Situated on a wooded hill on the outskirts of the city of Worcester, the Church of St Nicholas is a landmark familiar to many as they enter the city off the M5 motorway. A very early Norman building, the church was probably built around 1090 on the site of a simple wooden Anglo-Saxon structure, and before that the little hill clearing is thought to have been a pagan place of worship. When the Normans arrived here at the manor known then and now as Warndon the whole area for miles around would have been nothing but forest and criss-crossed by tracks and pathways, and up until the 1600s the farmland and woods nearby was known as “Leopard”, suggesting that it may have been known as a habitat for the lynx before their extinction sometime around 750CE.
The church was originally a private chapel for the occupants of the fortified and moated manor house nearby and things went relatively quietly throughout the Medieval Era until 1374, when the Prior of Worcester Abbey, which the church had now come under, issued a mandate demanding the return to St Nicholas of its rector Thomas Felde. “He has absented himself from the cure of the souls of his parishioners...the buildings are ruinous and the vicar receives then wastes the fruits of his vicarage”... “and other scandals and perils of the soul are perpetrated here!”. Felde the “Black Rector” laid low for a year then somehow sneaked across to another church in the county and became its vicar, while William de Bracy, the lord of the manor, personally sponsored his replacement the Rector Johannes Hale.
When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, St Nicholas' was left in danger of being sold off for salvage but it was claimed and consecrated as parish church for the community by Henry Holbeach the first post-Dissolution Dean of Worcester. The impressive wooden tower was built to mark the occasion and inside it one can see beams that were actually salvaged from scuttled ships of the navy of Henry VIII. As time went on the church was more often than not under the auspices of an “absentee rector”, these were parsons who controlled a few parishes remotely, paid local curates a pittance to carry out services and sat getting fat on the combined tithes. This went on right up until 1874 when the demanding of tithes was banned altogether.
In 1637 a big outbreak of bubonic plague struck the Worcester area and, with no local priest or parson present, the church was left derelict and ruinous. During the Civil War the empty church was trashed by Parliamentarian troops who smashed much of the Medieval stained glass and fired shots into the walls and tower. By the time the Gunpowder Plot had been resolved though the church was back in business with some fine features being donated by local bigwigs. Some of the “Leopard” lords left wills with the caveat that in order to help the local poor every woman should be given “a gown” every two years while another left money to pay for one loaf of bread, only on Christmas Day, for each Warndon family.
The font inside St Nicholas' is thought to have actually been carved out of the stump of a Roman column, It is septagonal, one of only a very few such seven sided fonts in the entire country. The remaining stained glass dates from the 1300s and is again very rare in that Mary is depicted with bare breasts as she feeds the baby Jesus.
All very interesting, but what about the mysterious stuff? This little hilltop has long been a place associated with the ghostly and the paranormal, with many people having strange experiences here. I heard a first-hand account from a work colleague who, as a young boy, had cycled up to the church during the summer break with some friends, As they rested for a moment in the sloping yard he noticed an old man walk around to the window end of the church accompanied by a Jack Russel dog. As the flat-capped gentleman began to walk towards the boys my friend glanced back, looked back again, and the man had vanished. A quick ride around the church grounds revealed nothing.
He isn't the only person to have encountered the dog owning old fellow, and there was worse to come. During the 1970s two lads were tasked with weeding the graveyard one hot summer's day. The pair went inside the church to cool off and eat their sandwiches, and it was then that they saw the shape of a headless man – floating along the aisle towards them. The boys exited sharpish but the word spread and for the next few evenings a rowdy mob of local youths would gather at the church armed with various makeshift weapons, perhaps taking the term “ghost hunt” a little too literally. At one point the local MP, Peter Walker, had to sound his horn and run the gauntlet of would-be spirit slayers as he attempted to drive to his house nearby!
Something even stranger has been reported on two separate occasions, the first in 1979. A young man and woman had parked in the lane next to the church, the classic “courting couple” scenario. The woman saw a huge cat emerge from underneath her boyfriend's car, strange enough, but as it moved along the lane she claimed it quickly and very fluidly transformed into a tall man wearing a long coat, who casually walked away! This very same phenomena was reported again, in the same lane, in 2002. I have to say that the churchyard of St Nicholas and its surroundings can be a rather odd area with a lonely and detached atmosphere about it. Perhaps its isolated hilltop location, surrounded by forests as it once was, channeled some paranormal power? I make no judgement on this matter here but others may see more into it...
If you like this post you might like my book The Mystery Of Mercia, available here -
The Church of St Nicholas, Worcester
The Tudor tower
The “Norman end”, little changed from the 1100s
Septagonal font, most likely carved from a Roman column
Some of the Medieval stained glass, rare in that it shows Mary bare-breasted
Tudor ship Timbers used in the construction of the tower
St Nicholas Church with its graveyard