Guest Article from Compton Abbas

September 28, 2006

The Church that Climbed Uphill

Map of Compton Abbas

Map of Compton Abbas

Down to the east of the Barcelona-to-Glasgow-superhighway (sometimes called the A350), where the mist rarely rises from the valley before midday, lies the sleepy hamlet of East Compton. Here, in the midst of the tranquil Blackmore Vale, almost exactly a mile north of Fontmell Magna, is the home of the riddle of the church that climbed a mile uphill. Any decent map of North Dorset will show you the village of Compton Abbas, perched on the side of the main road between Shaftesbury to the north and Blandford Forum, a touch further away to the south, and frequent travellers on this road will be acquainted with its Victorian spire which pokes above the trees. This valley, full of twelfth-century churches, possesses two nineteenth-century churches too – the one at Sutton Waldron was allegedly a product of neighbourly spite and jealousy, the one at Compton Abbas the result of population migration.
Until the arrival of the turnpike road in the 1820s, the village of East

Tower of the Church of St Mary, East Compton

Tower of the Church of St Mary, East Compton

Compton was significantly larger than its western counterpart and possessed a church. The village grew up in Saxon times, overseen by the Abbey that Alfred had established around 880 at Shaftesbury and which initially had been run by his daughter Agelyue. The Saxons named the area ‘Cumb-Tun’, meaning a village in the middle of a narrow valley; by the thirteenth century it had become known by the very quaintly-sounding Cumton Abbatisse. Both settlements were grouped together in John Hutchins’ celebrated History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset, which appeared posthumously in two volumes in 1774. According to the 1765 map produced by Isaac Taylor of Ross, the first to show Dorset on the now orthodox scale of an inch to a mile, East Compton housed the parish church and probably the majority of the local population. Compton Abbas, on the other hand, or ‘West Compton up Fields’, had a greater number of buildings but no church.

Tower of the Church of St Mary, East Compton

Tower of the Church of St Mary, East Compton

The major event that would have undeniably precipitated the change was the arrival of the turnpike road through the Iwerne valley in around 1821. Prior to this, trade and communications tended to operate on an east-west axis. Though many villages down the valley were dependent, at least religiously, on the Abbey at Shaftesbury, paths ran east towards Salisbury and west towards the market town of Sturminster Newton. Blandford Forum only developed fully as a major local trading centre through the late eighteenth century, its Georgian architecture being championed by the delightfully-named Bastard brothers. East Compton had been sitting comfortably on the trade route that ran through East and West Orchard, but was now left in the cold. The valley ran to the west and the new turnpike road missed the village in a sort of late Georgian bypass. By 1828, whenever the weather was inclement, the horse-drawn mail coach from Bath to ‘Pool’ would be diverted down the new road, taking a maximum of eight passengers inside and twelve outside. One can only imagine the speed with which local trade migrated a mile up the hill towards the new road and the subsequent population shift that this entailed. Within a couple of decades, significant discrepancies had appeared between the number of inhabitants of the old village of East Compton and the rejuvenated settlement at Compton Abbas.
Built around the year 1300 on the site of an earlier wooden edifice, the stone church had served the community for centuries. Part of the diocese of Old Sarum (Salisbury) since 1076, its rector Stephen Prowett had overseen those first few years in the stone building until his death in 1324. Once the village now began to migrate westwards to meet the trade arriving down the road, the old church was left deserted in a field. Shortly before the end of his tenure, the rector Rev. Frederick Wilkinson had informed the diocese that the position of the church away from the heart of the village was detrimental to its success in offering pastoral support to its community.

Compton Abbas village school

Compton Abbas village school

The benevolent local landowner, Sir Richard Glyn, gave some land in the heart of the new village and £1,200 towards potential costs of £2,430 (and additionally funds for building a school). Following a decision made at a vestry meeting and confirmed on 31st May 1866 by Walter Kerr, the Bishop of Salisbury, a new church was constructed, largely out of the stones carried by hand a mile westwards from the old church, a task presided over by the new rector, Rev. William Elliot. Further rocks came from Whitehall Quarry to the north of the village.
As Mary Buchanan reports in her Compton Abbas: A Dorset

St Mary's Church, Compton Abbas

St Mary's Church, Compton Abbas

Village (1991), the foundation stone of the new church of St Mary’s was laid on 23rd October 1866 and, on 19th November of that year, an agreement was signed by the Churchwardens John Feltham and Joseph Applin, along with the builder Augustine Henry Green of Blandford and architect and surveyor George Evans, to complete the building work. The new building was consecrated at Morning Service on 11th February 1868, with more than 250 people present, the Bishop of Salisbury calling for ‘more diligent labour in the Master’s service’, and the first burial there appears to be that of Harry Richard Horder, born on 4th February 1829, who died on 18th October 1868.

The new St Mary's Church, Compton Abbas

The new St Mary's Church, Compton Abbas

With a re-cut font on a new pedestal and seating for 250 adults and some fifty children, the church could now attract larger congregations once more, the average attendance of 70 for Morning Service and 100 for Evening Service in 1864 converting to respective figures of 140 and 150-200 by 1870. St Mary’s has five bells, three of which made the move up the hill, whilst others were added in 1875 and 1897. The earliest bell, ‘Maria’, was the sole survivor of the troubles of the sixteenth century. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the Church began to seize possessions and all relics perceived as displaying their Catholic origins were taken; for some reason, ‘Maria’ was overlooked and somehow survived. ‘Searve God IW 1616’ is inscribed on one of the other bells, and ‘Remember God ID 1624’ on the other.
There is a gravestone that stands where the nave of the old church once stood – Robert Parham, buried at the age of sixty-seven in July 1867 – and from this we can deduce that the church was no longer in use by this point. The grave of John Miles, who died on 22nd August 1865 at the age of forty-two, is situated away from the church and implies the old building was possibly still standing at this juncture. For years the former church was left in a state of disrepair and, though it has now been sensibly boarded up, it does not reflect the beauty it would once have displayed. Since 1984, indeed, the old tower and churchyard have been owned by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Ronald Good, in his Lost Villages of Dorset (1979), describes the church tower as ‘standing forlornly in the middle of its churchyard’. Nothing has occurred in more than a quarter of a century since this book was published to alter this rather touching description. For years, in fact, a solitary pear tree grew bizarrely from the top of the tower; it was described in 1906 as having flowered annually for more than a quarter of a century. The old tree was seriously damaged in a violent snowstorm in 1945 and was eventually removed, possibly having flourished for around 150 years, on grounds of safety in 1984. The old tower now stands in splendid isolation looking across at a few straggling sheep, it’s old stone preaching cross dating back to 1300 a poignant reminder of times gone by, it’s old mounting-block crumbling and its bells and baptismal font safely in the heart of the new church.

Author: Stephen Byrne