56. St Nicholas Steventon
This church of St Nicholas lies west of Basingstoke in the heart of the North Hampshire countryside only approached by a narrow road winding up ¾ of a mile from the village. Apart from a nearby farmhouse it is gloriously remote and overshadowed by a huge copper beech and a 900 year old yew tree. For many years the original church key, 15 inches long and weighing 4 ounces was kept in the hollow trunk of the yew tree. It is hard to imagine such slack security in these modern crime-ridden times.
Of 12th century origin the church has been much restored, the attractive spire, for instance, being a Victorian addition. The church is mainly famous for its Jane Austen connections. The novelist was born in the rectory on 16 December 1775, her father the Rev George Austen having been rector since 1761, and she spent much of her early life in the village.
Entering the church by the doorway under the tower, a mass clock or scratch dial can be seen carved on the surrounding stonework. A man's head is carved on one side of the arch and a woman's on the other. The small entrance porch acts as a ringing chamber for the three bells, the earliest dating from 1476.
The nave is rather plain, lit by three plain glass windows on either side. The pulpit is Victorian and the white marble font is dated 1828. One unusual feature is a fireplace in the north wall only uncovered by renovation work done in 1988. Below the pulpit stands the shaft of a Saxon Cross which originally came from Steventon manor.
There are several memorials to the Digweed family, tenants of the Manor in the nineteenth century. Indeed the boxed pew, now forming the vestry was once called the Digweed pew. On the south wall is a sad memorial relating to the death of Mary Jane Digweed who 'died to the inexpressible grief of her parents at Brussels on 7 August 1824 in her 16th year'. The epitaph concludes 'Gentle Spirit Child of affection and sweet simplicity. Adieu.'
The Victorian east window depicts a Crucifixion scene. Above are shown the symbols of the Passion... the hammer, nails, Crown of Thorns, the sponge, the scourge and the spear. There are also two small lancets with attractive cut glass patterns.
The chancel is full of Austen family memorials. One is to Anne Austen wife of the Rev James Austen, second daughter of Lt-General Matthew Governor of Grenada who 'exchanged this life for a better' on 3 May 1795 in her 37th year. Other memorials relate to James Austen d.1819 and another James Austen d.1843. But the most heart-wrenching memorial is that of the Rev.William Knight who died in 1873 having been Rector for 50 years. In the space of six days between 9-15 June 1848 he and his wife lost three daughters, Mary Agnes aged 5, Cecilia aged 4 and Augusta aged 3, 'all cut off by scarlet fever'.
The Victorian altar has 5 panels showing the saints Birinus, Boniface, Nicholas and Swithun with the Good Shepherd in the centre. Above the chancel arch facing the nave is a large painting. On the left Moses is giving out the Law, in the centre is a Transfiguration scene showing Moses and Elias kneeling before Christ and on the right Jesus himself is showing the Light and the Truth.
The Jane Austen family tree hangs at the back of the church and a large plaque on the north wall simply states 'Jane Austen 1775-1817 worshipped here'. A prayer composed by Jane herself also hangs on the wall.
Before leaving, wander around the peaceful churchyard where the graves of James Austen (Jane's eldest brother), her father George Austen, plus the tomb of the Rev Knight and his three daughters can be seen in the north east corner.
page last updated 24 FEBRUARY 2002