Book review: Nicola Coldstream’s ‘Churches of Oxfordshire’

Nicola Coldstream, Churches of Oxfordshire, (Amberley Publishing, Stroud, 2023), 96 pages, 100 colour illustrations, paperback, ISBN 978 1 3981 0768 7, £15.99.

Nicola Coldstream is not only an eminent historian specialising in the medieval period, but she is also a valued Trustee of the Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust and it is fitting that her latest book provides a personal selection of the rich variety of beautiful churches that adorn our county. Based on her profound understanding of the development of ecclesiastical architecture, she takes us on an instructive journey from the Saxon period to the twentieth century visiting 42 examples set out in alphabetical order from Abingdon to Yarnton. Although the majority are Anglican parish churches, the Quakers are represented by the meeting house in Burford and the non-conformists by the Baptist chapel at Cote.

Each entry is enlivened by her enthusiasm for what makes them special. This is not a dry inventory of every minute architectural detail. We can consult the volumes of Pevsner for that. Instead she provides a succinct summary of the dateable elements of the fabric as a context for a focus on individual features. And what a wonderful selection they are. They range from wall paintings and funeral monuments to fonts, screens and stained glass by way of some delightful quirky objects such as the baptismal tank at Cote and the ‘Betjeman’ lamps at Uffington. Where appropriate, there are some helpful cross references to similar features in more than one church and some gently humorous asides like her description of the early Fettiplace monuments at Swinbrook as demonstrating a Pilates pose. Despite her erudition, she is not afraid to express her puzzlement at the chancel columns at North Leigh which seem to have no structural purpose or the phasing of the development of Dorchester abbey. She takes a particular delight in the lively sculpture of friezes and corbel tables and she justifies her advice to take a torch and binoculars by drawing attention to the painted dragons on a roof timber at Cropredy.

Each church is illustrated by an excellent colour photograph which places them in their individual settings and there are further detailed photographs which highlight their distinctive features. A location map demonstrates her coverage of the whole county and will be helpful in planning expeditions to share her delight in our rich heritage. The book was a joy to read and I will continue to dip into it wherever I go in Oxfordshire. The publishers should be praised for the quality of the book production and the reasonable price. It can be recommended to every curious church crawler in the county.

Malcolm Airs
30 June 2023

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