay and is one of very few of Green’s organs to have survived intact.
The renovations of 1885-86, which changed the building’s appearance so dramatically, were carried out at the expense of the church’s great benefactor Mr Walter Justice, to the designs of the architect W.Gilbee Scott of London. In addition to the new tower and spire, they included a completely new roof, porch and vestry, the lengthening of the nave by five feet six inches and the renewal of all the internal fittings except the font. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners for England restored the chancel at the same time. The tower was equipped for a ring of six bells. John Warner and Sons of Cripplegate, London, were commissioned to produce three new ones. They also recast the treble bell which had been made at Witney in 1710 and the four were added to the two much older bells which had been cast in the Fourteenth Century at Wokingham. One of these is believed to be among the nine oldest surviving bells from that great medieval foundry.
More recently, the first electric lighting in the church was installed by the parishioners of Appleford in 1946 to mark the end of the Second Great War and in 1994 the tower vestry was enclosed so that it could also serve as a Sunday School room. In the same year members of the congregation completed a set of alter kneelers embroidered to show the apple trees whose fruit was carried across the river, Brunel’s railway bridge – Appleford’s last surviving Thames crossing, and “Old Timer” – the star of the traction engine rallies once held in the village.
Inside the church there are six memorial tablets to members of the Justice family of Appleford and Abingdon. The tomb of Walter Justice himself and his wife Eliza is outside in the churchyard, enclosed by ornate iron railings, under the east wall of the church. The churchyard also contains the grave of Johny Faulkner, one of Appleford’s most celebrated inhabitants, who was known as “the world’s oldest jockey.” He was born in 1828, rode his first winner at the age of eight, took part in his last race at the age of seventy-four and died just short of his one hundred and fifth birthday.
Appleford’s ancient ford across the Thames has now completely disappeared but it was undoubtedly because of its importance in past times that a settlement first grew up around it and the village’s long history began. A prehistoric drinking jug and a large collection of Fourth Century Roman coins have both been found locally and the village is mentioned in the famous Domesday Book of 1086. The Manor Farm was a grange for the great Abbey at Abingdon, to which the church once belonged. Two hundred years after that ownership was recorded in Popo Nicholas’ Taxatio, an ecclesiastical equivalent of the Domesday Book, came two developments which have lasted through five centuries right up to the present day. In 1496 the Bishop of Sarum (now Salisbury), in whose diocese Appleford was then situated, linked Appleford church with Sutton Courtenay by giving the vicar there an increase in salary and a larger vicarage in return for looking after Appleford as well. At the end of that same year the patronage of the newly-joined living was transferred to the Dean and Chapter of Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor and another five-hundred year association began.
By Chris Owen