Caught by the River

After St Thomas: magic and the decline of religion

16th January 2019

Jon Woolcott pays his respects to a crumbling Dorset church

It’s late on a Sunday morning in mid-December and I’m on my way to church, not to worship but to mark the probable passing of a building that has stood for a century and a half. I live at the fringes of the Blackmore Vale in north Dorset, just as the land begins to climb from its lowest level. The area is little-known and less-visited, despite finding fame in the novels of Thomas Hardy as the “Vale of Little Dairies.” In truth, there’s not much to draw you here: no large towns or notable places of interest. Instead, the county signs near here welcome you to the Jurassic Coast – an hour’s drive away and more. These days it’s the Vale of Big Dairies. Large herds graze the small fields ringed by hedgerows, from which sprout occasional, accidental oak and ash. Roads and lanes wind around the hedges to confuse the infrequent tourists. Locating yourself in the flat land is hard – the landmarks are the surrounding hills which rise steeply but distant – the hill-town of Shaftesbury, Shillingstone Hill which divides the north of the county from the south, the ancient hill forts of Hambledon and Hod. The cows are mostly inside for the winter now, sheep have re-appeared in a few nearby fields. This low land is heavy pasture on blue-grey sticky clay, and that’s the problem.

Yesterday evening I learnt that the church may not be here for long. Eleven of us from the village gathered around our kitchen table, sharing some food and drink before Christmas. In a hamlet without a hall or pub, the scattered community relies on occasional invitations to get together, and this time it was our turn to play host. Seated a little too tightly together, rubbing shoulders, the group nevertheless seemed happy and chatty, pleased to see one another in the late afternoon twilight. I learnt of this new end to a difficult matter for the village: St Thomas’ would be taken down, reduced to an outline in its churchyard. Today I decided to visit the doomed building. The air is cold, damp, still. My walk is less than half a mile. The hedgerows along the lane are newly cut; the landscape is sharp and bare, skeletal.

The church sits a little way back from the lane on gently rising ground, and away from any nearby houses or farm buildings. There’s an informal and potholed layby for a congregation’s cars, a recent lychgate, a noticeboard with a crooked cross atop. It would be difficult to praise the building itself for beauty. Pevsner, who hates many things, bestows one line: “ST. THOMAS. By Evans and Pullan, 1859-61. Nave with bellcote and chancel.” The church is squat, presents a flat west face, wider around its hips close to the ground, with five long windows which seem too narrow and mean, especially for High Victorian taste. The small bell-tower appears anticlimactic. Its stone is recognisably local: a distinctive honey tone in the summer, flat-grey now. The wet seems to have shivered into the masonry.

There’s a sign pinned to the church door. It’s hardly Wittenberg, but for the village it denotes something every bit as radical. This notice is modest, straightforward, printed, laminated: “PLEASE BE AWARE for safety reasons this church is closed due to structural damage.” And then in a larger font and bold: “Take extra care when visiting the churchyard.”  I walk through the wet grass.  Some trees have dropped dead ivy-covered limbs onto graves. The gravestones, especially the older ones, should have been the mine-canaries. They lean precariously, others, even recent ones, have shrunk slightly into the uneven ground, despite the best efforts of the small team of volunteers who maintain the church-yard. The ground here shifts. The heavy soil is unforgiving and determined.  We all know this. Our houses have hairline fissures. The church developed one a few years ago, and then it widened and visibly cracked; the light from outside streams through, I’m told. The building was obviously unsafe. At a tense parish meeting it was announced that permanent closure was likely. The cost of making the structure safe was too much for the Church to bear. The congregation is vanishingly small – three people or four each Sunday at one of the churches which hold services in rotation across the villages. People married here until a few summers ago. And generations are buried. The church-yard has expanded, recent graves colonise the little patch of land next door. These are marble, fresh, names legible still. Long-standing residents especially were upset at the prospect of closure, and worried that the church would be sold off to become a house, graves of loved ones would be lost to them, off limits, garden ornaments for someone new. That was unlikely – expensive rebuilding would be needed first, and the church itself, with its draughts and darkness was an unlikely candidate, but who knew, really?

This church is relatively recent – its predecessor was demolished to make way for this one, and the old font moved here. And it wasn’t alone. In the four tiny villages which form the parish there were three churches, at least two Methodist chapels and at one time a Kingdom Hall for Jehovah’s Witnesses, just up the road.  But there was also a National School with more than fifty pupils under the care of Miss Emily Squibb, more farms than now, more people working the land and all the associated trades of an active rural economy. The Church and farming were inextricably linked, through Biblical metaphor but also through practice. At a Carol service last year in the chilly church of the next hamlet I glanced down at a prayer cushion to see embroidered on it, not a saint, but a Friesian cow. 160 years ago when St Thomas’ was completed, the countryside here was busy and far more populous than it is today. This is an emptying, the slow scouring of our shire. We are few, and in the main, our livings are unconnected to the land.

The church will be reduced to a few bricks high. Today I took photographs, not just of the building, but the space it occupies, nestled next to cedar and yew and among the dead. Shots from a distance, from the lane, from the fields. St. Thomas’ doesn’t occupy a commanding position – the loss to the landscape will be subtle. The ground will remain consecrate for the graves, and maybe the space inside that low line of stone will still be used for marriage and mourning.

I won’t mourn the church itself: I never once stepped inside, I’m told its interior is unremarkable and without ornament, despite its older font. But I’m fascinated by its departure and the physical retreat of the established church. All the marks we leave on the land, however minor, tell us something, and this slow, necessary, deliberate deconstruction is a story of people and place. Every county has its lost villages, outlines revealed from above by low sun on winter days or the scorch of hot summers, and perhaps our hamlet is drifting that way too, sinking back into the clay, slowly becoming a ghost. Those of us who remain are more likely to be of no religion, or many, and some of us are drawn to older beliefs and to nature itself, the fount of faith.

I turn for home just as the hills grow fuzzy before the coming rain. Immediately opposite the church across the lane the steel supports of a never-completed or half-demolished barn stand sternly against the sky.  A congregation of sheep muddle through its rib-cage, eyeing me warily. An ash tree is alive and bright with a chattering of starlings, a heron elbows itself into the air from the muddy field. Hambledon Hill looms before me, an iron age giant, rising above the mist.

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Jon Woolcott works for Little Toller Books. He is currently researching and writing a book about the hidden and radical histories of southern England. You can follow him on Twitter here.