Yesterday I reviewed Michael McCay’s Hidden Treasures of England, a book filled with wonderful places that most people miss. Here’s one McCay missed.
Not far from the popular destination of Oxford is the little hamlet of Binsey and its historic St. Margaret’s Church.
St. Margaret’s is reputedly founded on the spot where St. Frideswide (pictured here) built an oratory in the seventh century. The holy woman fled Oxford to Binsey to escape a local prince who wanted to marry her. As punishment for his lust, the prince was blinded by lightning, but the forgiving yet still chaste St. Frideswide cured him with water from a holy well that miraculously opened up from the ground after she prayed to St. Margaret of Antioch.
The well is still there today and attracts people who pray for help, especially cures to blindness. This tradition may even be older than St. Frideswide, because many holy wells in England were actually pagan holy spots before being taken over by the new faith. In the nineteenth century Lewis Carroll visited the spot and used it as inspiration for his “treacle well” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He was making a play on words. In his day treacle was a syrup, but in Saxon times it meant “a healing fluid.”
The Saxon church of St. Frideswide’s day is long gone, replaced with a modest but beautiful 13th century building. There are some well preserved Gothic features such as the arch and the carved doorway, and a rare trussed rafter roof made with no nails.
Although it’s one of the most historic churches in Oxfordshire, St. Margaret’s is desperately in need of money for repairs and upkeep. The Church of England is feeling the pinch and smaller churches like this one are struggling to keep open. They are taking donations at their website and you can always drop some coins in the donation box at the church. A building with this much history deserves to stay open.
The church and its well make for a fine half-day excursion from Oxford. It’s only about three miles from downtown and much of the walk is through serene countryside. A map is available on the website. As you pass through the village of Binsey, you might want to stop by The Perch, a relaxing pub with a big garden. It’s tradition to stop at a pub during an English country walk, and you wouldn’t want to break with tradition, would you?