The Duntisbournes lie in deep, little visited Cotswold country. The narrow road trickles along the western ridge of a small, magical valley and where the silvery stone walls on either side give way to high white walls of thorn blossom a lane loops precipitously down to Middle Duntisbourne. It’s the most beautiful place – just an ancient jumbled farm and its attendant buildings straddling the road which crosses the river Dunt through a cobble bottomed ford. A tiny stone arched bridge carries a foot path beside it and an old Massey Ferguson tractor is parked half way into the water. There are King Cups and flags along the river bank and a sprinkling of park like trees on the eastern slope of the valley where a herd of hefty Belgian Blue cattle are grazing.
This is a proper farm which has grown organically, not a soulless agri business set up housing gigantic bits of pre-programmed machinery. The public footpath to Duntisbourne Rouse leads through an old corrugated iron Dutch barn, past stacks of straw bales, redundant milk churns, small tractors and ploughs and then out the other side and up the steep tumpty hill. From here you can look down on the lichen smothered stone tiled roofs of scattered barns and the steep seventeenth century gable of the farmhouse poking above. The mole hills are of pinkish brown coloured earth and there are deer slots through the spent maize crop as the path leads on above the Dunt. “Little hobbling tripping of a nearly dried up river.” reads Alice Oswald’s poem on the Dunt. “….not really moving through the fields/having had the gleam taken out of it to the point where it resembles twilight/little grumbling shivering last ditch attempt at a river/more nettles than water….”
From the steep traversing path the fallen branches of a gigantic willow tree look like bleached bones on the meadow below. The path leads through a hanging wood where a hundred rooks are cawing and swirling above their rookery in the tree tops and the floor is starred white with wood anenomes. Over a stile and out into the light the church yard of Duntisbourne Rouse falls away towards the river and a tiny gravestone to the memory of Joan Small reads in a circle, “She was the sun around whom her whom her family revolved”. The modest Norman church clings to the steep terrain , its east end double heighted with a small dark crypt below, entered from an outside door. When, in the 1930’s, the architect Sidney Gambier – Parry moved into the tall, unpretentious rectory hard by, he found the church in disrepair and the crypt filled with coal and rubbish. He cleared and restored it, revealing the faint wall paintings of flowers and mysterious figures. He retiled the roof and on finding found some discarded church panelling in a local timber yard, resurrected it around the nave . Together with the existing box pews, Jacobean pulpit and the intimate scale of all, St Michaels feels extraordinarily comforting. It is a place to linger. The harmonium was given to the church by Vera, Charlotte and Blanche Beauchamp in memory of their sister , the writer Catherine Mansfield who died of tuberculosis at the age of 34.
One of Alec Clifton Taylor’s favourite churches in England , St Michaels remains well loved and the present rectory dwellers, whose brilliant vegetable garden skirts the western churchyard wall, are devoted custodians. The parish has certainly escaped the hand of the developer and as the church guide book says this secret valley “is lagging a century or two behind, … unsophisticated, more primitive, almost savage, as if the shepherds had never left and the binder never entered”