Dragons aside, Kirsty Hartsiotis is looking forward to a blooming marvellous Bank Holiday weekend at Deerhurst this month

It’s time to celebrate at Deerhurst! At the end of August, a cavalcade of blossoms will have you dancing – part of the theme for the 2022 Flower Festival – down the aisle. This year, the parish – which comprises Deerhurst, Apperley and Deerhurst Walton – is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of this popular event that attracts over 3,000 people in its three-day run.

It all started with a silver wedding anniversary back in the Eighties, and a parishioner who thought it would be great to commemorate the event in the church with a silvery floral display. The event soon gathered pace, and the first festival proper was in 1990, running every two years after that – except, of course, 2020. It’s not just flower arrangements: the festival has an artistic director in Sandra Townshend, who has been at the helm for many years, and the church is filled with highly inventive floral installations. This year there’ll be Charleston-ing in the porch, while inside ballet, flamenco and salsa all vie for attention – a real floral kaleidoscope, with dancing shoes made by Deerhurst and Apperley Primary School to boot.

Great British Life: New York! New York! A previous installation at St Mary's DeerhurstNew York! New York! A previous installation at St Mary's Deerhurst (Image: Jenna Bishop)

Great British Life: Sandra Townshend, flower festival artistic directorSandra Townshend, flower festival artistic director (Image: Jenna Bishop)

This year the parish has been really keen to make the event as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible. The villagers are growing as many of the flowers in the village as they can. Here in England, though, late August is getting tricky for blossoms, so careful late planting, species selection and much nurturing have been going on – expect dahlias, cosmos and, of course, sunflowers.

The flower festival keeps the churches running – and it’s really bringing the villages together after the last couple of years, old hands and newcomers alike. One newcomer is the vicar, Revd Ilse Ferweda, who came to the village after the last festival in 2018 – you may meet her manning the tea stall, just one of the 200 volunteers who’ll be making the event happen.

St Mary’s, Deerhurst, is an extremely special church: that incredibly rare thing: a ‘Saxon’ church. I can’t stress how few of these there are in the country! Many parish churches were founded in the period before the Norman Conquest, but they’ve been rebuilt over and over again. At Deerhurst, if you know how to look, you can see what an early medieval English church looked like.

Great British Life: Ninth-century beast head label stop at the west door of St Mary's, DeerhurstNinth-century beast head label stop at the west door of St Mary's, Deerhurst (Image: Kirsty Hartsiotis)

Even this church’s foundation is earlier than the building you can see. It was founded as a religious house in the 7th century, but most of what you see is later, dating from the 9th and 10th centuries. It was one of the most important monasteries in the area. Look at the tall, narrow tower, and you start to get an idea. The church was only a little wider than the tower, and well protected. Fearsome beasties adorn the church, the more you look, the more you’ll see. There’s one on the tower above the west door as you go in – broken, but still roaring. Inside, there are two perfectly carved beast heads, still with traces of red paint in their toothy jaw. They look so freshly carved it’s hard to believe they are 1,200 years old. You’ll find two more toothy charmers on the arch at what’s now the east end, but was once the archway through to a small apse, as we shall see. What were these beasts for – dragons seem a strange thing to have in a church, don’t they? It’s thought that they offered protection to the church, their very fierceness keeping evil spirits away – a little like guard dogs in stone.

Because of all those dragons, it’s no surprise to learn that Deerhurst Walton was once the home of Gloucestershire’s last dragon – after all, those early medieval carvers had to get their inspiration from somewhere! Up on the hilly ground above the village the dragon roamed, terrorising the neighbourhood and spoiling the water. It was ‘a serpent of prodigious bigness’ said historian Robert Atkyns when the legend was written down in the 18th century. It was killed by a true everyman, John Smith, whose family were said to still live in the area till not so long ago, and, at least in Atkyn’s day, they had the axe that did the deed in their keeping!

Great British Life: St Mary's, DeerhurstSt Mary's, Deerhurst (Image: Cate Morris)

Great British Life: Interior looking west, St Mary's, DeerhurstInterior looking west, St Mary's, Deerhurst (Image: Kirsty Hartsiotis)

Back in St Mary’s there are more Saxon wonders to see – the font is perhaps the very best Saxon font to survive, and by far the earliest. It’s covered in swirling ornament called trumpet spirals and pelta, and, if you look very closely, you can see more beasties. There are later carvings, too. In the porch you’ll have seen a strikingly modernist looking Madonna and Child – but it’s from the 9th century, too, and would have once been painted. If you head outside, you’ll find the ruins of the old apse, and if you look up – you’ll find a Saxon angel looking down at you.

Don’t think, however, that all of these things have stayed in the church since they were put there in the early medieval period. The angel was once covered in plaster. The font was cleared out in the 17th century, and resurfaced in the 1830s as a garden ornament!

Great British Life: Font, St Mary's, Deerhurst, the oldest Anglo Saxon font in the countryFont, St Mary's, Deerhurst, the oldest Anglo Saxon font in the country (Image: Kirsty Hartsiotis)

Astonishingly, at Deerhurst we’ve got not just one, but two Saxon churches. As you head towards the River Severn, you’ll see a fine timbered house, with a stone building attached. A barn? No, this is Odda’s Chapel. Who was Odda, and why are we calling it his chapel? In about 1675, an inscribed stone was dug up in an orchard, and on discovering its antiquity, it was swiftly transferred to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It tells us that the chapel was dedicated by Earl Odda in 1056 for the soul of his brother Aelfric. After the Reformation the house, Abbot’s Court, was built onto the chapel, and it became a kitchen. For the weekend, it’s the home of the art and craft exhibition, with painting, printmaking, sculpture, bookbinding and pottery to discover. Director of the art exhibition Martin Griffiths says, ‘It will be wonderful to have such a superb range of talent being exhibited again alongside the beautiful flowers being shown in the Church. After all the terrible troubles recently, Art and fabulous flowers can lift all our spirits.’

Great British Life: Odda's ChapelOdda's Chapel (Image: Harry Morris)

Don’t forget to visit Apperley as well – in theory, you could have once walked the whole way underground, as a tunnel is said to run from the priory to Wightfield Manor. Was it the site of a nunnery? However, before you start imagining naughty monks and nuns, I’m afraid that Wightfield Manor was simply a manor held by Westminster Abbey – who took the tithes (taxes) from the estate. Instead, why not follow the scenic path along the River Severn (being aware that there might be sea serpents swept up the river here!) instead. There you’ll find a much more modern church, built by Francis Penrose at the instigation of the Strickland family of Apperley Court. The family’s claim to fame? That an ancestor brought over the very first turkeys to England – so we have them to thank for Christmas dinner! It’s not a turkey on the weathervane, though, but a salmon, fitting for a riverside church, and, in the absence of beast heads and dragons, keeping the church safe from evil.

With a bevy of stalls selling plants, cards, goodies and more, homemade cakes on the Priory lawn, music and performances by local schoolchildren – as well as St Mary’s transformed in a fragrant and colourful living art gallery – how can you resist?

Deerhurst Flower Festival, August 27-29: deerhurstflowerfestival.co.uk

Deerhurst and Apperley: apperley-deerhurst.co.uk/history---a-taster

St Mary’s, Deerhurst: deerhurstfriends.co.uk