I seem to be on a theme of tiny Dorset churches at the moment 🙂 This one is yet another one, although it was not always this small. This is the old St Cuthbert’s Church in Oborne, near Sherborne in North West Dorset. It is particularly beautiful at this time of year with its honey coloured stone and the graveyard full of daffodils.
As the picture above indicates, this is in fact just the chancel as that is all that remains of the original church, the rest having fallen into disrepair and been demolished. In 1860, it was felt that, after centuries of neglect, a complete rebuilding was required but on the advice of the bishop at the time, the parishioners decided to move the church half a mile north, nearer to the centre of the village. Thus, the chancel is all that now remains on this site.
Not that this was the first church on the site anyway as it appears there has been some sort of building here since 970 AD. At that time, the church was gifted by the Saxon King Edgar to Sherborne Abbey which was at the time a cathedral. It remained as a ‘chapel of ease’, served by the monks, until the dissolution in 1539. It was some 6 years prior to that at the time of Abbot John Meyer, that the last sacrist of the abbey, John Dunster, had this chancel built. It would appear that it was added to an already existing but smaller church. This is indicated by the inscription carved above the now blocked north window of the chancel which transcribes to, “Pray for the good standing of Master John Dunster Sacristan of Sherborne who built this in the year of our Lord 1533”. After the dissolution, he remained as vicar of Oborne and when he died, he was buried beneath the old nave floor. There is a similar inscription above the east window asking for prayers for Abbot John Meyer.
Inside the church, hangs an artists impression showing how the original church would have looked. The sketch is a copy of one made in 1802 by John Buckler, the original of which hangs in the British Museum. It includes a chancel, nave and a porch, and there is even evidence to suggest there may have been a tower, although this is not shown on the sketches.
After the demolition of the main part of the church, the remaining chancel was left to decay, being used for some time as a mortuary chapel and then as a barn, until the 1930’s when a new incumbent started a restoration project after seeking advice from well known architect A R Powys. By 1936, the work had been completed and the church remained in use for some 40 years longer before being transferred to the Churches Conservation Trust.
Parts of the old nave have actually been retained and used in the 1930’s restoration. It was at that time that the west wall of the chancel was built – prior to this it would have been open and connected to the nave until it was demolished. When this wall was built, it included two 15th century window heads, the wooden rood loft beam, and it is thought that the west doorway is the original 15th century north doorway from the demolished nave. These features are clearly visible in the pictures at the top of this post.
Inside the church, good use has again been made of the ‘new’ west wall to display tiles dating from 14th and 15th century, once part of the nave floor. There is also a 15th century font made of Ham Hill stone and moved here from the former church at North Wootton some 2 miles south. A medieval piscina is another feature transferred from North Wootton. The rustic pulpit and communion rails date from the early 17th century. Sadly, there have been some thefts over the years with the loss of an 18th century coffin rest and a 17th century communion table.
There is one mystery that has not been solved and that concerns the grave of Robert Goadby who was publisher of the Sherborne Mercury paper, now the Western Gazette. He died in 1778 but his grave stands alone in a field outside the churchyard. This gave rise to the story that he had somehow fallen out with the church although there is no evidence of this. It is possible that at one time the churchyard was bigger and took in the grave but this can’t be proved, and in any event, there are no other graves in that area.
And of course there is another mystery that will never be proven and that is the claim that this could be the smallest church in the country. There are quite a few churches making that claim 🙂 ! In 1937, the Western Gazette described it as ‘The smallest occasionally-used church in England’. This description could still apply since services are still held there on a couple of occasions each year.
Oh, and there is perhaps a third mystery and that is that the old church does not stand in the parish of Oborne, it is in fact just over the ‘border’ in the parish of Castleton 🙂 !
I will never forget the first time I came across St Cuthbert’s Old Church. I had walked all day and reached it as the light was fading. I decided to take a look but could not open the door and I almost decided it must be locked when a voice came from inside saying. ‘Just a minute’. The next thing I knew, a homeless man opened the door to let me in – he had been ‘living’ in the old church for some time and had his sleeping bag laid out inside ready for the night. We had a long and interesting chat that evening but rather than disturb him too much, I decided I’d return on another occasion for a proper look round. I finally did that last week.
St Cuthbert’s Old Church is another beautiful and diminutive Dorset church with a fascinating and perhaps mysterious past. If anyone wants to visit it, it stands beside the A30, one mile north east of Sherborne, sandwiched between the road and the mainline railway. Because of its position beside a busy road, it may not be the most peaceful of our churches but it is a delight to visit nonetheless. And of course to offer up a prayer to God who has been served and worshipped there for over 1,000 years.
Stay safe, stay active, stay spiritual, and thanks for stopping by.
Until next time,
The Dorset Rambler
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