The remote little church that’s a big thorn in the side of housing development

St Mary's Church, Fleet Marston

St Mary's Church, Fleet Marston

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A really rather beautiful church, situated on a mound in a circular churchyard, stands alone in the middle of a farmer’s field.

There is no obvious pathway leading to it, no homes to serve it, and these days no parishioners.

St Mary's Church, Fleet Marston - pictured is Karen Fishwick - volunteering officer for the Churches Conservation Trust

St Mary's Church, Fleet Marston - pictured is Karen Fishwick - volunteering officer for the Churches Conservation Trust

But it’s the church where John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, gave his first sermon in October 1725 as a young Anglican deacon; it contains a baptismal font that is over 750-years-old and the chancel arch is from the 14th century..

St Mary’s at Fleet Marston recently came back into the public eye after a planning inspector said 2,745 new homes in the area could not go ahead because they would ruin the isolated setting of the ancient church.

The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), which is responsible for St Mary’s, is keen for more people to visit it, volunteer to look after it, and suggest events to be held there.

The church was declared to be out of use in 1973, but it was saved by the CCT which had been created a few years previously in response to the decline in Church of England congregations and the subsequent closure of some churches as a result.

St Mary's Church, Fleet Marston

St Mary's Church, Fleet Marston

While other churches may have been knocked down or turned into housing St Mary’s has been kept intact due to its historical importance.

With the help of volunteers from the CCT the church is maintained and is open every weekday for anyone to view.

Karen Fishwick, CCT volunteering officer for this region, said: “We are delighted for people to come and visit it. And we would welcome volunteers or people who would like to run an event here. Perhaps a local historian would like to share their knowledge with others and hold a talk here, or schools might like to arrange a visit, there is a lot of educational value here.

“We would love to see more things happening here. We appreciate the access challenges, but we want life here, not just the building.”

St Mary's Church, Fleet Marston

St Mary's Church, Fleet Marston

There is no easy access to the church. Visitors have to park on a layby on the A41 and walk through a reclamation yard and across a, sometimes muddy, field.

The circular shape of the churchyard suggests there was a church here from Saxon times, but the church itself is Norman, with medieval additions of windows and the chancel arch.

It is believed there was once a village surrounding the church, as well as a manor house - all long gone.

Ms Fishwick said: “The village moved away in the 1700s. There was a manor house adjacent to the church.

It is likely the Lord or Lady of the manor wanted the grounds and space around the area for themselves so they moved the villagers away from the manor house, and therefore also away from the church. From aerial pictures you can see evidence of the layout that suggests a village and manor house.”

The displaced villagers settled nearby in what is now Fleet Marston, and still used the church. But over time the manor house also disappeared, possibly due to changing fortunes, and the villagers became part of the parish of Waddesdon. Services at St Mary’s declined until they stopped altogether.

The CCT, a registered charity, maintains more than 350 churches across the country with the help of annual grants from the Church of England and the government, but the amount is less than half what is needed and the rest comes from legacies, donations and volunteers organising events to raise money.

An occasional service, once or twice a year, is held at St Mary’s, and the funeral of the farmer whose land surrounds it was held in the church two years ago.

He is buried in the churchyard.

Ms Fishwick said: “The farming family are very supportive of the church and they are key holders.”

Funerals and burials can still be held at the church, which is still consecrated, but a special licence would have to be sought from the Archbishop of Canterbury in order to marry there, in addition to receiving the consent of the local vicar.

With the potential of extra housing always on the agenda in the Vale Ms Fishwick said: “Churches are community buildings. they are meant for people,if this area was developed we would want it to be sympathetic, but if the village grew we would hope that this church would be a resource for that community.

“We wouldn’t rule out returning it to a fully functioning church but there is a complicated legal process for that.

“But it could be a community facility, used for events, parties, fetes. We live in a more secular world, the church has a religious use but also a community use.”

If you would like to know more about the church, or would like to volunteer to look after it, or hold an event there contact Mr Fishwick on 07872 502116 or email kfishwick@thecct.org.uk