Pilgrimage to Epwell
Sheila Anastas

I took notes of my genealogy journey in 1980 which included the Hayes family, and which was my first trip abroad alone. I was fired with enthusiasm. I took the train from London to Oxford, but in looking at a detailed road map of Oxfordshire that I had found at the Oxford station, I realized Banbury was closer to Spelsbury and Epwell. On most maps, neither village was shown. I had earlier inquired with both Brit Rail and the local and national bus lines-none of which knew of a Fulwell in Oxfordshire. This local map at the train station had a "fine pencil" indication of Fulwell. After my second train journey of the day-to Banbury, I hired a taxi at the taxi company offices by the bus station for 1/2 day, which was cheaper and safer than renting a left-driving car.

The cabbie and I first went to Swalcliffe, pronounced "Sw long a cliff". It is on a beautiful cottage-and-roses, two-lane road. The church is huge, up on a hillock over the road. Not knowing if the church Henry Taylor Hayes was buried in was Epwell or Swalcliffe, we stopped at the gas station and asked directions to the rector's house, which turned out to be down the next lane and to the left. The rector thought Epwell's church was older, but said all ancient records had been sent to Oxford. He gave me the address of the rector of both Swalcliffe and Epwell. The rector told me the originals were packed up and could be found in the Records of Ancient Registors, Bodlien Library, Oxford. My notes say that permission must be given by the parish rector: Epwell and Swalcliffe, Rector Timothy Winbush, Sibford (Oxen), England.

I took a photo of Swalcliffe church and ancient tithe barn next to it, and photos of the much overgrown cemetery. I found no Hayes stones, but so much was overgrown in thick hummocks, I couldn't tell. It looked like no burials had taken place in 20 years. The village is beautiful, with stone and thatch roofed houses and a pub and winding lanes with roses, vines, and flowers. The church was locked.

Swalcliffe churchyard Swalcliffe churchyard Swalcliffe Church

We then went down a one lane road to Epwell. A little girl playing ball directed us up to the church. I'm sure I will be the subject of her next current events session. She called her mother, who upon hearing my story took me to the meeting house to talk to the oldest person in the village. The oldster too had never heard of any Hayes. We did determine the Epwell church was older-it looked older and was much smaller, but very nice on a hill overlooking what must have been the original village. Again stone, thatch, and flowers. An attempt had been made here to mow part the part of the cemetery with the newer stones. However, in both cemeteries, many of the inscriptions were worn or crumbled away, and there were many vacant spaces which indicated missing tombstones. English old graves usually had a little ledge of stone encasing the grave and headstone. The thick hummocks of grass obscured these, and since the grass was knee high in places, it was impossible to see everything of the inscriptions. The taxi driver, who thought his fare was balmy, got out of his cab and helped me look through the churchyard. By this time, I realized it would be extremely fortunate if we found anything. I took photos.

Epwell Church Epwell Chapel

We attracted attention everywhere we went. People were extremely nice and helpful, but thought it was a task that only an American would be wanting to do, something that they didn't have much interest in or a kind of listlessness about finding their past because it was all around them.

After doubling back from Epwell via Swalcliffe, we then went to Fulwell. I had lent the cabbie my local road map from the train station. The cabbie radioed the dispatcher to tell him our location, and that we were off to Fulwell. The dispatcher replied that there was no Fulwell. To this the cabbie said, "Mate, I've got a map in front of me that says there is one" So, after some more arguing between them, off we went to the non-existent Fulwell. Fulwell was a cluster of about seven to ten houses on a one way dead-end dirt track on an unnumbered road; an estate road. Cows were clustered at the gate where the taxi stopped and where the houses began. I took pictures. We again asked some amused residents about Hayes, but they being recent residents, knew nothing. There was no evidence of a grist mill, but it could have been long hidden from view. They suggested we go to Spelsbury, where we were headed next anyway.

The driver was getting into the swing of things more. We got to Spelsbury, once again a two lane village of stone and thatch, but this time with a bank. The cabbie asked two gentlemen by the road the directions to the church. "It's right down there of course!", one of them said, disbelieving anyone would not know where the church was. At the end of another lane, there stood a farmyard, the vicar's residence, and the church. A curious knot of people was gathering up the road, but kept their distance. I went to the vicar's residence, but there was no answer, so the cab driver and I went to the churchyard and again went through the stones. This churchyard was nicely kept up and there was a section of recent burials. Spelsbury church was smaller but impressive. It had a view across a vale of green fields and distant hills and was shadowed by large trees. The church tower looked Norman, but the side rows of windows looked 16th or 17th century to me. Again, no Hayes, and again there was evidence of missing tombstones and unreadable ones.

The cabbie on his own, went searching for the vicar, as his car was in the stable. We found him in back of the residence tending his cabbage, listening to his portable radio. He dropped his tools, and took us to the church, explaining that he had visitors rather frequently. He told us that originally there was a Saxon church on the site, and showed us the foundation stones extending out into the cemetery past the existing church. He said a friend of his associated with a school had a "dig" a few years before, and had charted it. He said parts of the church were Norman, and parts were from later periods. The Saxon church was from the 800's and the Norman Church was built on its foundations about 1100-1200.

Spelsbury Church

The vicar took us inside the church. It was simple, but beautiful. A large vaulted ceiling with a stained glass window was behind the altar. There were tablets to the Lee family on the vestibule wall. He said when they were adjusting the organ, they found the tablets under it. This was also the family church of the Henry Lee/ Lightfoot Lee family of Virginia. We went into the vicar's offices, and there in the corner, in an ancient "safe" within the stone wall of the church, were the original parish records and a partially transcribed copy. The vicar brought out an enormous ancient key to lock the safe. The transcription was about 100 years old, in part, itself. The original records start in the 1500's. They are ancient, faded, and unlined with evidence of many hands and many inks. There was either a material change or moisture damage in parts. The records are not on file at Oxford yet, these were the only records. I shivered when I saw the entries change from Latin to English, evidence of much violence. The writing was in old English, and almost impossible to read. We would start with the transcription and then go to the original. The cabbie was almost as excited as I was when we found the first Hayes entry! He kept saying that he never thought such a thing could be done. Information on file at the Chester County PA Historical Society was confirmed.

The vicar wouldn't let me take photos of the Spelsbury Church register, but here is what I copied:

Hays of fulwell buried June 25, 1676
Henery ye son of Richard Hayes of fulwell baptised the 23 of May 1667
Margery the wife of Richard Hayes buried November 23, 1663
Joane ye daughter of Richard Hayes and Joane his wife baptized June ye 1st 1665
Mary ye daughter of Richard Hayes baptized February 4, 1670
(but should be 1671 as records appear to be written out of date order)

By this time, it was getting to be 6 pm, and the cabbie and vicar were fading fast. I regretfully called a halt. I was also afraid my money was running out to keep the cabbie. I gave the vicar 10 lbs for his trouble. He gave me his card (the Rev. A. C. Sparling, The Vicarage, Spelsbury, Oxford, OX7 3JR-The parishes of Spelsbury and Chadlington) and told me to send him more information and he would in his spare time try to dig either backward or forward for what I needed. He has a detective mind, so I'm sure he would find something if there is something. (postnote: I wrote him again, and his research found nothing more identifiable to the Hayes family.) The church and churchyard is beautiful. I wished I had more time to reflect. The reformation was such a tragic event, I felt so incredibly sad that our family was forcibly separated from our ancient heritage and place of worship.

The vicar said there are many burials where older bones are dug up in making the new grave and are reburied. Also the head or feet of some come to light often, leftovers from previous burials gone a little astray. There are five or six levels of burials in each plot he said, so that is a good reason no Hayes is to be found. I took photos of the church and churchyard.

The cabbie got a nice tip as he deposited me back at the Brit Rail station in Banbury. He invited me to go to the local pub for a pint with the boys, but I thought it might end up being too much after a good day. I got back to London about 9pm.

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