Nominated by: David Kneller
‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.’
This is the opening stanza of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. The Elegy is believed by many to have been written in Stoke Poges, perhaps under the yew trees in the churchyard during the mid-18th century. Gray is one of England’s most famous poets. The publication of the Elegy was an overnight sensation, so incredibly popular across England. The Elegy has gone on to be translated into numerous languages and in a 1995 poll by the BBC was voted 12th in The Nation’s 100 Favourite Poems.
Lady Cobham, living in the Manor house adjacent to the church, heard that Gray was staying at his mother’s home in the village and tracked him down. Gray went on to write Odes relating to Lady Cobham and her Ladies who visited his home and the views across to Eton College. Gray would regularly attend St Giles’ when staying with his mother. After Gray died in Pembroke College, Cambridge (300 years ago in 2021), his request was followed by being buried with his mother and aunt in the churchyard (in the photograph, this is the left one of the two brick tombs in front of the left-most church windows). The tomb beside Gray’s is to Mrs Duckworth, the wife of the vicar. Gray used to give coins to a village boy called John Duckworth who was their son. John became a Vice Admiral and was in charge of the British fleet at the last great naval battle of the Napoleonic wars in San Domingo.
The Churchyard featured in the opening scene in the 1981, James Bond film called, ‘For Your Eyes Only’, starring Roger Moore, where he puts flowers on the grave of Bond’s wife who was killed in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.
It has been incredible over the last century that many thousands of visitors from around the world specially came to visit the churchyard solely due to Thomas Gray. There is little doubt the churchyard will continue to be remembered for the Elegy and Thomas Gray.
St Giles Churchyard was nominated by David Kneller, Treasurer of the Middle Thames Archaeological and Historical Society