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.
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 :
Google search Petes walks; click Long distance paths; click The Chiltern Way
Left,Reginald Hine’s memorial at Minsden
Just under a mile south - east of Preston lies a ruined memorial
to the independent religious spirit of the local villagers.
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.
‘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.’
To read the poem, On the Ruins of Minsden or Minzell Chapel by Hitchin school usher,
Wallis circa 1750. Click this link: Minsden poem
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’.
This recommendation gave villagers the opportunity to solidify their religious independence
and they resolved to repair their chapel in the hope that it would be elevated to
the position of a parish church.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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 below is from circa 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 (c1750)