Pilgrimage Challenge 3: Wells Cathedral in a Day (Glastonbury to Wells)

By Micah Mackay

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Picture showing Wells Cathedral
Wells Cathedral

The first thing that struck me about Glastonbury was the music. On street corners buskers competed for attention – the sound of the guitar accompanied us down one street, a saxophone down the next. Having been deprived of live music during lockdown this sudden burst of sound was almost overwhelming (in a very good way!). It seemed natural for our steps to slow or speed up to match the beat of the music accompanying us. It was a joyful start. 

Live music in Glastonbury

Having arrived in Glastonbury quite early we were, unfortunately, unable to get into the so-called burial place of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey. Instead, winding our way through the streets and past various bookshops, gemstone shops and herbal tea cafes, we set our sights on the Tor. After all, why not start with the big hill? 

On the way we passed Chalice Well, which sits at the foot of the Tor. This was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was here, however, that Joseph of Arimathea is said to have hidden the Holy Grail. The British Pilgrimage Trust notes that by placing the Holy Grail in the well Joseph supposedly tinged the water with Christ’s blood. This can be compared to other medieval tales concerning water mixed with holy blood, the most famous story being that of the Thomas Becket water at Canterbury. Medieval pilgrims would purchase small vials (ampullae), which would be filled with holy water from these places. The sale of these devotional objects was part of a thriving trade centred on holy relics and the perceived sanctity of a place or person.

An ampulla c.1220 – 1420. This features a representation of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Moving on from the gates of Chalice Well, we started the ascent to the top of the Tor. What had from afar seemed a fairly simple hill soon proved to be rather more of a challenge and we stopped a few times to take in the view. Eventually though, all members of the group made it to the summit and to the remains of St. Michael’s Chapel. It is not unusual to find chapels dedicated to St Michael on top of hills – Mont St Michel in France and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall being two other famous examples of this. However, the only surviving part of the fourteenth-century stone church on Glastonbury Tor is the tower. It is a striking feature, lonely, roofless and exposed to the elements. On a grey day walking through the arch feels like entering a wind tunnel – your focus is directed at staying upright and you are unable to hear much but the moan of wind. Still there is a special feeling in this place. Something about the isolation of the tower and how it stands guard over the Somerset countryside is touching. One cannot help but think of what the tower has ‘seen’ over the centuries as the landscape around it has developed and changed. It has remained a site of pilgrimage, curiosity and wonder for generation after generation. It is a place of memory and of ghosts. 

Beware of donkeys

From the summit we could see bands of rain sweeping across the countryside. Quickly we donned our wet weather gear and scrambled down the footpath to the base of the Tor. A few miles later we came to a small field where we were greeted by two rather friendly donkeys. Curious about these soggy visitors the donkeys followed us, keeping their distance at first. However, after a while one of them became a bit more confident and approached me, trying to snuffle around in my pocket. What I hadn’t realised was that the other donkey (a more nervous sort) had in the meantime wandered behind me. A few minutes later a sharp pain made me jump, startling the friendly donkey. I had been bitten on the ass by an ass. Things were going well. Somehow Mother Mackay had also managed to take a photo of the moment (after our walk she went so far as to buy me a cushion with two donkeys on it to commemorate the incident). So, for any pilgrim considering walking this path – beware the donkeys. 

Bruised but not beaten our walk continued. I find that the true beauty of these walks is often not only found in the places visited but in the paths trodden. Throughout this route we found ourselves taking overgrown trails, paths that obviously hadn’t been used in months or even years. The routes on this walk were mainly public footpaths but some landowners had obviously tried to discourage or even stop the public from walking in the area. Several times we found ourselves crawling under electric fences. It felt like we were rediscovering paths and bringing new life to these neglected trails. In some places it felt like we were reclaiming the route. This is why I feel these stories belong on this blog – the places I mention might not be anything new but some of the paths between them need to be rediscovered and reclaimed.

From Warminster Down we caught our first glimpse of Wells Cathedral. This seemed to breathe new life into our steps as we continued down the hill and across the fields, wandering through an orchard or two on the way. Wells proudly proclaims itself “England’s smallest city”, although it is also known as “that place where Hot Fuzz was filmed.” The city gets its name from the wells in the garden of the Bishop’s palace and cathedral has been a site of pilgrimage and worship for nearly 850 years. Looking at its imposing structure and extravagant stonework one can see why it continues to be enjoyed by pilgrims to this day.

Before entering the cathedral we stopped off at the Vicars’ Close, the “most complete example of a medieval close in the UK.” Standing here you feel as if you have somehow skipped back 650 or so years. The houses on this street were (and continue to be) the homes of the Vicars Choral. Wells holds an important place in the English choral tradition and has produced generations of fine singers and musicians (one of which, Iestyn Davies, asked me to take a picture of his old abode).

Vicars’ Close

The last time I visited the cathedral I had actually come to sing evensong with my choir. It was strange then to walk into the cathedral and to hear nothing but the sound of my own footsteps. The cathedral was completely empty. No choir, no other visitors, no organ music. The nave had been cleared of all chairs and a single candle stood in the middle of the floor space, a dedication to the essential workers helping to tackle the COVID-19 crisis and a memorial to those who had died during the pandemic. Despite it being rather odd to find myself utterly alone in a silent cathedral, Wells still somehow managed to exude warmth. The numerous candles that lined the socially-distanced pilgrims’ path were a reminder that this space remained full of prayers and intentions. It remained a place of hope for the hopeless and a place of rest for the weary. It had managed COVID social-distancing measures in a way that did not make you feel constantly watched or on-edge. They had integrated these measures in a way that was comfortable, easy-to-follow, and did not detract from the peace or feel of the place itself. Wells is definitely leading the way here.

A single candle in the middle of Wells Cathedral
The scissor arches

Wandering through the cathedral I came to one of my favourite features: the scissor arches. The arches were constructed from 1338-1348 by William Joy and helped to support the tower, which had started to lean and crack. This feat of engineering turned out not only to be ingenious but also very elegant – the sign of a talented master mason. However, it is the lady chapel which really does leave an impression. If you stand in the middle of the chapel and look up at the stained-glass windows your eyes and brain automatically try to make sense of the glass shards. You try to see or arrange them into some sort of coherent pattern. However, this is not possible. The stained-glass windows in the chapel were destroyed during the Reformation and have been painstakingly pieced back together forming abstract patterns. Although these patterns are nonsensical and confusing they remain exceptionally beautiful. Looking at those windows reminded me of the chaos of the world outside of them. We live in a time where not much makes sense. Things are often overwhelming and confusing and we often end up looking for answers or explanations when there are none. Yet somehow with all that chaos going on we make things work. To me these windows were a reminder that things can go on and be pieced back together. Some things just take time and a lot of work. 

It was here that I chose to stop for a while and rest. I lit a few candles, one for each person I had promised to pray for and one for Becca. Then I stopped for a while, switched off my camera and just enjoyed the silence. 

For a 360 degree view of the Lady Chapel please click here.

Candles in Wells Cathedral

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Pilgrimage Challenge 2: Salisbury to Old Sarum Circular Route

Music: Piano arrangement of ‘Be Still My Soul’ by Toby Nelms

“In this house for a hundred and fifty years, we have woven a rich fabric of constant praise. Things shall be as they were; only better, richer, the pattern of worship complete at last.” [1]

(William Golding, The Spire,p.10)

As I approached Salisbury Cathedral these words came to mind. Golding’s The Spire tells the tale of Jocelin, Dean of a cathedral, and his obsession with building a spire. Jocelin presses his master builder to keep making the spire higher, despite the dangers of building such a tall and heavy structure. The idea of the spire consumes Jocelin who eventually succumbs to illness at the novel’s end leaving the structure incomplete — a monument not to God but to man’s pride and over-reaching ambition.

Salisbury Cathedral

Golding, a former teacher at Bishop Wordsworth’s School, would have seen Salisbury Cathedral’s fourteenth-century spire from the school grounds. At 123m Salisbury’s spire is the tallest in Britain, a title previously held by Lincoln Cathedral before the collapse of its spire in the sixteenth century.[2] However, the construction of Salisbury’s spire did not come without problems. Christopher Wren’s 1668 report on the condition of the spire advised that the structure needed further support – the marble pillars supporting the spire had started to bend under its weight. Internal iron bands were therefore used to strengthen the spire.[3] Thus the structure remains standing today and, unlike Jocelin’s spire, provides a focal point for Salisbury, drawing in tourists, worshippers, and even a pilgrim or two.

Baptismal Font designed by William Pye

Salisbury Cathedral has been a place of almost “constant praise” for 800 years.[4] I briefly wondered what Golding would think then of its current situation. The Cathedral has just reopened for private prayer and reflection. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 Salisbury’s doors, and the doors of cathedrals and churches across the country, have remained shut. For months Salisbury Cathedral has remained silent, no treble voices reverberating, no incense clouding the air. Walking into a space so undisturbed by the usual background murmur of tourism, prayer and organ music was a unique experience. In some ways it was incredibly peaceful — nothing but the sound of a few footsteps and the gentle running of water over the baptismal font, crafted by William Pye in 2008, punctuated the air.[5] However, the experience was also quite discomforting. It was evident that things are not “as they were”, and it occurred to me that many of those who might usually come to pray or reflect might still feel that it is unsafe to do so.[6] The Cathedral seems to sit ‘in limbo’, waiting until it can welcome home its choirs, its worshippers, and its visitors on a larger scale. Maybe once we reach this point things will be, as Golding writes, “better, richer” than before and the “pattern of worship” will again feel complete.[7] One can only hope.

There are candle stations at different points around the Cathedral, making one’s journey through the building feel like a pilgrimage in itself, which is perhaps what it should be. I stopped by the stained-glass windows in the North transept and took a moment to remember Becca. Placing my candle on the almost-full stand I thought about just how many prayers must have been said in this space over the years. Like the sound of the water running from Pye’s font, whispers of these intentions, of words, both thought and spoken, permeate the Cathedral, captured in visual form by flickering of flame and melting of wax.

Stairway by Danny Lane

I would have loved to stay longer but the road to Old Sarum called. After a quick hand sanitisation we left the Cathedral, stopping briefly to take a closer look at the modern art  which occupies the Cathedral close. This includes Danny Lane’s Stairway.[8] The purpose of this piece is not just the art in front of you, but the art beyond. At the end of the last stair the eye is drawn to the immense, grey shape of the Cathedral. Lane’s temporary structure leads to the permanent, starting at the feet of the viewer and appearing to end in line with the Cathedral spire. As such, Lane’s work bridges seven centuries of art and architecture, linking the modern to the medieval. The etched glass surfaces make it look as if the piece is covered in running water, expressing the uncertainty, fragility, and temporariness of the individual’s future path. With Salisbury Cathedral at its end, Stairway combines movement with the immovable, it speaks of the journey and the final, certain destination.

St Edmund’s/Salisbury Arts Centre

Shaking off the slight discomfort that seemed to be triggered by the art, we carried on with our own journey. We continued through the fourteenth-century North Gate and out onto the streets of Salisbury. On the way St Edmund’s Church, now known as Salisbury Arts Centre, came into view.[9] St Edmund’s was founded in the thirteenth century but the majority of the building looks fifteenth century or later. The tower, for example, hails from the seventeenth-century. It was rebuilt following the collapse of an earlier tower in 1653. The conversion of St Edmund’s to an arts centre came in 1975, as congregation numbers had significantly decreased. However, St Edmund’s still holds a special place in the hearts of many Salisbury residents. Ken Edwards, for example, gives a moving account of his years as a St Edmund’s parishioner on the Milford St Bridge Project website:

“St Edmund’s was the hub of the community in those days…it was very sad when that shut. We used to have a 9.15 service.  Then afterwards we used to have breakfast in the Hale Hall.  All the congregation used to come and we used to have bacon and eggs sometimes, or just eggs on toast,you know, they used to have full breakfasts. St. Edmund’s was our church, was our main hub.. ‘cos that had a great social activity,things going on in the Hale Hall, and so we were up the church a lot.”[10]

Unfortunately, this building was closed, otherwise I would have ventured inside to take more photos. Reluctantly we moved on, starting towards the outskirts of Salisbury, crossing over the motorway bridge and walking across Bishopdown to the base of Old Sarum.

Access to the castle itself is currently operating on a booking system to ensure social distancing and there is a one-way system in place as you move around the castle. Old Sarum’s history is multi-layered and it is almost overwhelming to see these different layers revealed. To very quickly summarise: in the Iron Age the site was a hillfort. From around 43 AD the site was occupied by the Romans and became known as Sorviodunum. There is evidence of an early English settlement from around 552 AD. In the years following, Old Sarum was also used to protect local people from Viking raids. A castle was constructed in the middle of the site following the Norman Conquest, and the remains of this castle can still be seen today. Old Sarum consequently has evidence of Iron Age, Roman, Saxon and Norman occupation.[11]

The deep ditches surrounding the castle immediately catch the eye. One can imagine the difficulty of attacking it. Moreover, you can almost visualise how the castle would have looked in the site’s centre, raised above all other dwellings and structures with a birds-eye view of the area’s comings and goings. At one end of the castle was the Great Tower, housing most of the monarch’s rooms. The remains of a chapel also exist towards the centre of the castle – the Chapel of St Margaret, the chapel of the servants and garrison. The royal family used a separate chapel on the first floor, the Chapel of St Nicholas, where a lamp was kept constantly burning, a sign of devotion through night and day.[12]

Arguably, the most impressive feature of Old Sarum is the ruin of Old Sarum Cathedral, which can be viewed from a height from within the castle walls. All that remains of the Cathedral are its foundations, the cruciform ghost of a building.

The foundations of Old Sarum Cathedral

Old Sarum Cathedral was consecrated in 1092 during the time of Bishop Osmund.[13] However, the building was badly damaged in a storm just five days later – not a great start.[14] The original building was extended under the watchful eye of Osmund’s successor, Bishop Roger of Old Sarum, a one-time Chancellor of the Kingdom.[15] The most extensive and perhaps most lavish changes came under his tenure. William of Malmesbury went so far as to describe how Bishop Roger furnished the Cathedral so that it “yielded place to no other in England, but surpassed many.” [16] Bishop Jocelyn, who succeeded Roger, and who was potentially the inspiration for Golding’s Dean Jocelin, also made significant changes to the Cathedral, adding a new west end to the building featuring two towers.[17] By studying the foundations one can pick out the points of alteration and extension, the individual marks of each Bishop and of each time.  

Walking through the outline of Old Sarum Cathedral feels very odd. You still have the experience of walking through the nave, yet no walls or stained glass surround you. From the west end you can see the stubs of pillars that once lined the building. Looking at the remains of the pillars one can imagine walking underneath a grand, vaulted ceiling towards the pulpitum, the screen separating the nave and choir, with gentle light streaming through stained glass.

Turning my eyes from the ghost of the old Cathedral I spotted the spire of Salisbury Cathedral in the distance. Bishop Richard Poore helped to faciliate the move of the Cathedral from Old Sarum to Salisbury.[18] The Legend of the Arrow describes how the new site for the Cathedral was decided when an archer at the old site shot an arrow into the valley. It hit a deer and the deer which then died in the spot where Salisbury Cathedral now sits.[19] I recounted this story to my brother who, looking at the distance between Old Sarum and Salisbury, remarked that the archer was either a very poor shot or the deer was supernaturally endowed with strength to have run so far after being hit. In any case, the tale makes a nice backstory for the founding of the Cathedral on its present site. The foundation stones of Salisbury Cathedral were laid in 1220 and soon a new settlement was formed around the Cathedral site: the city of Salisbury.

At this point it occurred to me that the theme of this pilgrimage was very much centred on transition and transformation. I had started with Salisbury Cathedral, a building transformed by new social-distancing measures, its community beginning the transition to a new, socially-distanced form of worship and prayer. Standing at the old Cathedral site and looking across to Salisbury Cathedral in the distance, I could see a transition from old to new, from past to present. Change is constant and unavoidable, and it most certainly leaves its mark.

Walking by the river

Aware of the passing of time, and the danger of me becoming too philosophical, Father Mackay soon ushered us back towards Salisbury. We made our way down from Old Sarum and, after accidentally veering off route, finally found ourselves walking next to the River Avon. Mother Mackay briefly reminded me at this point that this was the river I once fell into at a regatta, before my race had even begun. I cringed at the memory. The way back was far more peaceful than the way to Old Sarum. Instead of tar and concrete we were treated to fields and long grass. Eventually, Salisbury Cathedral spire came into view again as we rounded a corner, entering a field on the edge of the town where a few picnickers were enjoying the early evening sun. I looked up at the spire ahead of me and thought of how welcome a sight it must have been to pilgrims over the years, not just as a religious symbol, but as a sign that you are safe, welcome, and that you are not entirely lost.

Back in Salisbury

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[1] William Golding, The Spire, (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), (p.10).

[2] “Timeline”, Lincoln Cathedral, https://lincolncathedral.com/history-conservation/timeline/, N.d, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[3] “Sir Christopher Wren”, Salisbury Cathedral, https://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/history/sir-christopher-wren, N.d, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[4] Golding, p.10.

[5] William Pye, “Salisbury Cathedral Font”, William Pye, N.d., https://www.williampye.com/works/salisbury-cathedral-font, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[6] Golding, p.10

[7] Ibid.

[8] Danny Lane, Stairway, (2005), Sculpture; “Danny Lane, Stairway”, Cass Sculpture Foundation, http://www.sculpture.org.uk/artwork/stairway, N.d., Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[9] “Former Church of St Edmund”, Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1355852, Accessed: 28th June 2020; WiltshireCreative, https://www.wiltshirecreative.co.uk/, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[10] “St Edmunds Church”, Milford Street Bridge Project,https://www.milfordstreetbridgeproject.org.uk/content/places/churches-other-religious-buildings/st-edmunds-church, N.d., Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[11] “Timeline”, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/siteassets/home/visit/places-to-visit/old-sarum/school-visits/timeline-old-sarum.pdf, N.d., Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[12] “Old Sarum”, Ancient and Historical Monuments in the City of Salisbury, (London, 1977), British History Online. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/salisbury/pp1-24, Accessed; 28th June 2020.  

[13] “History of Old Sarum”, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/old-sarum/history/, N.d., Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[14] “Old Sarum”, British History Online.

[15] Ibid.

[16] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum (Rolls Ser. Xc), ii, 275: tectum turris ecclesiae omnino disjecit, multamque maceriam labefactavit, cited in “Old Sarum”, British History Online.

[17] “Old Sarum”, British History Online.

[18] Philippa Hoskin, “Poor, Richard (d.1237)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography, (2004), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/22525, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[19] “Cathedral Celebrates 800th Anniversary Despite Lockdown”, The Diocese of Salisbury, (1st May 2020), https://www.salisbury.anglican.org/news/cathedral-celebrates-800th-anniversary-despite-lockdown, Accessed: 28th June 2020.


Pilgrimage Challenge 1: The South Dorset Old Stones Way

By Micah Mackay

Pilgrimage Challenge 1 Video

Music: Piano arrangement of ‘He Who Would Valiant Be – Monk’s Gate’ by Toby Nelms

We arrived in the village of Little Bredy to the sound of the church bell bringing in the tenth hour of morning. Having not heard church bells since February this sound instantly brought me back to Oxford and how every Sunday I would open my window and be greeted by a chorus of bells, singing out across the city. The sound of that solitary bell in the middle of a small, remote Dorset village encouraged me. It was a good start.

We took some time to explore the church, St Michael and All Angels, which sits alongside the Bridehead estate. Unfortunately, we couldn’t venture inside but from the outside we were still able to admire the fourteenth-century tower and some intricate later stonework. This included a rather lovely lion’s head, a pipe poking out from its mouth in imitation of a tongue.

Stonework at St Michael and All Angels

Leaving Little Bredy we headed out towards the fields and the Valley of Stones, a National Nature Reserve. Despite being raised on a farm there was some initial reluctance from Mother Mackay to venture into a field with a herd of longhorns. However, a sign attached to the gate reassured her that they were friendly and not particularly inclined to violence, so we continued on. The Dorset countryside soon opened out before us. The Valley of Stones gets its name from the sarsen stones which tumbled down into the valley after the last ice age. Some of these stones were then used in local Neolithic sites, including many of the stone circles we came across during this pilgrimage. Wildflowers abound in the area around these stones and we were soon surrounded by birds, butterflies and the sound of insects in the high grass. Being a geographer, Mother Mackay was, of course, very taken by the landscape and lots of photos of the stones were taken to show her schoolchildren in their online lessons.

Arriving at the end of the Valley of Stones we ran into a slight issue – the gate we were supposed to go through had been tied shut with barbed wire, making sure that no wayfarer, pilgrim or walker could cross into the next field. I was rather disappointed by this, as in the next field was a ruin that I wanted to explore. The structure in question is marked on the British Pilgrimage Trust website as a ‘Barn or a Chapel.’ However, if you look at the aerial shot from the BPT website the structure is cruciform.

Knowlton Church, Dorset

Considering this, and the fact that it is built so near Neolithic structures, I’m inclined to think that the building was probably, at some point, a chapel. It is fairly common for churches and chapels to be found near or, in fact, on top of Neolithic monuments. Take Knowlton Church in Dorset as an example. The church sits in the middle of a circular henge. Placing churches in the middle of henges or near pagan ceremonial sites demonstrates an attempt to ‘re-contextualise’ non-Christian sites within a new, Christian framework. In a sense it is one religion or culture’s attempt to assert itself above another. As such, with the proximity of the structure to Neolithic monuments and bearing in minds the ruin’s shape, I would hazard a guess that this ruin was probably a chapel that, for some reason, fell into ruin. Perhaps it was used for storage or to shelter animals once it had fallen out of use. This could be a reason for it being dubbed a ‘barn’. Reluctant to listen to anymore of me going on about why the ruin might be a chapel, Father Mackay began our detour up towards the top of the ridge, where we hoped we’d find a different gate to lead us onto the road. This time we were in luck. The gate at the top of the ridge was not bolted shut and we could continue our journey to Abbotsbury.

Kingston Russell Stone Circle

The sun decided to make an appearance as we walked down the road and towards the Kingston Russell Stone Circle. Coats were quickly abandoned and hats were put on instead. The Kingston Russell Stone Circle is a late Neolithic/early Bronze Age stone circle comprised of eighteen of the same sarsen stones found in the Valley of Stones. It is the largest stone circle in Dorset. Sadly all of the stones have now fallen, although there is some debate as to whether some were still standing as late as the 19th century. This area is rich in Neolithic sites – from the Circle to nearby barrows. For example, near to the Circle one can also find a long barrow and burial chamber, known as the Grey Mare and Her Colts. A bowl barrow, one of the most common forms of burial mound, is also a short distance away and makes for quite a prominent landscape feature. The number of these ceremonial and burial sites within this area suggest that this part of Dorset was a site of significant ritual importance. Looking across the hills at the rolling countryside and, past that, the sea, one can definitely see why people may have been drawn to this place from the earliest times and why they may have chosen to bury their dead in such a place.

Leaving the Neolithic and Bronze Age sites we headed towards the medieval. Our path took us across fields, up a rather steep hill (I was crowned Mother and Father’s least favourite child at this point) and then down into the much-needed shade of a small, wooded area above Abbotsbury. Having previously visited the ruins of St Luke’s Chapel, which lie hidden at the heart of the woodland, I knew just what a treat we were in for. The west end of the chapel is all that remains of this Cistercian site. The wall emerges from the surrounding woodland gently and it almost takes your eyes a moment to adjust in order to make out the arch from the surrounding greenery. Ivy has grown over parts of the stone giving the impression of nature reclaiming this space as its own. “It’s like a fairyland!” exclaimed a fellow pilgrim and I would have to agree that this is as accurate a description as any.

The west wall of St Luke’s

St Luke’s is so far removed from the ‘outside world’, that the complexities and troubles of life do not seem able to penetrate the air around it. A visit to this place offers the chance for contemplation, for peace and for removal from all outside influences. This is probably something the small community of monks from Netley Abbey, who resided here, would have relished. It is no wonder that William of Litton, who gave the land used for St Luke’s to Netley Abbey in 1246, wanted prayers said for him perpetually in this chapel.

Some weary pilgrims

We stopped for lunch at St Luke’s and I took some time to explore the chapel, taking note of the two carved heads on the inside of the west wall. I also had a closer look at the altar which was constructed at a later point by the Milne-Wilsons, previous owners of the Ashley Chase estate up the road. The Milne-Watsons loved St Luke’s so much that they paid for its conservation and both David Milne-Wilson and Olga Milne-Wilson are buried within the chapel grounds.

Walking the Hardy Way

Feeling restored, both spiritually and physically, we resumed our journey, with both the parents relieved to see Abbotsbury come into view from the top of the Hardy Way. The weather had turned slightly colder and coats were soon put on again. The section of the Hardy Way near Abbotsbury is quite high up and, as such, the wind was a bit of an issue (I nearly lost my hat!). However, we persevered with coats done up and hats secured. On one side of us the coast stretched out all the way to Weymouth, where we could see the dark shadows of cruise ships lined up in the harbour. On the other side of the Hardy Way was the English countryside in all its green glory. The view could only be described as spectacular and, had the weather been a bit warmer this point, I would have filmed much more of it!

Our first view of St Catherine’s

Father Mackay once again set the pace, eager to get out of the wind. A chapel on a distant hill soon came into view – St Catherine’s Chapel, our end goal. We were all starting to feel the tiredness set in as we came down into Abbotsbury and Mother Mackay was not enthused to learn that our final destination involved a trek up another hill.

We made our way through the streets of the village, taking in the remains of St Peter’s Abbey, a Benedictine Abbey. The Abbotsbury Swannery was a source of income for the monks who resided here and the Abbey was apparently known for lavish banquets, which often featured swan on the menu. All that remains of the Abbey is the wall of what might have been the Abbot’s lodgings and a few other outlying buildings, including the remains of a huge tithe barn, now part of Abbotsbury Children’s Farm.

St Catherine’s, Abbotsbury

We continued on the path towards St Catherine’s, the fourteenth-century hilltop chapel named after St Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of unmarried women. Apparently, up until the nineteenth-century women would come to the chapel to pray to St Catherine for a husband. The position of the chapel on a hill just outside of the village emphasises the story of St Catherine, whose body was said to have been taken by angels to the top of Mount Sinai following her martyrdom. The hill is steep but on the way up there are incredible views of Abbotsbury, the coast, and the countryside. Walking up this hill I briefly wondered how many pilgrims had walked this very same path. The chapel was, after all, a pilgrimage chapel in the fourteenth-century. Monks would have come from the local Abbey to ‘retreat’ from the world. Although St Peter’s Abbey is not far from the chapel the walk, in itself, would have still been a sort of ‘spiritual journey’, climbing from the bottom to the chapel and, once at the summit, being able to look out over vast expanses of land and sea. Standing near the chapel there is certainly a sense of the ‘immensity’ of creation and one is reminded of the beauty that surrounds us which we often take for granted. The chapel itself even seems quite tall and, as English Heritage notes, must have been incredibly impressive during the medieval period when its windows were filled with stained glass and details on its roof were highlighted in bright colours. St Catherine’s Chapel, in its lonely hilltop position, with its bird’s-eye view over the land and imposing architecture, seems to almost be a stone link between Earth, man and God.

I spent some time at St Catherine’s looking over the sea. This is probably why the building escaped destruction during the Reformation – it holds a strategic position looking out over the ocean and also provides a good view further inland. It felt right to finish the first pilgrimage at the top of a hill and at such a gorgeous historical place. It was a reminder that not every journey is easy but the end result can be truly beautiful and surprising if you persevere. As Becca once said to me, “things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

This pilgrimage challenge is done in memory of Becca Henderson.

To find out more about the pilgrimage challenge please visit: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/micah-pilgrimage-challenge

Any donations/shares of the link are very much appreciated. It all goes a long way to helping support the work of the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals Charity.


The Church of St John of Nepomuk, Vrchní Orlice


Vrchní Orlice (close to Bartošovice v Orlických horách)

Hradec Králové Region

Czech Republic

May 2020



The Orlické Mountains (Orlické hory in Czech) cleave to their namesake, the eagle, by soaring gently but surely to great heights; the highest point, Velká Deštná, claims 1,115 metres from the sky. Despite the elevation, the valleys on both sides of the range are very hospitable, with many small villages sprawling up and sheltering down in the mountains’ shadows. Many places in the Orlické Mountains, a natural barrier between the rest of the Czech Republic and Poland, lie right on the Divoká Orlice, a river and an international border. This is no English Channel or Mekong River; an effortful jump would see you safely translated to another country. The border is uneventful and uninteresting, and plays no great part in the lives of the area’s inhabitants, who cross it when they need to, and don’t when they don’t.


large-detailed-tourist-map-of-czech-republic (1)


Wind back the clock to 1900 and the divide becomes even less noteworthy, as people on the river’s two banks then spoke the same language, German – or rather Glätzlich, a local variety of Silesian German. What did split the valley was legal nationality; the north bank, now Poland, belonged to the German Empire, while the land south of the bank, including the Orlické Mountains, was part of the Kingdom of Bohemia, a crown subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even still, the political intrigues of the very distant capital cities of Berlin and Vienna cannot have had a great effect on the riverside villages, not at least until 1914, when the region had its sons sent into the hells of the First World War.




Caught behind woods and water is a cluster of hidden houses and a stout church that barely cling on to the name Vrchní Orlice. It sits within a slight bend of the river, in perfectly bucolic surroundings; pine forests, manicured fields and a bubbling brook, the Hadinec, roll down to the Orlice. Today, it is peaceful, pristine and very empty. However, Vrchní Orlice, formerly Hohen-Erlitz (what an ominous parenthesis – that a village should be formerly anything), has known horrors.




In 1918, through the birth of Czechoslovakia, the south bank of the Divoká Orlice found itself in a new country – one without an implicit German hegemony. The Orlické Mountains and their German-speaking inhabitants were part of the Sudetenland, a term that grew in use and importance during the interwar years, to match the increasing ethnolinguistic tensions in the nascent Czechoslovak state. The problems of the Sudetenland were both nationalistic and economic, and many eagerly looked to the Nazi Party in neighbouring Germany for support. This tense situation found its tragic culmination in the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, followed by the occupation of the rest of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939.

In 1945, with Nazi Germany defeated, came the Beneš Decrees and the state-sanctioned removal of the German-speaking population of Czechoslovakia. Many were forced; many fled first; many never got to try. Hohen-Erlitz was abandoned.

The Church of St John of Nepomuk in Vrchní Orlice stands as a witness to this turmoil. Much like the surrounding area, it wears its story on its sleeve; at first glance, you behold a grand Baroque edifice, with two rows of squat, fort-like windows. The church has a natural strength and pride, but its facade is ragged and decaying. Entering through the gloomy atrium and under the upper stalls, the vast space reveals itself. It is plain, yes, but nonetheless theatrical in its form; the eye easily surrenders its gaze to the apse and altar, canopied by a starry sky of faded azure blue.





Golden chalices, monograms (IHS) and even faint murals slowly emerge from the peeling plaster, together forming an impression of sophistication and wealth. The three teetering tiers of wooden pews suggest a very large congregation when it was first built in 1712, though by 1930, the village population had decreased to 239 people.





Today, services are rare, but the church is in no way without friends. It is cared for by volunteers from the nearby village of Bartošovice, who raise funds for the church, and who recently restored the roof. They have hung verses from the Bible on the walls and have built a rudimentary altar that feels urgently sincere in its simplicity. If open, a rare and unpredictable occurrence in the Czech Republic, the church is yours; you can freely climb up dusty steps into both the upper pews and the rickety tower.





What cuts the cruellest is the sight of the small surrounding graveyard. It is littered with headstones, broken and askew, now mocked by the verdant vitality of the May climate, yet each still displaying a little of their original elegance. Their inscriptions are all in German, silver Gothic letters gliding over sea-black marble; in tears and desperate hope, they demand Ruhe (repose) and Himmels Frieden (heaven’s peace) for their departed loved ones, admitting only auf Wiedersehen until later reunion. The vivacity of a community is truly best revealed among its dead, who bear witness not only to past life, but also to present loss of those left behind.





Where is that community now? They are scattered so far, as broken as the bricks of their abandoned church. Where are the children of Josef Wohl, known forever as a good husband and father? Who now grieves for Anna Jaschke, who died aged a mere eleven days? Who even remembers her? Her parents, distraught, engraved their pain upon her headstone in 1929; under a thin veneer of guarded poetry, it reads like a howl of confusion, a futile attempt to make sense of the inexplicable.


Liebe Eltern tröstet Euch!                           

                                                                         (Dear parents, console yourselves!)

Ich bin beim Gott und bitte für Euch.       

                                                                          (I am with God and pray for you.)

 Der liebe Gott wird es schon wissen,       

                                                                          (Dear God will surely know,)

Warum er hat mich Euch entrissen.         

                                                                          (Why he wrested me from you.)



Such grief as theirs deserves to flow from source to story, losing strength but not substance as it moves through the community that understands it, takes it and bears it. Just as graves, at first harsh cut wounds, fade in time and merge with the earth, so too should loss slowly dissipate, adding to the communal narrative in ever quieter and more endurable ways. At Vrchní Orlice, however, this was not allowed to happen. The lasting, gnawing feeling is of a community interrupted. Flowerless graves halt time at 1935 at the latest, frozen in the past, forsaken by modernity, and leave a story eternally incomplete; the proper flow of life, death, life and death was severed by anger, resentment and cruelty.


The cost of hatred is life.




Danny Bate 2020


For more information:

http://www.orlickehory.net/mista/vrchorlice.htm (Czech)



St Mary the Virgin Part 2 – Save Our Stories Series: A Reflection

By Micah Mackay

In my last blog post, where I took a look at St Mary the Virgin, Tarrant Crawford, I promised another post examining its fourteenth-century wall paintings. I initially thought this post would be more of an academic study of the paintings found in this church. However, it has turned into something different — something more personal. I believe The Wandering Academic should be more than just an account of visits, places, and the things found in them though. It should be a space to share reactions to these places and the thoughts and emotions they provoke.

Medieval wall painting of the Crucifixion

I want to focus on one image in particular: a painting of the Crucifixion. Although not the most striking wall painting within St Mary’s, this image is, nevertheless, the one to which I am most drawn. Like most of the wall paintings, this image has been weathered by time. Yet, it is Christ’s body, stretched out on a now mostly-invisible cross, that stands in sharp relief to the blurred and faded faces at the foot of the cross. Even without the cross visible, one’s eyes are drawn to the shape of Christ’s body— the raised arms, the head which has fallen to one side. The image, faded as it is, remains recognisable purely from the body’s position. Many would be able to mentally ‘fill in’ what has been lost to time: how the crown of thorns might have looked or perhaps the shape of the cross supporting Christ. The real beauty in this image though is the lack of these things. How little of the picture is needed to tell a story. It is the simplicity of the human form, arms outstretched, that bring to mind the Crucifixion. Without the cross, this image seems somewhat more powerful. Christ’s arms speak of sacrifice and redemption but also reach out to the viewer— to welcome, to accept and to almost embrace them. It is even more clear than usual that this is an image not only of suffering but of profound love. 

It is all the more beautiful that this part of the image, Christ’s body, is the element which has survived the passing of ages. It has survived the reformation, wars, and plagues. For many years it lay unseen before being ‘re-discovered’ during restoration works from 1910-1911.¹ Whilst flicking through my phone and thinking of all the places I have been lucky enough to visit, this one image served as a powerful reminder of the fact that beauty, whatever its form, will find a way to survive in the most difficult of circumstances. It may not be apparent or totally obvious at times but it is there. The survival of Christ’s body within this image brings to mind what is really important: what will stay with other people, long after we have gone, is the love we are able to share, the selfless acts, and the bits of beauty, we, ourselves, are able to give to others. 

In the middle of Dorset, hundreds of years ago, an artist produced these wonderful paintings and they have survived, bringing both beauty and joy to those who see them today. It is an act of love and devotion that has been passed down through the centuries from the artist’s hand to our eyes. Even though the artist remains nameless, this love, this beauty, is what is left of them. 

This time of lockdown is an uncertain and challenging time for us all. There will be moments when everything feels impossible, when tempers flare, when things are said that ought not to be said, or when we just feel like it is all too much. None of us are perfect though. All we can do is continue to try our best for those around us and, also, for ourselves. We can find solace in little bits of beauty and in small acts of kindness and understanding. After all, to keep in mind the words of Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’, “what will survive of us is love.”²

Some of the wall paintings in St Mary the Virgin. The top row tells the tale of St Margaret of Antioch. The Crucifixion can be seen on the bottom right.

1. Jenny C. Bledsoe, The Cult of St Margaret of Antioch at Tarrant Crawford: The Saint’s Didactic Body and Its Resonance for Religious Women, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures 39.2, (2013): pp.173-206 (p.178), JSTOR, DOI: 10.5325/jmedirelicult.39.2.0173, Accessed: 21st April 2020.

2. Philip Larkin, An Arundel Tomb, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47594/an-arundel-tomb, Accessed: 21st April 2020.

This is part of our ‘Save Our Stories’ series. This series highlights the work of English Heritage, who are trying to preserve wall paintings across the country. For more information please click here.


St Clement’s Church, Rodel, Harris


JULY, 2018

We are away on Harris, cycling round the East road of the island. As we round the corner, a church appears, perched on a hill. We dismount our bikes and set them in the grass. We read the sign: ‘St Clement’s Church’. We enter the church.


Like many churches, the stone building is cross-shaped, with a tower at the west end of the cross. Inside the church, a wooden door opens onto a set of stairs up the tower. In each transept of the cross are carvings. As you face the altar, the right arm has a stone box with a carved figure on top, while the left arm has a series of carved stone slabs displayed against the wall. Throughout the nave, wooden boards give information about the history of the church and the carvings in it. At the top of the cross, on the right-hand wall just before the altar, is the tomb of Alasdair MacLeod.



[Roan] I open the worksheet for this week’s reading on ‘Highland Sculpture’ for one of the classes in my master’s degree. The PDF is comprised of a series of pictures of stone carvings, sourced from the western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I peruse the document, trying to match text to picture, and come across something familiar: a carving from St Clement’s Church, Rodel, Harris. My memory is fuzzy. Was the church we visited called St Clement’s? I check my phone and look at my photos from the summer — sure enough, I match the photo I took this summer with the worksheet’s picture of the tomb of Alasdair MacLeod. I read on.

Alasdair MacLeod was the chief of the Clan MacLeod in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Throughout his lifetime, Clan MacLeod held land on several of the outer Hebridies, including Harris and Skye. At the time of Alasdair’s rule, most of Scotland’s western islands and some of the Highlands were under control of the ‘Lordship of the Isles’, “by far the largest and most powerful province of Scotland”¹. Alasdair’s ancestors had been clan chiefs for six generations before him, and all of them were buried on Iona. Alasdair is the first to be buried elsewhere. This is perhaps because in 1498 the king of Scotland gave Alasdair a crown grant of the lands that Alasdair’s father had held for the Lord of the Isles (at this time John MacDonald, Earl of Ross)². The change in ownership of the land might have motivated Alasdair to commission a tomb on his lands. Furthermore, St Clement’s, located as it is near the southern point of Harris, was an important church on the island—many living there at the time would have visited the church, and thus seen the stonework built for Alasdair’s glory. It may have been a way for Alasdair to ensure that future generations remembered his power and leadership. Indeed, the teacher leading the class tells us, there are still stories and legends circulating about Alasdair on Harris today.

There is one more note about Alasdair: he is frequently referred to as ‘Crotach’, or ‘Humpacked’. In the early 1480s (the date is unclear), Alasdair fought on the side of the Lord of the Isles in the Battle of Bloody Bay. He was wounded in the back by opposing forces, an injury that was apparently clearly visible for the rest of his long life (he died in 1547).


JULY, 2018

I project the knowledge learned in November on my earlier self—there is no doubt that a great deal of this information is displayed on the signs throughout the church, but I can’t recall specifics. The church itself was built around Alasdair’s time, with Alasdair commissioning his tomb in 1528. The tomb comprises a stone coffin with Alasdair’s effigy on top, under a roof-shaped set of carvings which arch above Alasdair’s pseudo-body. Images carved into the stone include a hunting scene, a ship called a birlinn, bishops, various nobles, and an angel and a demon fighting. There is a panel with a Latin inscription, which reads ‘Hic loculus co[m]posuit p[er] d[omi]n[um] Allexa[n]der filius Vil[elmi] MacClod Anno Do[mi]ni M˚ CCCCC˚ XXVIII˚’ (‘this place made by Lord Alasdair MacLeod, son of William MacLeod, AD 1528’).


Rufus and I explore the body of the church and both transepts. The church is cool, but a refuge from the sky, which can’t decide whether or not to soak us (it does, later, as we hurry into a tiny art cafe down the road). I take the stairs at the end of the church, and, climbing, find an alcove in which previous visitors have left tiny relics, icons, trinkets. I touch the coin-shaped icon of Joan of Arc that I always carry, consider leaving it behind. Outside the window, there is a grassy field which leads down to the ocean. I take Joan away with me, but I’m sorry I haven’t left anything else behind. Descending again to the nave, I pass a few other visitors. I know that there are a few others in the church during the visit, but I remember the church as a quiet, empty place, which Rufus and I are able to explore alone.

I put my hands on the slightly green walls of the church. The moss and lichen and stone grow together, one un/living thing carrying the weight of human signification. A few days later I hear that a traditional Highlands clothes-dye method uses lichen to make a dull green, a practice which is now discouraged in the more recent knowledge of how long it takes for lichen to regrow. I listen for the ‘delicate transient lyrics’ of the lichen on the wall in harmony with the ‘wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry’ of the Lewisian gneiss.³

Now, knowing what I’ve learned in the past year, I wonder about Alasdair’s eponym, the ways it places Alasdair’s injury in inevitable conjunction with his name. I wonder what Alasdair himself thought or felt about his body. I wonder if his injury was seen as a flaw or as proof of heroism or a mixture of both. I wonder about Alasdair’s motivation for building the tomb, about the fear of mortality and/or ego that drew him to order such a magnificent burial place. Supposedly Alasdair was religious, just as much as he was vicious: he ordered the massacre of islanders on Eigg, which he apparently ordered based on a change in the weather, interpreting it as a sign from God. St Clement’s Church feels like a nexus of bigger questions; Alasdair’s tomb remains an important piece of evidence about West Highland carving, and thus in the debates about categorising variations in this art style.⁴ Likewise, Alasdair participated in the power structure of the Lordship of the Isles, and its tangled relationship between local clan chieftains and the Scottish crown. Clan MacLeod is itself not a single body, with two other lineages sharing the same name. Traditionally believed to have been founded by a Viking, Clan MacLeod also points to the history of linguistic complexity in the Highlands and Islands, and to the history of Norse invasion, which is also borne out in local place-names, some of which are Gaelic, others Norse. Alasdair’s eponym also draws me towards disability studies, and makes me question how his body was perceived by those around him, and how our continued use of ‘Crotach’ changes our own understanding of him.

A year later, Rufus is on tour with the Nevis Ensemble, who have commissioned it to write a piece of music for their summer tour of the Outer Hebrides. I get a text from it telling me that today it will hear a performance of its piece, GEILT (a number of ways), in St Clement’s Church. I remember the church, its closeness to the water, the green grass and the graveyard outside, the greening walls and emptiness, a seashell perched among other offerings on a windowsill in the tower. I remember cycling away from the church with Rufus, trying to let go of the brakes on steep downhills as we went north, back to Tarbert. I remember our lunch of soup in Skoon Gallery. It was the first time I’d been on a cycle this long since I cycled between Achadh na Sìne train station and Torridon in March to visit Rufus at its job.

Writing this, I’ve been listening to the recording of Rufus’ piece GEILT being played in St Clement’s.



[Rufus] This is a kind of Coda, part of the reason why St Clement’s came back to the fore of our conversations.

I learned about Buile Suibne from Ronan. The 12th- or 13th-century Irish text became a supportive frame as I worked on my commission for the Nevis Ensemble, Scotland’s street orchestra.⁵

GEILT comprises 18 tiny movements that can be arranged, repeated, rearranged, and omitted as required. At St Clement’s, the ensemble performed all the movements, 1—18, in order for the first time: a kind of weird ritual, an invocation, a summoning. The church is dark, and the musicians are reading by the light of phone torches. Later, I am standing just outside the door during one of the orchestra’s folk tune arrangements. The sound spills out of the chapel into the summer evening, disappearing into the hills, strangely still.

Geilt is an Old Irish word used to refer to the character Sweeney, and other wanderers and outsiders. Sweeney, the cursed king of Dál Araide, experiencing PTSD-like symptoms following a battle, transforms into a bird or a bird-like creature, and flits around the wilds of Ireland as an outcast, telling in verse of the places he drifts through. The clearest account of his story is found in the Middle Irish text; however, the story seems to have its origins in the medieval kingdom of Strathclyde.

GEILT calls out to the places the Nevis Ensemble would pass on their journey — places which brought with them an ephemeral life of moving on. The music drifts between love and violence, and the places and weathers they happen(ed) in.


St Clement’s Church sits strangely in this context. It is not one of the locations that GEILT references, which are instead all wild, open places, outside in the sun and rain. St Clement’s seems closer to the end of Sweeney’s life in St Mullins: Sweeney dying, with his wandering done, rather than Sweeney ‘Summering where herons stalk / Wintering out among wolf-packs’. Later, the orchestra tried to take the work to the Callanais stones, only to be fittingly confined by stormy weather to a performance in the visitors’ centre — a reminder of the raw force of the world where the piece began, and where it could not also be finished — a critique of our egoism.

A year until last night
I have lived among dark trees,
between the flood and ebb-tide,
going cold and naked

with no pillow for my head,
no human company
and, so help me, God,
no spear and no sword.

No sweet talk with women.
Instead, I pine
for cresses, for the clean
pickings of the brooklime.

No surge of royal blood,
camped here in solitude;
no glory flames the wood,
no friends, no music.






Roan is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, writing about animal transformation in medieval Irish literature. They also love old stones and seaweed. @stone_grunge

Rufus (http://ambf.co.uk) is a musician originally from Tower Hamlets, now based in Glasgow. Rufus has written funerary music for doomed spaceships and orchestral music about rotting seaweed. In 2019, it was composer-in-residence with Scotland’s street orchestra, the Nevis Ensemble, creating a new work for their summer tour of the Outer Hebrides.



1 – John Bannerman, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’, in Scottish Society in the Fifteenth Century’ ed. by Jennifer M. Brown (London: Edward Arnold, 1977), 209-240, p. 211.

2 – See K. A. Steer and J. W. M. Bannerman, Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands, p. 98.

3- Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’, in The Compass Rose.

4 – See, for example Steer and Bannerman, and the criticism of their work in David H. Caldwell, Fiona M. McGibbon, Suzanne Miller and Nigel A. Ruckley, ‘The image of a Celtic society: medieval West Highland sculpture’ in Celts in Legend and Reality: Papers from the Sixth Australian Conference of Celtic Studies ed. by Pamela O’Neill (Sydney, N.S.W.: Celtic Studies Foundation, University of Sydney, 2010).

5- See J. G. O’Keefe (ed. and trans.), Buile Suibne: The Frenzy of Suibhne. Irish Texts Society 12 (London: Irish Texts Society, 1913); Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray (Derry: Field Day Theatre Company, 1983; rev. edn. London: Faber and Faber, 2001).


St Mary’s ,Tarrant Crawford: Part 1 – Save Our Stories: Wall Paintings Series

One summer when I was about fourteen or fifteen my family and some friends went on a walk through the Dorset countryside. At some point during this walk we stumbled upon an old church. This church was away from all main roads and, in fact, seemed to stand on its own, surrounded by fields and trees, in a place that appeared both inconvenient to potential parishioners and wildly inaccessible. We had come across St Mary’s, Tarrant Crawford, a twelfth-century church and one of the last surviving buildings of what was, formerly, one of the wealthiest Cistercian abbeys in England.

St Mary’s, Tarrant Crawford

I returned to St Mary’s last year. What stood out to me when I saw it again was the ‘greenness’ of its surroundings. Moreover, the church itself is built on a gentle slope, meaning it looks like the building is almost ‘leaning back’ slightly against its early sixteenth-century tower. St Mary’s was given to the Abbey by Ralph de Kahaines.[1] However, it was re-founded in the early thirteenth century by Bishop Richard Poore, a Bishop of Salisbury and an influential force behind the re-building of Salisbury Cathedral.[2] Bishop Poore later came to be buried in the cemetery. Other famous figures rumoured to be buried in St Mary’s cemetery include Queen Joan, sister of Henry III, who is said to be buried in a gold coffin.

The former wealth of the Abbey is evident from the rich decoration that covers the walls of the church. Despite the evident dampness of the interior, the walls of this church are still splashed with colour and illustration – from fourteenth-century depictions of the life of St. Margaret of Antioch to a series of images telling the story of three princes who go hawking and come across a few skeletons! It is, however, no surprise that the story of St. Margaret is so well emphasised. Jenny C. Bledsoe has discussed the popularity of the cult of St. Margaret in North Dorset and St. Margaret’s importance to anchoresses, female religious figures who retreated from the world.[3] Several anchoresses were probably resident at the Abbey, with Bledsoe suggesting that they were enclosed within a structure next to or joining onto St Mary’s.[4] ‘The Life of St. Margaret’ features prominently in the Katherine Group, a collection of five medieval saints’ lives.[5] ‘The Life of St. Margaret’ is also strongly linked to a medieval text called Ancrene Wisse, a ‘guide’ for anchorites, with Bledsoe noting that Ancrene Wisse directly encourages its readers to read and learn from ‘The Life of St. Margaret’.[6] Considering this, the wall paintings depicting the ‘Life of St. Margaret’ may have encouraged the devotional practices so central to the life of anchoresses, including confession and the avoidance of gluttony.[7] The art, in this sense, has devotional, aesthetic and instructive qualities and intention.

Another particularly striking feature of St Mary’s can be spotted close to the altar. A small plaque on the floor commemorates the passing of Rev. Francis Alfred Smith, who died before the altar on July 15th 1877. The inscription reads ‘blessed is that servant who his Lord when he cometh shall find watching’. The stillness of the church, with its natural lighting and secluded location, cannot help but encourage a sort of reflection, even if one does not intend to specifically pray. Standing in this spot, directly in front of the altar, and surrounded by medieval art, one cannot help but feel tied to the past, to the people like Rev. Smith, who knelt within this church, prayed, reflected. To quote Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – ‘it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours’.[8]

Although it is a shame that other parts of the Abbey no longer exist, having been demolished during the Reformation, St Mary’s truly is a jewel in a church-crawler’s crown. It draws together not only the artistry of the medieval period but also its religious literature and devotional practices. The church is now a mere reflection of the glory that once was, but it nevertheless remains, in my view, quite glorious.

British Heritage is currently fundraising to preserve some of the UK’s precious wall paintings, much like the ones found in St Mary’s. To donate please visit: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/support-us/our-appeals/wallpaintings/

Works Cited

Bennett, Alan, ‘Act 1’, The History Boys, Drama Online, London: Faber and Faber, (2004), doi:10.5040/9780571289325.00000008, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

Bledsoe, Jenny C., ‘The Cult of St. Margaret of Antioch at Tarrant Crawford: The Saint’s Didactic Body and Its Resonance for Medieval Women’, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 39.2, (2013), pp.173-206, (p.173), https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jmedirelicult.39.2.0173, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

Fisher, Jim, ‘Tarrant Crawford’, Dorset OPC, (2018), https://www.opcdorset.org/TarrantFiles/T.Crawford/TarrantCrawford.htm, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

Hoskin, Philippa, ‘Poor [Poore], Richard’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004), https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3030/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22525;jsessionid=B659E8C127128301C923CB6679579267, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

Huber, Emily Rebekah and Elizabeth Robertson, ‘The Life and Passion of Saint Margaret’, The Katherine Group (MS Bodley 34): Religious Writings for Women in Medieval England, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, (2016), pp.87-133.

Millet, Bella, Ancrene Wisse, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, (2009).

[1] Jim Fisher, ‘Tarrant Crawford’, Dorset OPC, (2018), https://www.opcdorset.org/TarrantFiles/T.Crawford/TarrantCrawford.htm, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

[2] Philippa Hoskin, ‘Poor [Poore], Richard’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004), https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3030/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22525;jsessionid=B659E8C127128301C923CB6679579267, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

[3] Jenny C. Bledsoe, ‘The Cult of St. Margaret of Antioch at Tarrant Crawford: The Saint’s Didactic Body and Its Resonance for Medieval Women’, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 39.2, (2013), pp.173-206, (p.173), https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jmedirelicult.39.2.0173, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

[4] Bledsoe, p.173.

[5] See Emily Rebekah Huber and Elizabeth Robertson, ‘The Life and Passion of Saint Margaret’, The Katherine Group (MS Bodley 34): Religious Writings for Women in Medieval England, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, (2016), pp.87-133.

[6] Bledsoe, p.177. For Ancrene Wisse see Bella Millet, Ancrene Wisse, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, (2009).

[7] Bledsoe, p.177.

[8] Alan Bennett, ‘Act 1’, The History Boys, Drama Online, London: Faber and Faber, (2004), doi:10.5040/9780571289325.00000008, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

All Saints’, Isleworth

I stumbled upon All Saints’, Isleworth after taking a walk past Syon House on a lovely (and uncharacteristically sunny) afternoon.

All Saints’ Church

The first thing that struck me about this place was the fusion of the undoubtedly medieval and the even more undoubtedly modern. A fifteenth-century church tower stands tall next to the Thames. Attached to this relic of our medieval past is the rather striking red brick work of the 1960s. Looking upon this architectural mismatch is, at first, quite a jarring experience. However, once the eye settles and the confusion passes the building itself begins to appear really quite beautiful, particularly once the story behind the structure is revealed.

In 1943 two schoolboys set fire to the earlier church that stood on this site. As a result, the medieval tower and the outside walls of All Saints’ are the only surviving parts of the previous church building. The determined parishioners of All Saints’ raised the necessary funds for the rebuilding of their church through small but innovative fundraising schemes – from selling marmalade to the option of ‘buying a brick’. The modern sections of the church we see today are the product of the faith and work of these parishioners. It is also a tribute to the architectural flair of Michael Blee, an architect responsible for the completion of Douai Abbey and widely recognised for his church work.

Anne-Françoise Morel notes that the church itself was dedicated to All Saints in 1485 but the vicarage had been in existence since 1290. It is certain that the church had strong links to the nearby Syon Abbey. The rebuilding of the church during the 1960s was not the first transformation of this church. In the 1700s the church had fallen into a state of disrepair. Sir Christopher Wren was asked to re-design the building but his designs proved far too expensive. This resulted in the church being built to a different design between 1706 and 1707. Further modifications were made to the church in the 1800s, funded by the Farnell family.

I, sadly, could not make my way into the church, due to a rather large and imposing lock upon the tower gate. However, through the iron bars one can still see the courtyard – the nave of the church before the twentieth-century renovations. It is difficult to imagine what this space may have looked like with a roof. Indeed, seeing the openness of the courtyard through the tower gateway certainly gives the sense that this is a space challenging traditional conceptions of ‘church’ and ‘community’. The entire building is directed towards this central and communal area. It has an air of togetherness.

Path made of headstones
Path made of headstones

Within the churchyard one can also find a path made up of old, fallen headstones. At first looking down at your feet placed upon stones commemorating lost loved ones can be quite discomforting. However, by using stones that have fallen, instead of merely stacking them alongside the church walls, a larger memorial to former parishioners has been created. The path is a series of names, quotes, dates, shapes – a visual record of this parish from century to century, year to year. It once again emphasises this idea of a ‘community’, of people that have worshipped in this area across the ages and who have come to be linked through their final resting place on the banks of the river Thames.

All Saints’ may be rather unusual but it is beautiful in its own way. It is a place that defies traditional expectations combining the old and new, the modern and medieval. Visiting this place once again proves to me that London does not have to be all about Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s (although they are wonderful). History can be found in the humblest of settings and at the oddest of times…even on your normal Sunday afternoon walk.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Bareham, Peter. ‘Obituary: Michael Blee’, The Independent, (1996), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-michael-blee-1341947.html, Accessed: 9th December 2019.

‘Church of All Saints’, Historic England, (1951), https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1358287, Accessed: 9th December 2019.

Morel, Anne-Françoise, ‘All Saints, Church Street, Isleworth, London Borough of Hounslow’, Glorious Temples or Bablyonic Whores, Brill (2019), pp.343-346, https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004398979_028, Accessed: 9th December 2019.

Beaurepaire Manor House, County Durham

Durham is hardly a city without its fans; the narrow, hilly streets that swirl and snake in the shadow of Bede’s mighty mausoleum are very rarely empty. The rest of County Durham, however, seems to me to be a nationally underappreciated part of the UK, both in terms of reputation and tourists’ footfall. Not unreasonably, holiday-makers from the south tend to either press on to Northumberland or stop before the River Tees. Yet County Durham also is crammed full with ancient, medieval and modern history built up over generations, each one grounding itself within the foundations and prestige of its predecessors – but, despite this, my belief is that this rich region is still in need of more champions on the outside, to help counteract the imbalance of admiration between town and country.

photo 119 19-49-56

photo 119 20-0-56

If you live in Durham and are up for a day’s walk, a visit to this place comes with my strongest recommendation. First, you head to Crossgate Moor, to the west of the city centre, where the road to the ex-mining village of Bearpark begins; the turn onto this road feels like a threshold, the limes of Durham, as almost immediately you leave behind the tiresome noise of the A167 and enter quiet rolling hills. Before the road reaches Bearpark, a right turn leads deeper into the fields along a stretch of stone and broken tarmac that challenges the definition of ‘road’, more gently guided than restricted by the green-grey dry-stone walls on either side. One single farmstead, a rude reminder of other people, was there to interrupt the empty fields, while we walked on wordlessly, the waters of the River Browney below glistening through the leafless trees and mirroring our silence. Having reached a second, smaller farmhouse, the track winds down and changes from howling hilltop to a woody burrow, overgrown, overshadowed and clearly unfrequented. We stopped to look at a deer; the deer stopped to look at us.



There are no signs to the ruins of Beaurepaire Manor House, and no carpark, no café or (quelle horreur!) no gift shop; consequently, when we emerged from the trees beside the riverbank, despite Ordnance Survey’s assurances, our quarry was nowhere to be seen. You have to believe you can find the place; only stubborn perseverance took us up the hill and into sight of a dark-stone slab of wall that points skywards with an absurd and lonely grandeur. When at last atop the promontory on which Beaurepaire rests, the low-lying ruins lie spread out before you, retaining the recognisable shape of rooms and courtyards, though now those rooms offer no warmth and the stairways lead up into empty air. In its heyday, this was a grand, modish property, no doubt made comfortable enough to suit the status of its owner, the Prior of Durham, and the whisper of luxury lingers still in the plain but solid rock that alone has endured. Its seclusion may frustrate, but it does almost guarantee a private visit; we saw no one, and I reckon that the site is visible only from the top floor of the second of the farmhouses on the road. Beaurepaire was ours and we were alone with our thoughts.


While the Prince-Bishops of Durham had a home and estate in Bishop Auckland, the Priors of Durham had Beaurepaire, for the same purposes of hunting, entertaining and retiring away from the duties of the job. It seems to have had a private chapel too. It was first built during the tenure of Prior Bertram de Middleton (1244 – 1258) and was situated within over a thousand acres of private hunting land. The manor saw ten priors come and go until its sacking by the Scottish army before their defeat at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. The prior at the time, John Fossor, subsequently ordered its rebuilding and extension, giving the manor a second function; it no longer only accommodated him, but could house many monks of the priory too, offering a retreat from city life. With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Priors of Durham became its Deans, who continued to use Beaurepaire until the First English Civil War (1642 – 1646), during which time a second Scottish attack destroyed the buildings for good. From that point onwards, Beaurepaire Manor House fell into ruination and increasing obscurity. Its legacy, however, goes beyond the interest of history enthusiasts, since Beaurepaire most likely gave its name to the village nearby. Beau repaire, meaning ‘beautiful retreat’ (or perhaps better ‘hideout’) in French, may have come to be understood in local speech as Beure|paire, the second part being reanalysed through folk etymology as park, creating the name Bearpark.


We visited Beaurepaire in January. The weather matched expectations of the season; Durham winters, though a native would never admit it, are particularly cold, with strong, dry winds that cut and chill, but also keep the skies free of clouds and blue. All nature in those January days seemed as lifeless as the stones at our feet; likewise, all vitality in the dry, grey stalks of bushes, leafless and fruitless, twisted and snarled, was consigned to memory and imagination. No more warmth, no more breath for the mashed skeletons of leaves littered in the old rooms – the natural had come to concur with the man-made that day. At any other time of year, those selfsame ruins would be beauteous and bright, and intellectually interesting, and, for any melancholy minds, at most a half-shadow of death, a flaw in life’s otherwise perfect diamond. The harmony of the stones of Beaurepaire with the January countryside is an impression I cannot forget, nor the idea that, had I waited, all would have been very different; we would have visited a lovely, lonely idyll, but not a landscape in such balance. Beaurepaire left me with the lasting feeling that our visit there was necessarily unique, to say nothing of the inner world of our thoughts and feelings specific to that time. If you visit (and I hope you will), your experience will not be the same. I can recount my visit, but I cannot interpret yours. When ruins like Beaurepaire are so evocative and beguiling, and also so private, with no other souls present to steer and shape our thoughts, can we ever visit the same place twice?


Danny Bate

October 2019



Historic England entry for Beaurepaire Manor House, available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1120721

Keys to the Past entry, available at: http://www.keystothepast.info/article/10339/Site-Details?PRN=D1308

Cerne Abbas, Dorset Part 3: St Mary’s Church

View down the church aisle

In a day and age overwhelmingly concerned with security it is rather a blessing to be able to wander into a church at any reasonable time of day and spend an hour or so exploring. Many a time have I arrived at a church to find it locked and bolted.

St Mary’s in Cerne Abbas is a ‘living church’, a building open to the public during daylight hours all year round. Built for the people of Cerne in the fourteenth century the church boasts a range of stunning historic features. The first thing one notices when walking into the church are the wall paintings above the nave. These are paintings of Biblical verses found in the 1560 Geneva Bible. Three of these verses were painted by Robert Ford in 1679. A later 1961 addition to these paintings can be identified by the fact that it displays both the date of its creation and initials of Queen Elizabeth II. Near the alter however, reside what is, certainly for me, the most exciting artworks contained within this church – medieval wall paintings.

If you turn to the left side of the altar you will find a fourteenth-century depiction of the life of St John the Baptist. The painting is, sadly, in a bad state of repair but the saint himself is still identifiable by the halo surrounding his head. Both the blue and red of the wall painting is still able to be seen, although the passing years have, understandably, dulled their shine. On the left side of the chancel there is also a circular painting outlined in red – this may be a consecration cross, a point marking where a Bishop has anointed a church as part of its consecration. Looking at these colours it is clear that during the medieval period this was a building of great colour and vibrancy. Whilst you are in this section of the church it is also worth taking in the fifteenth-century stone chancel screen that separates chancel and nave as well as the seventeenth-century pulpit on the nave side of this screen, which has been elaborately crafted from gorgeous oak.

Lion’s head stained glass window

As I took in some of the stained-glass features within the church, including parts of the East Window which some feel may have been transferred to this church from Cerne Abbey, I came across a rather different piece of medieval stained glass. On the south side of the church is a window that contains what appears to be a man with a rather odd expression. What this window is meant to depict is a lion’s head. There is a reason this lion may appear rather inaccurately drawn – if the artist had never seen a lion before, as is quite likely in this case, they may have had to turn to a variety of different sources to create an ‘idea’ of the lion, producing what now, to us, looks like a hairy man with his tongue sticking out. In any case the glass is rather a charming addition to the church, adding a touch of humour to the ecclesiastical setting.

Fifteenth-century font with modern base and cover.

It would make many a historian (and I’m looking particularly at my fellow medievalists here) understandably sad if I did not mention the fifteenth-century font which lies on the south side of the church near the entrance. This is an octagonal solid stone structure on perched atop a modern base. A painted cover made in 1963 sits on top of it and is said to be a feature particularly enjoyed by the late Queen Mother. One has to wonder how many hands have touched this font over the centuries. It is a feature that still strongly connects the traditions and spiritual life of the present with that of the past.

St Mary’s is a church that feels warm and welcoming. Some churches seem to exude a slightly uncomfortable or rather unwelcoming vibe for the curious explorer but this is not one of them. Instead this is a building in which you can take your time – whether you are stopping to pray or just taking in the history of the place.

Bibliography and Further Reading

 ‘A History of the Church’, Cerne Historical Society, (2019), https://cerneabbashistory.org/pdfdocs/Church.pdf, Accessed: 30th September 2019.

‘Parish Church of St Mary’s’, Historic England, (1956), https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1323846, Accessed: 30th September 2019.

Yapp, W. Brundson, ‘Animals in Medieval Art: The Bayeux Tapestry as an Example’, Journal of Medieval History 13.1, (1987), pp.15-73.