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Finchampstead
St. James' Church

St. James' Church in Finchampstead is situated in a most dramatic position on top of a small hill above the Finchampstead Ridges, over-looking the Blackwater Valley and the plains of North Hampshire. Being surrounded by a prominent ancient earthwork and located immediately adjoining the 'Devil's Highway' (the Roman Road from London to Silchester), it is generally accepted as having been the site of an old Roman Temple. The original small square building surrounded by a veranda on all sides would have been visible to pagan pilgrims for miles around, as it shone white in the sunshine high above the Ridges, just as the War Memorial, a little further down the road, still does today. The church's neighbour, the Queen's Oak, may stand on the site of the old pilgrims' hostel. Could the name refer to Nemetona, the Romano-Celtic Goddess of the Sacred Grove?

It is not at all clear when the temple building would have been appropriated by a new Christian population. Possibly the people of Silchester converted it in late or post-Roman times or, perhaps more likely, it remained neglected and ruinous until the Saxon settlers moving up the Thames were converted to Christianity by St. Birinus in the AD 630s. St. Augustine of Canterbury certainly encouraged his converts to make use of old pagan places of worship in order  to show the greater power of God over that of the supposed deities previously worshipped there. Of course, if a church was built on the site, it was hard for it to remain sacred to stubborn followers of the old religion. Similar temple conversion sites elsewhere are now usually dedicated to St. Michael, the destroyer of the Devil (and paganism). It may be that he was Finchampstead's original patron. A rededication to St. James may be somehow related to the apostle's hand being resident at nearby Reading Abbey. Possibly it made a tour of the area at some time. The churches of Finchampstead and nearby Barkham and Ruscombe may have been the scenes of particularly impressive healings, hence they decided a new patron was in order.

From speculation, we turn to bricks and mortar. The present church is mostly of very early Norman date, although it may incorporate parts of a late Saxon building. The font inside certainly dates from just before the Conquest and the relatively unusual chancel apse was a feature favoured by Saxon as well as Norman architects. The whole building is somewhat the opposite of a tardis. From the outside, the huge tower, built of local clay bricks in 1720, gives the appearance of a very large church, but, within, there is only a rather small nave, the apsed chancel and a north chapel added in 1375. There are a number of interesting fixtures and fittings. The pulpit is decorated with 15th century tracery, probably from the old Rood Screen. There are two old brasses, one textual to Henry Hinde, Purveyor to the Tudor Monarchs (1580) and one with the figure of a certain Elizabeth Blyhe (1635). The Royal Arms is a good example of 1660, but it has been suggested that it is a Charles I board, rededicated when it was removed from its hiding place at the Restoration. The North Chapel houses the standard of General Sir John Watson of Indian Mutiny (1857) fame. The stained glass is very fine, particularly the the eastern transfiguration window of 1932. Several medieval features, such as the water stoup near the font and the piscina in the sanctuary, were rediscovered only in 1855 when the church underwent a certain amount of restoration.
 

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