St Marys’ Church, Keysoe

The village of Keysoe is one of Colmworth’s northerly neighbours. It is a scattered parish with two distinct areas: Brook End, which straggles along the brook, probably the only natural source of water in the village, and Keysoe Row approximately one mile south which is a ribbon development along the high ground.

The mainly 12th century church of St Mary’s stands in an isolated position between Brook End and the Row, its well-proportioned spire dominating the landscape. The plain and light interior of the church has largely escaped obvious Victorian influence and, most unusually for a village church, there are no prominent monuments. This is significant in that it indicates either that no one of any social importance or influence had ever resided in Keysoe, or that, if they had, they had died and been buried elsewhere. On the exterior of the tower, however, there is a plaque which tells the remarkable story of William Dickens, aged 32, who survived a fall from the spire. The wording is as follows:

In Memory of the Mighty hand of the Great God and Our Saviour Jesus Christ, Who Preserved the Life of Wilm Dickins Aprl 17th 1718 when he was Pointing the Steepel and Fell From the Rige of the Middel Window in the Spiar Over the South West Pinackel he Dropt Upon the Batelment and their Broake his Leg and foot and Drove Down 2 Long Copein Stone and so fell to the Ground with his Neck Upon one Standard of his Chear When the Other End took the Ground Which was the Nearest of Killing him Yet when he See he was Faling Crid Out to his Brother Lord Daniel Wots the Matter Lord Have Mercy Upon Me Christ Have Mercy Upon me Lord Jesus Christ Help me. But Now Almost to the Ground. Died Nov 29, 1759. Aged 73 Years.

The earliest settlement of the village was probably Burystead, a large moated site to the north of the road to Riseley. The Manor House appears to date from the 16th century and there are several farmhouses, including Brook Farm, Brook End Farm, Buryfields, College Farm and Oxford Farm which date from the late 17th century, and several cottages of 18th or 19th century origin.

This has always been a poor village. It stands on the clay belt and, for this reason, much of the land could not be profitably cultivated before the introduction of steam power, and most of the local agriculture had been simply subsistence farming.

Over the centuries Keysoe has belonged to various Lords of the Manor from wealthy and prominent families – the Lords Bolingbroke of Bletsoe, the St Johns of Melchbourne, the Vanackers and Sambrookes (wealthy London merchants) and the Crawleys of Luton. However, almost without exception, these were absentee landowners, Keysoe having passed from one family to another usually as part of marriage settlements. The only one of these landowners to have been really energetic in his stewardship of the village appears to have been John Crawley, of Stockwood Park, Luton, who took possession in the mid 18th century. He quickly realised that, although he now owned the village, he was gaining very little income from it and came to the conclusion that the only way things could be radically improved was the construction of a good road which would enable the farmers to transport their goods quickly and easily to the local markets. John Crawley was largely responsible for the building of the turnpike road from Kimbolton to Bedford (now the B660 route), which opened in 1795. He also presided over the enclosure of Keysoe which took place between 1806 and 1808.

A Centre for Dissenters

The fact that Keysoe was so scattered meant that the church stood on its own, far from most houses. For several centuries the vicar would probably have been non-resident – by no means an infrequent situation – and a curate would have taken the services. But, due to the fact that Keysoe also had no resident Lord of the Manor, there was probably no one in authority to ensure that the villagers attended church regularly. Many people felt that a simpler, more informal type of worship was needed and “house meetings” began to be held in a quiet way, probably as early as the 1630s. We know that a group of villagers met at the home of George Fowler (described as a “woodward” ). Such gatherings were, of course, illegal – only attendance at Church of England services was allowed until the Act of Toleration in 1689. House meetings, however, seemed to have flourished locally, encouraged no doubt by an itinerant preacher from Elstow, John Bunyan, who was making waves in Bedford. We know that he spent time in Keysoe – he would have been among friends – and it is recorded that he held open air meetings in Park Wood, to the north-west of the village, where he and several local men were arrested on one occasion. Gradually, “indulgences” began to be granted for some house meetings and there was an organised congregation of dissenters at Brook End by 1652. We know that three Keysoe man, Fowler, Haynes and Richards, were imprisoned in the County Gaol with Bunyan in 1668. They were, however, eventually released and granted “indulgences” (permission to meet for worship). Although the Act of Toleration was passed in 1689, the Keysoe congregation did not build a meeting house until 1741. This early building was rebuilt at Brook End in 1761 and enlarged to seat 500. But where was the congregation meeting prior to this? Tradition suggests a farm barn which stood down the lane near the brook and the Church Book of the Meeting mentions several members of the congregation who had been “buried in a private place” in 1720. This was an important time for Nonconformity – and for Keysoe. The new enlarged Meeting House was thriving and ministers were being trained here and sent out to surrounding areas.

In 1807 the elders of the Meeting had problems with one Joel Miles who was eventually “separated for non-attendance”. It is probable that Joel Miles had felt that the Meeting was no longer strict enough for his liking. Having been thrown out, however, he returned to his farm in the Row and converted his thatched barn into a place of worship. This barn has been in continual use as a chapel for the last 200 years. On his gravestone in the chapel yard Joel is described as “Founder and sole proprietor of the Row Chapel”.

The chapel at Brook End closed in 1977 and the building is now a private house.

Keysoe Windmill, a post mill very similar to the one still standing at Stevington, was in fact the last working windmill in Bedfordshire. Having been disused for some years, it finally collapsed in a storm in 1948.

A National School was built in the early 19th century, and a Board School in 1870. This building now forms the nucleus of Kymbrook School, which now has about 60 pupils up to the age of 9.

Keysoe could be known as the “dead Centre” of Bedfordshire, as we now have four burial grounds – one at St Mary’s Church, one at Brook End, one at the Row Chapel and a newly-established “green” one near the centre of the village.

Present-Day Keysoe

Keysoe is now a pleasant quiet village. Quiet? We have church, chapel and school activities and clubs, a Women’s Institute, a Book Group, Dancing and Art Groups and a Lunch Club. There is also the Clover Leaf Club for older people and a thriving Mothers and Toddlers Group. We have a good Village Hall with modern facilities and a new playing field, complete with children’s play equipment. We hold a Seed Sale in January and a Plant Sale in April, both of which support the Village Show at Keysoe in September, which, with its associated Scarecrow Competition, is now a major event.

Read all about these activities in Village Voice, our magazine, which has been recording our village events for the last 26 years!

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