St Michael’s Parish Church is Basingstoke’s oldest building and sits, square and squat gazing at Festival Place from which there is a great view of the church through the glass doors at the top of the slope.

It is in the very heart of the town.

We know that the church was here before the Norman Conquest as it was held by Walter, Bishop of Hereford before becoming for a time the property of Mont St Michel in Normandy after 1066.

The building we see is not as old as that, in fact most of it is of 14th and 15th century work, although Pevsner (The Buildings of England)  says that Norman masonry is visible in the north chapel.

SEE ALSO: Flashback: How Basingstoke celebrated Christmas 100 years ago

The door on the south side of the church has a very damaged Annunciation above the door, no doubt a victim of the Reformation in the mid-1500s.

If, as is likely, there were wall paintings inside, then they were very firmly whitewashed at that time.

There are eight bells dating from various centuries, rung by a great team of ringers.

It’s not too difficult to imagine how the bells ringing after the silence imposed during the Second World War must have sounded to townspeople.  

In the past, a bell was rung at 4am to wake labourers to begin their work!

The pulpit was paid for by subscription in memory of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce who died in 1873 and was bishop of Winchester.

He was the son of William Wilberforce who campaigned to end the Slave Trade.

St Michael’s presence in the town centre means that it is easily accessible for any weary shopper who wants a moment of peace, as well as for visitors to the town who take an interest in churches wherever they go.

The locked church, with no advice about where the key is available, is a sad thing indeed.

But the church is now locked and has been for some months.

There are great reforms underway in terms of the way the church will now celebrate.

In particular, the locked church is now necessary because of the presence of costly musical instruments and equipment in the church.

Basingstoke Gazette: The interior of St Michael's many years agoThe interior of St Michael's many years ago (Image: Terry Hunt)

Other great changes are to happen too; some pews will be removed, W.C.’s and a new accessibility ramp will require alterations, including a small café area under the gallery.

We realise it will be many months before the church is open to visitors again.

From the Heritage Society’s point of view, we hope very much that our parish church will be open during the day eventually.

Our society urges anyone interested in the history of Basingstoke to visit the church.

It contains monuments to interesting people from Basingstoke’s history as well as some excellent Royal Arms of Elizabeth I, James I and William III.

Of great interest too are the fragments of painted glass which began life in the Holy Trinity Chapel in the old cemetery in South View, which date from the same time that the church was being enlarged.

Basingstoke Gazette: Glass in St Michael's showing the Bray emblemGlass in St Michael's showing the Bray emblem (Image: Contributed)

These had been in the window of the War Memorial Chapel but the bombing in WW2 had all but destroyed them.

In the north aisle the hemp-breaker can clearly be seen, looking rather like a paper guillotine.

This was the emblem of the Bray family.

Basingstoke Gazette: Church Square after the bombing August 16, 1940Church Square after the bombing August 16, 1940 (Image: Contributed)

Reginald Bray’s daughter had married William, 1st Baron Sandys of The Vyne.

Sandys worked with the support of Bishop Fox of Winchester,  whose emblem —the Pelican in her Piety— is visible plucking her breast to find blood to feed her young.

Unlike many old churches, there are no memorials on the floors of the nave to record burials in the crypt below.

They are there but were covered up when a new floor was laid in the 1840s.

I was in the church recently and noted a plaque for the screen to St Stephen’s chapel (to the right of the High Altar).

Basingstoke Gazette: Squint in St Michael's giving a view of the High AltarSquint in St Michael's giving a view of the High Altar (Image: Contributed)

The screen was a gift in memory of George Augustus Stevens 1900 – 1925.

His father was the manager of the Victory Inn and he had run the pub from 1907 to 1950.

Apparently he had only one arm and would pull pints with his stump.

His son was young when he died and a search in the Hants & Berks Gazette might find an obituary for such a young man.

This chapel contains some elegant plaques in memory of the Russell family, who lived at Bedford House and then Goldings.

Basingstoke Gazette: Memorial to Russell Family membersMemorial to Russell Family members (Image: Contributed)

The Corporation pews in the north aisle are where the Mayor and other civic dignitaries sit.

The pews have poppyheads showing St Michael overcoming the fallen angel, Lucifer and is of course the town’s arms.

We hope that these pews can remain where they are.

Basingstoke Gazette: St Michaels - Poppyhead on the Council pews with the town armsSt Michaels - Poppyhead on the Council pews with the town arms (Image: Contributed)

Occasionally the church is open at lunchtimes with volunteers as caretakers.

Do see if you can get in at these times before work starts, when it will become a construction site.

You can also see the proposals for change there or in Church Cottage.