Historic churches, particularly those no longer in regular use, are ideal places for the Slow Traveller to visit. There are no crowds, they are in mostly scenic rural locations, there is a deep and abiding feel of the past, and a sense of tranquility and peace within each one.
They make perfect stopping places on a walk or cycle ride, some with convenient benches for the weary. They are free to visit, yet any donation will contribute massively to the upkeep of these buildings which guard our religious and social history across the ages.
Here we look at ten churches, saved by the Churches Conservation Trust, all within easy reach of Salisbury. Most churches are regularly left open to visitors; alternatively the name and location of the keyholder is indicated in the porches or can be found on the websites.
St. Mary Old Church, Wilton
St Mary’s is a tiny church in the market place of Wilton 3 miles west of Salisbury. It is the site of an original Anglo-Saxon church, and from the 9th century was attached to one of the most important nunneries in southern England.
It was rebuilt in the 12th century, with some further rebuilding in the 15th and 18th centuries. It retains its 12th century chancel and the 15th century arches at each side. The church itself is surrounded by the ruins of the arcades and tower arches of the nunnery. This nunnery is particularly remembered for a row between Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII about the appointment of the Abbess of Wilton in 1528, which contributed directly to Wolsey’s fall from power in 1529.
There is a sad tombstone to two sisters Susannah and Mary Bignell who died within 6 weeks of each other in 1726. The inscription reads:
In the Spring and flower of my time
My Life to God I did Resign
Being in my years So young
Yet my days was Spent
The Glass was Run
There are three benefaction boards from wealthy patrons who bequeathed money to the local school and the poor. One board dated 1706 gave the sum of £600 for the purchase of “lands and hereditaments for a school for twenty poor boys of this parish”, and another of 1775 promises provision for the “clothing and support of five poor men and five poor women” above the age of fifty years,
St. Mary and St. Lawrence, Stratford Tony
Four miles south west of Salisbury, Stratford Tony’s church is set high on a bank in an idyllic rural setting close to the river Ebble and with abundant snowdrops in early spring.
The tower and chancel dates from the 14th century; the nave was rebuilt in the 18th century. Inside there are unusual 17th century box pews in both the nave and the chancel, with attractive colonnaded tops. The windows are of plain glass, with the exception of the Crucifixion in the east window made by the Kempe Studio of 1884, so the interior has a light and airy feel. Around the church are a collection of gargoyles.
The church was under the patronage of Corpus Christi College, Oxford until the 20th century. The churchyard has two Commonwealth War Graves, one from the First and one from the Second World War, both with the surname Parrett and almost certainly brothers, both born to John and Matilda Parrett of Stratford Tony – John born in 1887 and Frederick in 1906.
St. Andrew's Church, Rollestone, Shrewton
A tiny building overlooking the river Till, set among snowdrops and then daffodils in spring time, this little church is a delight.
The exterior is constructed of flint and stone in an attractive chequerboard design. It was built mainly in the 13th century, has retained its original 13th century font and has largely kept its medieval character. The simple timber roof is 16th century.
The chancel had extensive alterations in the Victorian period when the wooden bell turret was added, and a pair of carved heads put on to the chancel arch in honour of Victoria and Albert. The oak pews have Jacobean carved ends. A local legend says that Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, was baptised here, although the church records do not confirm this.
Look for the north chancel window which has incorporated Georgian stained glass crests – one of which has been inserted upside down!
St. George's Church, Orcheston
Set in the valley of the village of Orcheston, this church is constructed of flint and limestone with, unusually, a west window set above the west door. There is a Norman north door and the windows in the nave and chancel are 13th century. The tower arch roof has Early English vaulting with finely carved trefoil panels. The Royal Arms of Charles I on the North wall are dated 1636.
Most of the internal fittings date from the 1858 restoration by TH Wyatt including the pews, pulpit and altar screen. One particularly attractive feature is the pair of twin-headed brass candle holders over the reading desk of the pulpit. These must have been the modern technology of their time as they can be easily swung inwards to adjust over the papers of the Rector’s sermon.
The churchyard has a War Graves commission grave – that of Bombardier Joseph M Senior, RA, who lived at 33 The Grange, Orcheston, and was killed in August 1941, leaving behind a young widow. At the entrance to the churchyard is a tiny schoolroom, date of construction unknown, but now in a very poor state of repair.
St Mary’s Maddington, Shrewton
This little church of chequerboard flint and sandstone was built sometime before 1179, the nave being Norman and the chancel and tower probably dating from the 13th century.
There has been extensive restoration - including the addition of a porch and south aisle in the 17th century and the rebuilding of the chancel by T H Wyatt in the 19th century - but the interior still has the feeling of a medieval church.
It has a low squat west tower and a comparatively long nave. The stone pulpit was built in 1846, and the font also is 19th century stonework with intricate quatrefoil patterns. An interesting feature is the wooden parish bier now kept under the tower, used for the transport of coffins.
There is a poignant memorial in the chancel to Emily, beloved wife of Leonard Pitt Maton of Maddington Manor House. She lost 6 children between 1846 and 1858, four of them at under 3 months old. She herself died at 34, almost certainly following childbirth, reminding us of the high incidence of child mortality in earlier centuries.
Outside, the churchyard is shady and restful with the obligatory yew trees. Across a path is the later burial ground which contains two Commonwealth War Graves. One is from the Great War for a Canadian named W Hartley, who died in 1914, aged 38, and the other is for a local man, Albert Bolter, who lived only yards from this church and was killed in 1941 in WWII aged 22.
St Leonard's Church, Sutton Veny
This 13th century church is an unusual and largely unrestored church as it was partially abandoned in Victorian times and not subjected to (sometimes heavy handed) alterations from this era common to many medieval churches.
It stands in a picturesque spot in the Wylye Valley, surrounded by fields and gently rolling hills in the distance. When it was decided in 1868 to build a church on higher ground, much of the stone was removed from the nave, crossings and transepts, and what was left was then at the mercy of the elements. Only the roof over the chancel remains, but there is plenty to see within this tiny building.
Immediately your eye is caught by the wooden and metal bier made in the 1890s by the Barter brothers, local wheelwrights and blacksmiths. The chancel was used as a mortuary until 1968, and the bier was used to transport bodies up to the nearby church of St John the Evangelist. The font and the two lancet windows are from the 13th century. Memorials and benefaction boards are from later periods and the solitary bell can be seen above the chancel.
All Saints Church, Idmiston
All Saints was originally built in the 12th century and is the most beautiful of the Bourne Valley churches. The village had a tradition of stone carving and this flint and limestone church is known for its gargoyles- 37 corbels with many expressive faces are thought to be based on contemporary villagers.
The nave was rebuilt in the late 13th or early 14th century. The porch, font and priest’s room are all 14th century. Just a little way along the road is Idmiston Manor, an early 17th building with a fine arched gateway. It was here that some of Charles II’s men negotiated with George Monck, leading the way to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
The graveyard has four Commonwealth War Grave headstones, including the only son of the vicar of Idmiston, Pilot Officer John S H Lupton, who was killed in 1940, aged 21.
St. Nicholas Church, Fisherton Delamere
A hillside church standing in a pretty churchyard above the River Wylye, this little church was originally built in the 14th century. What you see today is largely a 19th century copy, but nevertheless it has been rebuilt in the medieval style with chancel, nave, a north transept and a south tower, using the original materials.
The exterior is in the attractive chequerboard pattern of flint and stone that is very common to this area. Some chevrons are dotted into the walls. Inside there is a poignant 17th century memorial in Latin to two small babies of the vicar Thomas Crawford and his wife, Joan, one child shown in bed, the other wrapped in a shroud.
An early 20th century rood screen separates the chancel from the nave – apparently a very unpopular construction with the parishioners who would not allow it to be painted as the architect had originally planned because they complained that it spoiled the nature of their church. You can see their point. The freestanding wooden pulpit is Jacobean and the font is Norman.
You can climb up to the gallery at the back of the church for good views down to the nave. There is also access to the rood loft via a narrow stairway behind the chancel arch. The village, designated a Conservation Area in 1975, is picturesquely English with pretty thatched cottages, and there is an attractive walk along the river beginning below the church.
Borbach Chantry, West Dean
This tiny chantry chapel is all that remains of a church built in 1333 for Robert de Borbach. The endowment was for a yearly charge of 100 shillings paid to the priest to pray daily for, among others, the late King Edward I and “for me Robert de Borbach and for our souls when we shall have departed this life, and for the souls of all the faithful dead”. It consists simply of the porch, faced in flint, and a nave with a tiny chancel.
The most striking of the memorials is that of an alabaster monument of 1627 to John Evelyn and his wife with their eleven children below them. The couple are kneeling at a small lectern, clearly involved in deep devotion. You can see that the colours must once have been startlingly bright. The children are all dressed in period costume but are varying shapes and sizes with different facial characteristics.
The churchyard is equally fascinating. It seems to have mostly 17th and 18th century gravestones, largely inaccessible as the churchyard has been let to grow naturally wild and in late spring is covered in cow parsley and nettles.
The information board tells the story of Thomas William Cooper, hanged at Winchester prison for leading riots against the introduction of the threshing machines in 1830, and subsequently buried here. This may well have been a miscarriage of justice as he had a strong alibi and maintained his innocence to the last.
You can access the chapel daily – it is signposted from Rectory Hill in the village, a short walk from the road.
Berwick St. Leonard, St. Leonard
This is a Norman church, saved by restoration in 1859 by the owner of the local Fonthill estate. It has a Norman doorway with a sculptured relief of the Lamb of God, a Norman font and a 14th century nave. There are some poignant 17th century memorials to the children of George Howe and his wife who lost 6 children in infancy, the oldest of whom was only three years old. It’s a telling reminder of the frequency and misery of infant mortality of those years.
To find more Historic Churches in Wiltshire, get directions for 11 church walking trails, or find out about guided tours of the churches, try the Wiltshire Historic Church Trust website >>