Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

All Saints’ Church

All Saints Church, Bisham
All Saints Church, Bisham

Whilst the abbey has a fascination, one of the most striking views afforded by the Thames has been dominating the scenery for some time. As I have been walking along my eyes have been drawn to the wonderful edifice that is All Saints’ Church. Pictures of the church alone do not do it justice. It needs to be seen in a much wider view to fully appreciate the effectiveness of a lone building standing right on the edge of the river. Everything about it looks just right.

The prominent feature is the Norman tower, dating from around 1175. It has a somewhat stumpy appearance, looking as though it should be a little taller to be in correct proportion to the rest of the building. This contributes to the unique shape of this church, helping to distinguish it from many others built at the same time.

The church has been expanded from its original size, mostly by the efforts of the Hoby family who took over the neighbouring Bisham Abbey from Anne of Cleeves. The several generations of the family left a very significant mark with a collection of monuments dedicated to their memory and a superb stained glass window displaying the heraldic arms of different branches of the family. The finest of the monuments was planned by Lady Elizabeth Holby (1528 – 1609) who was a bit of a live wire.

Lady Elizabeth Holby was an irrepressible woman. Her father was tutor to the young Edward VII and this enabled her to be married to Thomas Holby who was a wealthy translator and diplomat. Elizabeth was one of those women those of us who live in villages and small communities know well. If there was something that needed to be organised she would do it, and God help anybody who tells her that they “do not have the time” to bake cakes, sell tickets or whatever else she demands that you do. She organised everything she could, from her daughters wedding to her own funeral. Elizabeth loved to show off her organizational prowess at court, and especially loved to “put one over” Lord Burghley at every opportunity. Apart from the fine family memorial Lady Holby’s high point was persuading Queen Elizabeth I to hold her court at Bisham Abbey for a six week period in 1592. You can just imagine her ladyship punching a clenched fist into the air with a defiant shout of “Yes! Beat that Burghley!”

We all know you just can’t get rid of people like Elizabeth Hoby, and she is no exception. I say “is”, rather than “was”, because she allegedly still walks the corridors of Bisham Abbey taking charge of the place. Which is probably why Bisham is so popular as a retreat for leading football clubs. The thought of running into Lady Hoby on one of her missions would frighten the most party-loving Premiership prima-donna into instant docility.

The Holby family was responsible for much of the expansion to the church but the final touches were the result of extensive restoration work that commenced in 1849. A new vicar, Rev Thomas Powell had arrived and set about developing All Saints into its present glory. He was to stay at All Saints for over fifty years. Powell enlisted the financial patronage of the Vansittart family who were now the owners of Bisham Abbey. The chancel was extended and the south gallery constructed. The Vansittart’s were an unfortunate family, with several young heirs dying in tragic circumstances. Was this the curse of Abbot Corderey? There is a memorial in the church to one of the sons who died while at Eton.

The final addition was made in 1878 by General Owen Williams who built the north aisle in memory of his parents and first wife. This gives the fine building that sits across the water from me now, its stone features reflecting in the slow-moving waters of the River Thames.

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