St Peter’s Church, Gayhurst Court, Gayhurst, Bucks: cracking the codes — of WWII, and a mystery statue

Birds are singing at the top of the road leading to Gayhurst Court. The sun shines through a milky haze; there is a gatehouse made of honey stone and a freshly red-painted letterbox. The Georgian church and Gayhurst House appear from the undulating country, rumpled like a sheet, punctuated by stands of bare ash trees.

“I’m actually Catholic,” Christine tells me. I am sitting in her kitchen inside the converted coach house, looking out at the church across the drive. She is secretary of the PCC as well as for the company in which all of those who live at Gayhurst Court are shareholders. She and her husband have lived here for fifteen years. 

“But we just feel we should support [the church]. It’s a focus for community.” It is the only public building in the village. “It’s a hamlet, but there’s nothing else.”

The tower, with its unusual cupola, needs urgent works. The parish — of only nine people — has tried desperately to raise money, but two lottery bids have failed and three years of fundraising have yielded just £28,000 — about a third of what’s needed. They’ve hosted receptions and cream teas, Christine has auctioned off stays in her second home in France; they’ve sent out a picture of the church with barbed wire around it. “We didn’t actually say — you might want to be buried there, but you might want it at certain times in your life.”

Perhaps at the expense of the surrounding villages, The nearby town of Milton Keynes continues to grow. There was a proposal to build a ‘garden village’ in Gayhurst. “It will happen eventually,” says Christine, “not in my lifetime.” She opposed it, because she didn’t feel they would provide the infrastructure (sewage, roads, schools, GP surgeries) to support the thousands of new homes. Yet in surrounding villages, shops, pubs and schools are closing. Christine sees the church as merely another victim of this trend.

“To be worth saving, you have to have something specific,” Christine says, reflecting on the unsuccessful Lottery bids. “But I think we do.” She means the fine marble statue of Nathan Wrighte and his son George, which — resplendent in the nave — is unsigned. The Wrighte family, who bought the estate in 1704, built the current church in 1730, over the site of a much older mediaeval building. The sculpture was originally thought to be the work of Roubilliac, a prominent 18th century artist, but it now seems this is not correct. Legend has it that George died before paying for the work, lumping his son — also George — with the bill, who refused to inscribe the statue. 

Going back earlier, the house was home to Everard Digby, implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. His son, Kenelm, was a prominent Royalist during the Civil War and, among other claims to fame, invented the modern wine bottle. 

The heritage can prove an attraction; a centenary Remembrance service attracted around a hundred people. They invited the descendants of men listed on the memorial and the Wrens who were stationed during the Second World War, when Gayhurst was requisitioned as an outpost of Bletchley Park. It was the Wrens who hooked up the power in the church.

There is a tapestry framed in the church; a piece of fabric they sewed their signatures on. Christine describes one of the women who came back. “She never married. Bit of a battleaxe, frankly. They lived in Nissen huts around the house; the only time she was allowed in was to hear that her fiancé had been killed in action.”

The church is in a typical Palladian revival style: a boxy shape with high rounded windows that let in the light, articulated inside and out with Corinthian and Ionic pilasters. Inside, painted coats of arms hang; one of them captioned with the motto ‘Resurgam’. Christine theorises these are older than the church. There is an unusual altarpiece; a triple panel painted in black and gold, bearing the Nicene Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s prayer. Inlaid above in wood is a Masonic triangle, inscribed with the Hebrew legend YHWH. 

 

Christine points out to me the memorial plaque to William Carlile — “ the first MP to drive a motor car,” — and the last owner-occupier of the house. His second wife, Elizabeth, is commemorated with a small plaque in the chancel; she died in 1995. “People round here used to know her,” says Christine, “she used to put on airs.”

She recounts meeting a woman who was once a maid in the house, who told of how Blanche, the first wife, “would order up fresh flowers from London — they came all the way up in a carriage.”

Outside, Christine points out the ornamental stone posts in the garden. “All of these used to have obelisks on top, but the USAF shot them off during the war for target practice. We looked into restoring them, but it’s too much money.” They have to prioritise. It took £30,000 to refurbish the roof of the house alone. The fate of the church is still uncertain.

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