12 divine Dorset churches
PUBLISHED: 14:48 28 August 2018 | UPDATED: 14:48 28 August 2018
Ride + Stride, Dorset Historic Churches Trust’s annual fundraising event, is a great way to explore and support some of the county’s more unusual places of worship
St Mary’s, Melbury Bubb
St Mary’s dates from the 15th century, as does some of the stained glass, but it was mostly rebuilt in 1854. The iron latticed doorway casts diamond patterns on the south porch floor as you enter to see the remarkable upside down font base, possibly a re-used plinth of a 10th- or 11th-century churchyard cross. The oak pews and oil lamps on the walls all add to the air of ‘modest rural piety’.
St Nicholas’, Silton
We stumbled across St Nicholas’ on the Stour Valley Path long distance walk, en route for Stourhead. The oldest part of St Nicholas’ is the 12th century south arcade of the nave, the rest being rebuilt in the 15th to 17th centuries. The carved flower work in the porch spandrels is possibly Tudor. The exquisite stencilling inside was added during the 1869-70 restoration. At the samt time, the old box pews were replaced. The massive marble monument to Sir Hugh Wyndham, standing on a pedestal with mourning women wither side, is echoed outside by Judge Wydnham’s Oak in the field behind the church. Said to be a thousand years old, this mighty oak was probably a boundary marker for the Royal Forest of Gillingham.
All Saints’, Chalbury
Accessed by a fairly steep field footpath, All Saints’ reveals itself slowly when approached via the iron churchyard fence on top of Chalbury Hill (321ft above sea level), a pre-Christian site where archaeological finds include Roman and Bronze Age. The charming little rendered and white painted stone-and-flint church dates back to 1280 when it served the largely agricultural communities of Didlington and Chalbury. It has no tower but a tiled roof bell-cote. Inside, the pale grey and white painted box pews and three-decker pulpit are all 18th-century additions; the raised seat with the balustrade on the Chancel’s north side being reserved for the Earl of Pembroke’s family. The chancel’s three clear east windows are 14th-century.
St Rumbold’s, Pentridge
Pentridge village is only a mile from Bokerley Dyke on the Wiltshire Border, and lies in a valley below Penbury Knoll hill fort. Approached up a side track, the elevated stone-and-flint church is 14th century in style although completely rebuilt in 1855. The west tower is crowned by a stone spire. Inside, the stained glass window in the nave’s north wall is particularly colourful and, on the same wall, is a monument erected in 1902, to Robert Browning’s great greandparents; their son Thomas, who lived in nearby Woodyyates Inn, was the poet’s grandfather.
St Mary’s, Puncknowle
After a tiring uphill climb from Chesil Beach and through Swyre at the end of a bracing circular walk, it’s always a pleasure to arrive back at The Crown Inn, Puncknowle. Opposite, St Mary’s is perched high above the main street with the handsome manor house over the south churchyard wall. The squat stone-built 12th century tower is crowned with a pyramidal roof added in 1678 and, overlooking the street, there’s a 15th century churchyard cross. Inside, the font is 12th century and a strange anomaly is an unexplained 17th century helmet positioned above the south aisle door.
St Nicholas’, Abbotsbury
St Nicholas’ was built in the late 14th or early 15th century as the parish church of Abbotsbury, alongside the Abbey’s Church of St Peter. On the 15th-century tower’s west face, a carved figure represents the Holy Trinity. Just inside the porch is a 12th-century effigy of an early abbot found on the Abbey Church site in 1788. The barrel-vaulted plaster chancel ceiling has a central panel of angels and seraphim. The heavily ornate 1751 stucco reredos displays the Ten Commandments, at least one of which was broken by whoever fired the musket balls which pierced the pulpit when Parliamentarians were expelling Royalists from the church in September 1644.
St Nicholas’, Hilfield
From the hedged lane below the Friary of St Francis, a few steps and a tiny gate lead to the little country church of St Nicholas. The long views from the elevated churchyard are pure Thomas Hardy. At only 46ft long, built from stone and flint with a stone-slate roof, it was originally a chapel to Sydling in the late-13th century. Consisting only of nave and chancel, it was re-consecrated as Hilfield Church in 1848 for weddings and burials. The 16 pews incorporate elaborately carved 19th-century bench ends illustrating scenes from the life of Christ, and figures and symbols representing the four Evangelists.
St Thomas à Beckett’s, Lydlinch
It was William Barnes who sent us to Lydlinch Church first because ‘Lydlinch bells be good vor sound, An’liked by all the naighbours round’, and all five bells are dated 1681. St Thomas’ was built in the 15th century with rubble-stone. The nave was heightened in the early 1800’s and roofed with Welsh slate. On the 16th century porch apex is an 18th century sundial. The present church possibly replaced a 12th century font with Purbeck marble bowl on a pillared pedestal base. The wooden pulpit is 19th century, and the church still retains its 19th century musicians’ gallery, like the one removed in Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.
St Andrew’s, Winterborne Tomson
Just off the A31 between Red Post and Anderson, gorgeous little St Andrew’s church is protected from passing dairy cows by a low lichen-clad wall. Only 42ft long, the 12th-century single-cell flint and stone church stands between farm buildings and pasture. The Norman apse is rare in Dorset, and the bleached oak box pews, pulpit and gallery, added by Blandford-born William Wake (Archbishop of Canterbury 1716 – 1737), adds rustic charm. The wagon roof, with clay tiles and stone-slate verges, was heightened in the 16th century. The building was restored in 1931, with money from the sale of Thomas Hardy manuscripts, by A. R. Powys who is buried in the tiny churchyard.
St Mary’s, Tarrant Crawford
RAF aerial photographs taken in 1934 revealed a plethora of banks, scarps and ditches surrounding St Mary’s, and evidence of house-sites and closes. Tarrant Crawford Abbey originated in the late 12th century as a community of nuns, and became one of the richest Cistercian nunneries in England. Bishop Richard Poore, founder of the abbey and builder of Salisbury Cathedral, was buried at the convent’s chapel in 1237 but the entire site was cleared during the Dissolution. Now, standing alone, except for some late-medieval farm buildings nearby, 12th century St Mary’s was always the parish church. Its greatest glory is the nave with its 13th and 14th century wall paintings, discovered during restorations of 1910-11, including 14 scenes of the life St Margaret of Antioch.
St Nicholas’, Studland
The ‘oldest and purest’ Norman church in Dorset (one of only a handful in the country), St Nicholas’ overlooks the National Trust’s car park next to the Bankes Arms. It is an archaeologist’s dream. The pre-Saxon site was probably founded by St Aldhelm in the 7th century, and some Saxon traces remain. The church was ruined by Vikings in the 9th century, rebuilt in the early 11th century before the Normans, who arrived in 1066, rebuilt it again in the 12th century without completing the tower for fear of inadequate foundations. Some of the corbels on the outside north and south walls, are rather risqué. Seven centuries later, in 1881, the building was underpinned and stabilised to prevent imminent collapse, and repairs and preservation measures have continued ever since.
St Nicholas of Myra, Worth Matravers
Everybody goes to see the duck-pond at Worth Matravers, either as a post-prandial stroll from The Square and Compass, at the start of a walk to the sea-cliffs at Winspit Quarry or to 12th-century St Aldhelm’s Chapel. St Nicholas’ was built about 1100 with local stone and stone-slate roofs. The tower and nave, with its carved beasts’ heads outside, are from this date, but the elaborate chancel arch of about 1160 was brought here from elsewhere, probably after the Dissolution. A fine effigy of
St Nicholas stands in a niche in the chapel. Smallpox vaccination pioneer Benjamin Jesty, a tenant of Downshay Manor from 1796, was buried here in 1816.
Join in Dorset’s 2018 Ride + Stride
Last year around 170 parishes and church communities raised £86,000 through Ride + Stride. This is DHCT’s main source of funding towards vital repairs, maintenance and restoration work for Dorset’s historic churches, chapels and meeting houses. Half of the money raised goes to participating parishes and the rest goes to DHCT’s grants programme. Remember your fundraising walk or rise can be as short or long as you wish. Visit dhct.org.uk