If you are out on the local roadway or on the pavements grey and you are looking for an interesting walk or a peaceful place to visit, then just over the old Whitley borders across the M4 there is a beautiful church that is almost a thousand years old.
A country church built on a hill cannot be hidden, not even one without a spire. The spire of St Mary’s Shinfield was lost in the English civil war during the battle of Reading and there is still visible evidence of cannonball damage on the outside. The tidemarks of all the wars that so shook our faith are on every wall and floor of this church. The very good book Our Boys is on sale for only £8 that tells the stories of Shinfield villagers killed in World War One.
There is a plaque for the Mitford family just inside the charming and restful porch, although Mary Mitford, the writer of the rather neglected but brilliant Our Village, is buried at Swallowfield Church. There are imaginative memorials – one is a marble of a couple joined in prayer – and there is a brass plate listing vicars since 1280. In the bell-ringing room there are ropes to the six bells as well as charity boards to remind everyone of bequests, along with all sorts of pictures and curios.
There are many features of interest including the Tudor barrelled-vaulted ceiling, but the modern stained glass is actually my favourite thing. It was commissioned to mark the millennium and I can’t say I have seen better modern pieces of its type.
The greatest quality of this church is the colour when the sunlight hits the thin red bricks of the tower. It must have been a stunning sight above the shining fields flooded by our most natural of rivers, the Loddon. Even for us folk from Aldbrickham (Thomas Hardy‘s name for Reading) who live and die amongst red brick, it is an astonishing sight.
The church is now hemmed in by housing. Although it was fairly inevitable that the village would be developed, I feel that the new buildings, although smart, are a little too close. The loss of the village green’s mighty oak in a storm seemed to be an omen for the great changes the new housing would bring to the village. The names of new roads seem to mock the previous abundant wildlife: skylarks and owls will not thrive without open farmland and mature trees, although it is good to see martins, swifts and swallows still return every summer.
Shinfield has always had a fascination for nearby Whitley folk who would be drawn to its decent pubs, especially in summer. We youthful Whitley rogues were all over the place during summer holiday bike rides. One night, we sat in the lovely churchyard extension, just through the alley amongst the gravestones, with our snakebite (mixed cider and lager). We thought we could stay there the whole night until we were scared witless when a tawny owl hooted, and we ran away! My brother once fell out of a huge tree in the rookery at Church Lane and walked away without a scratch.
The quality of silence, peace and awareness of past, present and future as one, often found in an English ecclesiastical building, can still be found here.