Welcome to The Wandering Academic and our first post! We’re really excited to share some of the amazing places we’ve visited with you and tell you more about them. So, without further ado, we hope you enjoy reading a bit about Knowlton Church and Earthworks in Dorset. – Micah and Danny
So, today I decided were going to brave the rain and visit one of my favourite places in Dorset – Knowlton Church. I came across Knowlton a few years ago and the relative isolation of the site and the odd, slightly mysterious, atmosphere that it exudes has drawn me to it ever since.
As we were driving through the depths of deepest, darkest Dorset towards Knowlton Church and Earthworks, the first thing we saw was the top of a ruined tower. Going through the gate and into the site itself we were greeted by a rather stunning view – the ruins of a small church situated in the middle of a henge, part of a system of neolithic earthworks in the area.
About the earthworks…
John Gale writes that the earthwork system at Knowlton is made up of ‘five “circular” earthworks’: the Southern Circle, the Northern Enclosure, the Old Churchyard, the Great Barrow and the Church Circle (105). The Great Barrow is part of a large network of ring ditches surrounding Knowlton – in total there are 178 ring ditches within a 1.5km radius from the site (Stoertz 40-43). This suggests that the Knowlton site was one particularly associated with burial activity. Knowlton church itself, however, sits in the middle of Church Circle, a henge thought to have been used for ceremonial purposes.
But why is there a church in the middle of one of the henges?
Well, the church itself is Norman, built in the 12th century (although the tower was built later on in the 15th century). It’s generally agreed that the church was built in this location, in the middle of the Church Circle, precisely because of its associations with pagan rituals. Knowlton church is literally an attempt to ‘Christianise’ a pagan ceremonial site. When viewing the church in this light it can be seen as a visual demonstration of one culture or religion attempting to displace or, in a way, gain dominance over another. This is particularly emphasised by the fact that the eye is instantly drawn to the church when approaching the Knowlton site as it sits directly in the centre of the henge.
Some other interesting features…
Although the tower is probably the most complete part of the church I actually found the opposite end of the building the most interesting. It is on this side of the church (the eastern side) that there was probably a side chapel, most likely a lady chapel. Here you can see some worn away stone work jutting from the wall, to the sides of what used to be a window. I assume that these potentially held candles, statues or other devotional items associated with Mary.
Two yew trees also border the henge and church at the eastern end of the Knowlton site. If you venture under the trees you are greeted by a collection of brightly coloured ribbons. On these people have written a variety of different messages – from prayers for sick loved ones to notes for those who have passed. It is a very haunting and beautiful sight and a beautiful spot for a quick moment of reflection. I have included a picture of the ribbons below but have attempted to avoid the messages out of respect for those who left them. The church was also framed beautifully by the branches of the yew trees as I looked out from this spot. Yew trees are important to both paganism and Christianity and it is not uncommon to find them close to a church. As Mark Silber and Gordon P. DeWolf write, ‘the yew is believed to have been but one of the many pre-Christian symbols of nature that influenced later religious beliefs’ (140). The yew, as such, just further emphasised the connection and relationship between the pagan and Christian worlds already so boldly and beautifully evident at the Knowlton site.
Knowlton Church and Earthworks is certainly a stunning spot surrounded by the beauty of the Dorset countryside. Exploring the site feels like taking a real step back in time. This is not the first time that I’ve visited Knowlton but each time I come away feeling that I’ve discovered something new. It is a place of such contrasts and a truly spectacular visual display of history. It’s also lovely and quiet – we were the only people visiting today and it was a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life! I also love that the site is completely free to access (my bank account loves this too).
It is precisely because of places like Knowlton that I feel this blog is important – I hope it can open more people’s eyes to the rich history that surrounds us (even in the fields of Dorset!) and perhaps play a small part in making history more accessible for all.
A quick thank you to Toby Nelms for driving me to Knowlton today and exploring it with me despite the miserable weather!
Gale, John, ‘Knowlton Circles: A Later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Ceremonial Complex and Its Environs – A Review’, Landscapes, 18.2, (2017), pp.102-119.
‘History of Knowlton Church and Earthworks’, English Heritage, (2002-2006), https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/knowlton-church-and-earthworks/history/, Accessed: 10th September 2019.
Joseph, Joseph J. K. S., ‘Knowlton’, Medieval England: An Aerial Survey, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), pp.49-52.
Silber, Mark and Gordon P. DeWolf, ‘Yews in Fiction and Fact’, Arnoldia, 30.4, (1970), pp.139-147, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42955285, Accessed: 10th September 2019.
Stoertz, C. ‘Aerial Photographic Survey of Knowlton Circles’, in Prehistoric Landscape Development and Human Impact in the Upper Allan Valley, Cranborne Chase, Dorset, eds. Charles French et al, (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2007), pp.40-43.