68. St Mary's, Ashley.
This small 12th century church a few miles east of Kings Somborne in the heart of rural Hampshire is actually built in the outer bailey of Ashley Castle. It is probable that the church originated as a chapel for the castle and the settlement around it. Today it is looked after by the Redundant Churches Fund, the population of Ashley only being about 60, and only occasional services are held there.
The walls are of flint rubble with chalk block dressings. From the path beside the west wall three headstones of the John Smith family c 1790 can be seen set into the wall. Entering by the south brick porch date 1701, one immediately notices the carved stone head of a man wearing a close fitting cap, sticking out from the north wall of the nave. It probably dates from the 15th century. Left of the door is a rare example of a late Elizabethan alms box some five feet high and cut out of an oak post. To the right of the door is a badly mutilated holy water stoup. There is a fine timbered roof and the font is Norman and made of Purbeck marble.
The Norman chancel arch has two large squints on either side (possibly early 13th century). The floor of the chancel, mostly red tiled, slopes upward to the altar. In the jamb of a window on the south side is a wall painting probably of Our Lady, though some think it may be of St Barbara, patron saint of fortifications. Close by is an interesting early 18th century memorial to Thomas Hobbs, physician and surgeon to three kings of England, Charles II, James II and William III. He died in 1698. The memorial also commemorates his young son Thomas who 'while studying at Ultrajecture was drowned in the River Rhine' aged 17 in 1707. Another marble memorial on the north wall of the chancel relates to his great nephew Abraham Weekes and his wife Frances. There is an attractive smiling cherub underneath.
But the 20th century is not forgotten. In two small round windows high in the south wall of the nave, one over the pulpit, the other beside the door, are two fine engravings by David Peace. one to Frieda McCay, 1891-1980, is inscribed 'My God is no Stranger' whilst that to her husband Henry McCay 1881-1975 is inscribed 'We will remember them'.
In a display case at the back of the church is an unusual notice regarding the former customs relating to the ringing and tolling of the bell at funerals in Ashley. It reads (in part) 'The custom at funerals is to toll the big bell slowly for 20 minutes before the time fixed and when the mourners are in sight to toll quickly, ceasing on arrival at the churchyard gate. Immediately after, as soon as the mourners leave the churchyard about 25 strokes are rung on the big bell quickly...' I wonder when the bell was last tolled?
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