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February 12, 2006

An interesting corner of history

The ancient market town of Tewkesbury sits astride the confluence of the River Avon, (or Afon in Gaelic - which means it is called the River River!) and the Severne. It is at least a Saxon foundation, and probably earlier than that, as we have on the hills surrounding us various "hill forts", "castles" and "camps" at Bredon, Embury and Kemerton to name but a few, so human settlement of this area certainly predates the Roman period.

It is an interesting place for many reasons, King John had a castle here to guard the ford over the Severne, Edward IV secured the Crown of England here and the Duke of Clarence and Edward Lancaster, Prince of Wales, are buried here. The town's name is a corruption of the name of a 7th Century hermit who established a hermitage where the Abbey now stands, called Theoc. Over the years Theoc's Bury has become Tewkesbury. Certainly the present Abbey Church, built between 1102 and 1121, replaced an earlier Saxon building and the Abbot's Residence, now the Vicarage, has a Saxon undercroft.

Of more recent date, the town has also seen the start of a number of other branches of Christianity, certainly we have the oldest Baptist Chapel in England, hidden away down a "Court" almost on the Abbey's doorstep! This fascinating building was disguised as a pair of houses, complete with false front doors and windows to give it the "domestic" appearance. Personally I find it difficult to believe that the Vicar, Church Wardens and other Church authorities could not have known what was in fact being built, but they do seem to have "tolerated" it despite the Acts of Religion then in force. Recently though, I discovered that the earliest Baptist "missionaries" to the North American Colonies, actually worshipped here and were among the founders of this chapel. Thus, there is a link between the Deep South Baptist churches of the modern US and this ancient Town and Borough!

The Old Baptist Chapel, nestling under the shadow of the Abbey and designed to appear to be two cottages, hence the different windows!

A few lanes further back and nearer the town "centre" stands a small cottage known as "The Old Friends Meeting House", another "Non-conformist" chapel originally disguised as a house. When the "Friends" abandoned it, it became a public house, and then was divided into two small cottages. The present owner, a friend of mine, has restored it to a single dwelling and regularly invites the "Friends" to hold their meetings there. After all, her back garden is in fact their burial ground! This house too has strong links with the Quaker pilgrims, many of their leading lights having at some time worshipped here. In the window of the living room is an account of the "riot" outside the house in the late 17th Century at which Mr Fox, then the leader of the "Friends" and several of his followers were arrested by the Church Wardens of the Parish for holding a meeting likely to incite a disturbance.

The back of the Old Friends Meeting House and a part of the burial ground, now a park.

I find it ironic that my friend, now the owner, is, with me, one of the successors to those Church Wardens. I hope we have a more tolerant attitude towards our fellow Christians. After all, we are all serving the Lord in our own way, and the style of worship is, I think, a matter of conscience.

I find it fascinating that this ancient town with the Abbey at its centre, is also the home of such diverse branches of the Christian family as the Baptists and the Society of Friends. Perhaps the past has an important lesson for the future - in tolerance and understanding. It is my belief that the great Abbey Church in Tewkesbury was saved by the town for the very reason that it had always tried to accommodate the town, something we still try to do.

If you are passing through this way, do stop and visit, not just the Abbey, but the little Baptist Chapel hidden in it's "Court" and the lovely Old Friends Meeting House and Burial ground. Do stop and think a little on the people who created these places of worship, and on their contribution to our world today.

Posted by The Gray Monk at February 12, 2006 10:30 AM

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I visited the Friends Garden today and although I agree it is a lovely peaceful space I feel it needs some TLC. Its getting overrun with Bindweed and the Brambles and Sowthistles are beginning their incursions. I'd love to take care of the garden as I'm renting the house opposite it. Can you let me know who to contact to take on this task?

Posted by: Sue Wilcox at July 16, 2007 06:29 PM