A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Minsden Chapel
Just under a mile south - east of Preston lies a ruined memorial to the independent religious spirit of the local villagers.
Minsden Chapel circa 1830
A detailed mention in the Doomsday Book (AD 1085) is testimony to Minsden’s antiquity. It notes that Minsden was a manor and that living there were eight villeins, two cottars, six serfs and (crucially) one priest. Later manorial documents for Missenden still exist (and a copy can be seen at Hertfordshire Archives), but it is the chapel of ease at Minsden which is the subject of this article. Minsden chapel was named after St Nicholas – the protector of children and the poor. Its mother church was St Mary’s at Hitchin. The chapel of ease served the farming communities of Minsden, Langley, Preston and even farther afield – Robert of Walsworth rode to services in the middle of the fifteenth century. As the chapel stood near St Albans (High)Way, it was also a sanctuary for travellers and pilgrims en route to St Alban’s Abbey. During the Reformation (from 1538) worship at Minsden chapel declined. The congregation was small and couldn’t afford a minister. As the local people were too independent to travel to St Mary’s, every few months a clergyman rode to Minsden to conduct baptism, marriage and burial services. The chapel continued to drift apart from its mother and became increasingly neglected. In 1650, a report noted ‘that no dues had been paid to the Vicar of Hitchin for many years (by Minsden); that it had been destitute of a preaching minister for divers years past; that the chapel had fallen into great decay”. Then, incredibly, it added that “it was fit to be made a parish church’
Conflict with St Mary’s Hitchin
However, their hopes were dashed. Although a considerable amount of money was raised for repairs – a new roof was built - the custodians of the fund died and the money was lost. No aid was forthcoming for these poor from St Nicholas! This reversal was quickly followed by a shattering decision: although the villagers had never paid a church rate to St Mary’s at Hitchin and their own chapel was in desperate need of refurbishment, it was decreed that they should pay a rate for repairs to the church at Hitchin. To enforce this order, in 1688, twenty –four actions were brought against the dwellers in Preston and Langley. The list of Preston’s inhabitants who were liable to pay the rate reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the village at the end of the seventeenth century and the rate levied allows a comparison of the extent of their property:
The two leaders of the villagers, John Holton and John Farr, were excommunicated and imprisoned because they refused to obey the decision. In the face of overwhelming power and influence the people of Preston and Langley bowed to the inevitable and paid their dues under protest. Two years later, in 1690, they sent a report to the archdeacon that their chapel ‘is now totally ruinated, stripped, uncovered, decayed and demolished’ – the underlying, accusing message was that this was the direct consequence of the Church’s actions.
The rape of Minsden chapel
Now Minsden chapel began to be plundered. Jeremiah Godfrey stole 400 pounds of lead in 1690. Stone and oak fittings from the chapel were carted to cottages for their repair and decoration. In 1700 Joseph Arnold of Langley was sued by John Heath the chapel warden of Minsden for appropriating the font for a sink at his home. Painted glass from the chapel was found at The Sun inn at Hitchin and it was alleged that in 1840, when the church at Ippollitts was restored, the tracery work of the windows was stolen from Minsden. About this time, a Hitchin character known as ‘old Bowstock’ would load his donkey cart with ‘clunch’ at Minsden and travel to Hitchin market where it was sold in the shadow of St Mary’s. Even the three bells of Minsden chapel were looted. In 1725, a probable witness to the removal of two of them, John Reason of St Pauls Walden, was returning home from Hitchin market and was near Hitch Wood when he was alarmed by the noise of men with horses and a fast-moving carriage. They were travelling towards Harpenden. Shortly afterwards, the bells were reported as missing. It was reported by Mr Cook of Little Almshoe that one of his barns was called ‘Bell Barn’ as the third stolen bell had been hidden there one night. Much of this pillage occurred when the chapel was still being used as a place of worship. The chapel warden, John Heath, was admonished because of his leanings towards the Baptists and Independents. Heath allowed an Independent Christian, Daniel Skingle, to use the chapel to preach to his flock. The congregation quickly swelled to around 300 souls, but Skingle and Heath were rebuked by the Church and were forced to make an abject confession of offences against God and the Church. Skingle’s sermons were the last to be preached at Minsden, but marriages continued to be performed there. Despite its being a ruined shell, there was a certain appeal in its rustic surroundings. It was hidden among trees and adorned with moss and ivy. Cooing doves witnessed the wedding ceremonies and the rural atmosphere was heightened by the view of elms through the holes in the roof. The chapel also had the allure of a hint of superstition. The further it fell into rack and ruin, the more couples wanted to marry there. Instead of being entered in the chapel register at Minsden, these later marriages were recorded in the parish register of St Mary’s. On 11 July 1738/9, the baker, Enoch West married Mary Horn at the chapel. Beside their names, ‘at Minsden chapel’ was written for the last time. During the ceremony it was reported that a lump of masonry fell and dashed the service book from the curate’s hand. After this narrow escape, the Bishop of Lincoln would not allow any other marriages at Minsden – a wedding might become a wake.
And so the chapel quietly crumbled. It succumbed to undergrowth and was framed by uprooted elms. The Hitchin historian, Reginald Hine, leased it from the vicars of Hitchin in the 1920s and belatedly warned off trespassers and scavengers, threatening pursuit with ‘the utmost vigour of the law’. He wished to be buried there and promised that he would ‘endeavour in all ghostly ways to protect and haunt its hallowed walls’. The first part of his wish was granted in part at least as his ashes were scattered at the site.
Reginald Hine and Minsden Chapel
A visit to Minsden Chapel in August 2008
I left my car in the small car park at the junction of Hitchwood Lane and the B651, turned left onto the B651. After about 200 metres there was a footpath sign on the left. The path can be clearly seen (below) meandering across the field and then skirting the copse in the distance to the right.
The copse is fenced to prevent trespassing, but the ruins of Minsden Chapel can be seen and there is a stile which allows easy and immediate access to the chapel.
I am grateful to Webmasters, ‘Werewolf’ and Pete Collins for their kind permission to use the photographs above. These are links to their sites which feature the haunting of Minsden Chapel and walks in the area : Link: Haunted Minsden chapel Google search Pete’s walks; click Long distance paths; click The Chiltern Way
Right, Reginald Hine’s memorial at Minsden
The ‘Ghost’ of Minsden Chapel
In 1907, the Hitchin photographer, T. W. Latchmore took some photographs at Minsden Chapel for his file. He saw nothing unusual while there but asserted that when he was ‘back in my studio developing the plates...I noticed this strange image on one of them. I do not claim it is a ghost. It may only be due to some freak of light and shade, but it is extraordinary, is it not?’ Latchmore related this story and showed his photograph of the mysterious monk to Elliott O’Donnell, a writer of the occult. Intrigued, O’Donnell collected a party together to visit Minsden on Halloween Night, 1923. He was accompanied by three journalists, a schoolmaster, a lady with reputed psychic powers and Latchmore. O’Donnell wrote, ‘We arrived at Minsden Wood shortly before midnight’. The reporters refused to separate, ‘they all remained huddled together under one of the arches, waiting with bated breath for whatever might happen’. The psychic donned a witches costume and sat down chanting dismally. ‘Nothing came, however, and we were
all beginning to despair of any phenomenon when suddenly one of our number with a loud ejaculation, pointed to a white light shimmering though the naked branches of a tree. ‘It’s come at last, someone whispered....and we saw what looked like a figure clad in the white costume of a nun standing in front of the arches....to our intense disappointment...(it proved to be) a curious and distinctly eerie effect of moonbeams and shadow’. When the group left at 4 a.m., they agreed that ‘if it was not haunted, it ought to be, for a more eerie spot none of us had ever been in’. But further excitement was in the air! As they tramped along the road, shrouded in fog, they were ordered to, ‘Halt, in the name of the law’. The constabulary was out in force as the booking office at Welwyn Station had been broken into and a shot fired. The motley party on the road so early in the morning were enticing suspects. Undeterred, O’Donnell returned to the Chapel on Halloween night, 1925. This time, his intrepid group were startled by explosions and a sudden blazes of white light. Pranksters! When everything calmed down, they discovered a white sheet with an end fashioned like a hood. As it seemed that the authentic apparitions would not now be inclined to appear, the party, now furious, went home. Five years later, Latchmore confessed. He said that he had been conducting a carefully planned experiment when the original photograph was taken. A friend (Reginald Hine?) was draped in a hooded sheet and lurked before the ruins as a timed exposure was taken. The camera shutter was then closed, the ‘ghost’ moved away and the exposure was completed – which produced the final photograph. Reginald Hine, now the owner of Minsden Chapel, published the photograph and effectively preserved the sense of mystery that surrounded his property. ‘Minsden is for those, rather, whose minds are in ruins; for those sons of quietness who are distracted by the crimes and follies and misfortunes of mankind. In its deep shade, many who have been brought low by the cares of this world, or in my case by the wear and tear of my profession, have found healing, consolation and repose....the very air at Minsden is tremulous with that faint susurrus – call it the under-song of the earth, the music of the spheres, the sigh of departed time or what you will – which only the more finely attuned spirits overhear’. Presumably with an eye to preserving his property, Hine also described how at Minsden, ‘once or twice a year, perhaps, the dominion of silence will be broken by a sudden tumult of wings. Some noisy son of Adam will come forcing his way into this sanctuary and look with astonishment about him. But the perpetual twilight of this mournful place makes him uneasy. He feels a hundred eyes upon him. The very silence is hostile. Minsden is not for him.’ Intriguingly, it seems that an important and strong ley line from St Michael’s Mount to Norfolk (which touches both Glastonbury and Royston Cave) passes through the site of Minsden Chapel. Was this therefore once the home of a pagan temple which was sanitised by having a Christian church built on its foundations? Richard Whitmore reported that ‘ there is a growing theory among the students of the supernatural that the ruins, while not haunted in the general sense of the word, do contain a ‘presence’ of some kind; a force that some have found restorative and others disturbing’’ For my part, I must confess that when I visited Minsden, I experienced a tingling feeling of the urtica dioica variety. As I type these notes, my eye is drawn to the flint from the Chapel which has pride of place on my desk. On certain nights, my study is lit by sparks, there is a ‘whoosh’ and a whiff of steam and sulphur. I’m not convinced that they emanate from my computer’s hard-drive
The study of Minsden Chapel above is from around 1840. The inscription reads in part, ’...its ruins are almost entirely covered with ivy and are extremely romantic in a solitary situation on the rise of a hill’
The rising sun had chased the shades of night And each obscuring mist had fled the light, The cooling zephyrs gently as they passed Stirred every leaf and bent the tender grass. Perfuming odours rose, the warblers sung, And with their music all the valleys rung. Charmed with the pleasing prospect of the fields, To taste the pleasure which their beauty yields, To breathe the sweetness of the morning air I leave the town and to the plain repair. A mouldering structure then appeared in view, Around whose top the creeping ivy grew, Once a fair church adorned with curious art, In crumbling stone now dropping part from part; While thorns and briars, interwoven round, Vie with its top, and fill the desert ground, Denying entrance to the curious eye, To view the graves that underneath them lie. While thus my thoughts with meditation glow, And thus my words in mournful accents flow :— Is this the place where numerous footsteps trod, Where living votaries filled the House of God ; Where the full chorus of the sounding choir Bid one loud strain of prayer and praise aspire? How silent now the desolated spot, Its paths untrodden and its use forgot. Of noxious reptiles now the haunted scene, Hung with cold dews, and clad with baleful green All day the redbreast mournful ditty sings; With mournful ditties, plaintive echo rings; And birds ill-omened at the day's decline With boding sounds profane the hallowed shrine; While mournful shadows stretched along the plains Move with the wind and scare benighted swains. Just such is man, when vig'rous youth is fled, And feeble age has silvered o'er his head; Downward he sinks, deserted and forlorn, Of all he meets the pity and the scorn;
On the Ruins of Minsden or Minzell Chapel by Wallis (a Hitchin School usher) (c1750)
Church Commissioners’ plans to sell Minsden Chapel (May 2017)
“Are church plans to sell off 14th century Grade II-listed ‘haunted chapel’ near Hitchin an own ghoul? 11 May 2017
The Comet: Campaigners are up in arms over a bid by the church to sell a ‘haunted’ Grade II-listed fourteenth century chapel near Hitchin – meaning it could be lost forever. In documents seen by the Comet, the Church Commissioners for England are intending to sell Minsden Chapel – built more than 600 years ago – to a ‘surrounding landowner’.The paperwork reveals the religious body intends to formally close the ruins for regular public worship and supports a proposal to dispose of the land. The building was abandoned in the eighteenth century and is now a picturesque ruin on the edge of a wood between Preston and Langley – a short walk from the Rusty Gun pub in London Road near St Ippolyts. The ruins are also an important feature on a popular walking route and even the church’s statutory advisory committee admits the site has ‘archeological and ecological potential’. However, the ruins are also of interest to ghost-hunters with local historian Reginald Hine – who lived between 1883 to 1949 – devoting years of study to the place. Reginald, whose ashes were scattered on the site where he also has a grave, frequently visited – even obtaining a lifetime lease of the building from the vicars of Hitchin. In 1907 he and two others brought a camera to the chapel with the intention of photographing the ghost of a monk who it was believed was murdered there – and whose tortured spirit was said to have emerged from the stone walls of the ruined chapel. Thomas William Latchmore took a picture of what was said to be the ghost. It is now accepted the picture may have been a hoax, or at the very least a practical joke – although during his lifetime Hine never admitted this. He was so fond of the chapel he even issued a curse to protect it from beyond the grave, threatening in perpetuity: “Trespassers and sacrilegious persons take warning – for I will proceed against them with the utmost rigour of the law, and, after my death and burial, I will endeavour, in all ghostly ways, to protect and haunt its hallowed walls.” Chris Parker from Keep Hitchin Special has circulated an email to prominent figures in the town calling for action to be take and told the Comet: “It’s a scheme which has to be stopped and I would urge as many people as possible to make their views known to the church.”Concerned Hitchin resident and ghost hunter Stewart Scott said: “My friends and I used to visit the site as teenagers to see if we could spot a ghost or two. Alas we never did – but it was very spooky. I think it’s a shame such an historic site could be lost to the public.”