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.

Cerne Abbas, Dorset Part 2: St Augustine’s Well

Map showing the location of St Augustine’s Well (Source: Google Maps)

Cerne Abbas is full of hidden wonders. If you venture down Abbey Street and turn right through the churchyard gate, follow a small path that hugs the cemetery wall and venture down a small slope through a cluster of trees then you will find a beautiful though rather obscure spot – St Augustine’s Well. But what is the link with St Augustine?

There are several variations of the story which connect Augustine of Canterbury to Cerne Abbas. To briefly summarise William of Malmesbury’s account:

Full view of St Augustine’s Well

Augustine was sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great on a conversion mission. Augustine found he was not welcome in Dorset – fish tails were even tied to his clothes in an effort to drive him away. However, Augustine cried out ‘Cerno deum!’, a Latin phrase translating as ‘I see God!’. The non-believers repented and begged Augustine for forgiveness. In this moment a spring emerged from the ground, providing Augustine with the water needed to baptise the local people. The place in which this spring sprung was called ‘Cernel’ by the saint, a mixture of Latin ‘cerno’ (‘I see’) and Hebrew ‘El‘, (‘God’).

St Augustine’s Well is allegedly the same spring mentioned within this tale. John Leland also refers to the Well as ‘Silver Well’ when describing how St Edwold, brother of St Edmund, King of East Anglia, came to live as a hermit near the Well following Edmund’s death in 869. A small chapel dedicated to St Augustine used to stand over this place.  However, all that exists now is a small stone water channel and a more recently constructed stone altar. On one of the stones next to St Augustine’s Well a carving of a Catherine wheel can still be seen. This is potentially a stone from St Catherine’s Chapel which was located on a nearby hill to the North-East of the village.

There are a few different legends associated with the St Augustine’s Well. The (very cold) water is said to be able to heal sore eyes, to cure infertility and to help young women find husbands. Moreover, it is said that if you look into the water at Easter you will see the faces of all those destined to die that year. St Augustine’s Well is a site of wishing, healing and prophecy.

The cover of tree branches and the ribbons hanging from them, many containing tributes to lost loved ones, creates the impression of a sort of naturally formed chapel. Indeed, there is utter silence here – you almost forget that a village exists down the road. This is a place to leave behind the worries and heaviness of modern-day life. It is a site that still channels a sense of ancient sacredness. One cannot help but take a moment to stop and reflect.

By Micah Mackay

Bibliography and Further Reading

Dugdale, William, ‘Cerne, or Cernell Abbey in Dorsetshire’, Monasticon Anglicanum: A History of the Abbies and Other Monasteries, Hospitals, Frieries, and Cathedral and Collegiate Churches with their Dependencies in England and Wales, (London: 1846), pp.621-624.

‘In the Shadow of a Giant…St Augustine’s Well of Cerne’, Holy and Healing Wells, (2019), https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/category/dorset/, Accessed: 26th September 2019.

Cerne Abbas, Dorset Part 1: Cerne Abbey

Nestled in a valley in the heart of Dorset is Cerne Abbas. Medievalists will know of this place because of its connection with Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most prolific writers in Old English. However, many will mainly associate the village with its particularly well-endowed chalk giant which overlooks the valley.

A map showing Abbey Street. Earthworks can be seen in the field to the upper right of the Abbey. (Source: Google Maps)

A Benedictine abbey was established here in 987 when Æthelmaer gave ‘Cernel’ (as Cerne Abbas was then known) to the Church. Cerne Abbey was then dedicated to St Mary, St Peter and St Benedict. To get to the former site of the Abbey one must venture down a winding road, past the Pitchmarket, a sixteenth-century building once used by farmers to display their produce. A large stone building stands at the end of this road. A sign at its side proclaims that you have found Cerne Abbey.

Abbey House

The Abbey House itself, now a private residence, originally formed part of the South Gatehouse, the main entrance to the Abbey from the town. However, much of what is seen today was constructed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 using materials from the Abbey . In 1919 the house was sold for £7600 by the Pitt-Rivers family as part of the sale of much of Cerne Abbas and associated lands. The village consequently celebrates the sale’s centenary this year.  

After paying £2 into an honesty box on the right-hand side of Abbey House you can venture down a small pathway into what, at first, merely seems to be the gardens of the House. However, a small building to the right of the entrance path suggest that all is not what it seems.

Indeed, peering into the bottom windows of this building it appears to just be an old house now used for storage. Built in the late fifteenth century this building was, in fact, the Abbey Guesthouse. This building is said to have sheltered Queen Margaret of Anjou and her young son ahead of the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

Although you cannot enter the Guesthouse, I would advise walking completely around it. Not only does this allow you to see the beautiful oriel window from all sides but if you look closely at the brickwork as you walk you can see the marks indicating the location of earlier doors. This gives an impression of the changes the building has undergone over time – the passing of the ages marked by the alteration of design. This building speaks of transition. From behind the guesthouse one can also see the tower of St Mary’s, a church established by the abbey for the village in the early fourteenth century. In many ways the Abbey would have been the ‘beating heart’ of Cerne Abbas – connected to the village both financially and spiritually.

Deeper into the garden, initially obscured from view by the boughs of age-old trees, lies a tower-like structure known as the Abbot’s Porch. Three stories high with magnificent oriel windows the Porch originally marked the entrance to the Abbot’s Hall. Beneath these windows lies a panel decorated with coat of arms of different benefactors to the Abbey as well as that of Abbot Thomas Sam, who was responsible for the Porch’s construction in the late fifteenth century. The rooms behind the oriel windows are thought to have been the Abbot’s living quarters and possibly his library. It is possible that parts of a manuscript known as the Book of Cerne were kept in these rooms. Looking at the building one can just imagine the light streaming through those windows providing natural illumination for the Abbot as he perused his books.

Going under the entrance way you are greeted by what must have once been an impressive vaulted ceiling. Today it is chipped and broken in places, such are the effects of the passing of time. However, considering that most of the Abbey is lost to us as a result of the Dissolution, even a small glance into the grandeur of past days is precious.

As the sixteenth century progressed Henry VIII established a commission headed by Thomas Cromwell to gather information on the monasteries that could justify their closure. The monks at Cerne Abbey, particularly Abbot Thomas Corton, were accused of a variety of different misdoings. As part of the enquiry Thomas Corton was accused of ‘keeping concubines in the cellars’, soliciting ‘honest women in the town and elsewhere’ and imprisoning another monk, William Christchurch, for speaking against him. All of this provided the evidence needed for the closure of the Abbey and, eventually, its destruction.

Plaque commemorating 1000 years since the establishment of the Abbey.

If you wander out of Abbey House gardens, through the churchyard gate and up a small path into the field behind the Abbot’s Porch you may see several mounds. These probably indicate where parts of the Abbey once stood, showing just how expansive the Abbey was before its destruction. On the wall separating the field and the cemetery is a sign erected in 1987 commemorating the passing of a millennium since the Abbey’s founding.

A swing has been built on the top of one of the mounds to the right of the field. Sitting on this swing and surveying the mounds in the utter silence that blankets Cerne Abbas, it is clear that even though the Abbey itself has been destroyed, the songs, prayers and footsteps of monks are still somehow embedded in this place, in the landscape. This is a place of calm and contemplation. It is a place to remember what was, what is and to wonder what will be.

By Micah Mackay

Bibliography and Further Reading:

‘A History of the Abbey’, Cerne Historical Society, https://cerneabbashistory.org/pdfdocs/abbey_history.pdf, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.

 ‘Cerne Abbey’, Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1323849, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.

‘Cerne Abbas: When The Village Was Sold At Auction’, Dorset Life, (2012), https://www.dorsetlife.co.uk/2012/05/cerne-abbas-when-the-village-was-sold-at-auction/, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.

‘Guest House of Cerne Abbey’, Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1119470, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.

‘Thomas Corton, Abbot of Cerne’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 8, January-July 1535, ed. James Gairdner, (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1885), p.46, British History Online, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol8/pp32-53, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.

Tivetshall St Mary, Norfolk




UNDER the wide skies of southern Norfolk there are two villages called Tivetshall – two twins only recently united as one civil parish. Two villages produced two churches and, as is often the case with pairs of churches, they are of unequal popularity. While the church at Tivetshall St Margaret is well used and admired for its sixteenth-century tympanum and rood screen, its sister church at Tivetshall St Mary is now a ruin – even before its final abandonment in the 1940s, it was, according to Henry Munro Cautley, “an extraordinarily plain building”, long bereft of an active congregation. I can imagine the place: white-washed walls, flaking and crumbling in places, growing greener through damp, as cobwebs and dust blanch the once deep-russet wood of the pews, pulpit and unadorned altar, with the faded arms of George IV looking down from on high – altogether no embellishment beyond the liturgical and national necessities.


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The origins of the Tivetshall twins, Mary and Margaret, may date back to before the Norman Conquest, since the Domesday Book records two churches under ‘Teueteshala’, a place name etymologically divisible into the comfortably familiar healh ‘a nook of land’ and the more mysterious ‘teuetes-‘; Mills suggests an origin in ‘tewhit’, a dialectal word for lapwings, itself an onomatopoeic creation based on the sound of their call. It’s a reasonable derivation; East Anglia in fact has the similar ‘peewit’, which today remains a popular variant of the bird’s name, and is a word my grandfather taught me to insist on.


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However, what remains of the church at Tivetshall St Mary is younger than this, the village’s small introduction into history. The walls of the nave and chancel have been largely dated to around the year 1300, though parts may be as old as the twelfth century. The church stands apart and adrift from the village; nearly all the houses sit beside the Street and Rectory Road, which turns off from the A140, a modern route that follows the course of the Romans’ Pye Road between Venta Icenorum and Camulodunum. St Mary’s, however, lies on the Gissing Road, one field west of the houses – and indeed it is only when heading westwards that its old east window is at all noticeable to the traveller. Like an optical illusion, the elegant branching tracery of the window, somehow still in situ, merges with the surrounding trees and vanishes easily unless approached from the right direction.

Wood and stone are becoming one in Tivetshall; the boundary between nature and human effort is blurred as flintstones fall back down to the earth and trees push up through their rubble. This process of decay is mostly too slow for appreciation, though time was on one occasion aided by artificial intervention when in 1947 a jet aircraft broke the sound barrier overhead and caused the the fourteenth-century tower to collapse into the nave. This, a rare episode of rapidity, provides us with an appealing border in time between unloved church and romantic ruin, which we should remember are two very different types of place. We tend to be much more at ease with the definitely dead than with the decaying and dying; a skull is always preferable to a corpse. Thus, in 1947, St Mary’s entered into a new type of existence: ruination, or delightful death.




And what a ruin it is too! As you arrive, you are struck by the perfection of the place, with its tall, glassless east window looking out no less imposingly, though now blindly. You may even feel that, though you had never considered it before, that St Mary’s is how a ruined church should look, as if the archetype for all the others. It is certainly ideal for both the historian’s sleuthing mind and the melancholic soul in search of the sense of time that ruins offer. It is complete enough to engage even the amateur church-crawler; with a little guesswork and a rummage in the foliage, paving slabs, a piscina, a stoup and a couple of crested and cursive-lettered memorials begin to emerge, and with them the lost life of a valued, hallowed space.

Entering by the south porch, passing the box that contains, of course, a visitors book, you find yourself within the shell of the church proper. If you are able, I would recommend climbing the rubble of the tower to view the ruins from higher up, from which point you come to see how, though devoid of human furnishing, St Mary’s is by no means empty; a soft blanket of grasses and flowers completely covers the hard stone floor, having crept in through the doorways, like seawaters reclaiming loaned land. It is peaceful and open to the windsong and all the daylight; it is also heavy with time. Do the trees outnumber the gravestones? It is so hard to tell; ivy and moss have made memorials of life into trees of stone, while all the names, mostly still legible, slowly form in the mind the feeling that, in fact, you are far from alone, but rather standing amongst a whole host of the time-taken dead, whose only difference to you is a few fleeting years.




When you finally turn to drive, walk or cycle away, you may well feel a quiet but sincere reluctance to leave and return to the present day, with all its garish vitality. I go as far as to say that we need places like this – places that kindly interrupt the present with the past. Better still, St Mary’s Church, if you make the effort to find it, which I hope you will, will be yours alone to enjoy, such is its seclusion and lack of renown. An oasis it is, and an immersive refuge for those who need it – which is all of us, I believe, whether we know it or not.


Danny Bate 2019


Cautley, H. M. (1949). Norfolk Churches. 256. Norman Adlard & Co.

Mills, A. D. (2011). A Dictionary of British Place Names. 462. Oxford University Press.


Many thanks to @broadsgirl for taking the photos.

Knowlton Church, Dorset

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.

Final thoughts…

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.