Locations Feature Page - Churches

There is a wealth of churches in the region. The practical problem here, as elsewhere, is that surviving churches have been in continuous use and their inner and outer fabric has of necessity been upgraded, so that a church classed as 'Saxon' for example, will have later additions, from the Norman, Mediaeval and later periods, which can affect filming 'period' dramas as anachronistic features may appear onscreen. It is partly to get around this problem that some film productions utilise one church for interior shots and another for exteriors. In Far From The Madding Crowd ('67) for example, Hardy's "Weatherbury Church" was portrayed in exterior shots by Sydling St Nicholas and for interiors by Puddletown Church.

Left: an example of the extensive church restoration issue from St Wolfrida's at Horton, whose origins go back to Saxon times. It was built on the site of a ruined parish church which in turn was built atop a priory church built on the ruins of a 10C Saxon abbey. A plaque inside shows the present tower only dates to 1722, and other changes to the building over the centuries.

Saxon Era
Pre-Saxon churches being wattle-n-mud constructions, the oldest surviving / stone churches are Saxon, and these are few, for like the Saxon burghs, initial construction was mostly of timber.

Left: a screenshot from BBC's 2015 The Last Kingdom, the fortified town set representing Wareham in the reign of Alfred.

St Martin’s Church in Wareham (where TE Lawrence’s marble effigy is kept) is “the only Saxon church in Dorset in anything like its original state” (AA/OS Leisure Guide To Wessex). [Details and photos here.]

Breamore Church, Avon Valley, Hampshire
The architect Pevsner, author of The Buildings Of England series, said of Breamore it was by far the most important and interesting Anglo-Saxon monument in the south of England. One reason for its survival is no doubt that it was attached to the local manor, which stands a few hundred yards away.

Cerne Abbey, Cerne Abbas village, Dorset
Only parts of this 10th-C Saxon abbey survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s, notably the gatehouse with its oriel windows. This appeared in the 1963 film Tom Jones, when Sophie elopes. The Abbey Farm guest house also appeared as Squire Western's home in various scenes. (Mouse over photo to see screenshot.)

Left: a screenshot from BBC's 2015 The Last Kingdom, showing Sherborne church in the reign of Alfred. (This was Sherborne cathedral, the Saxon precursor of the present Abbey, which was founded c998.) The squat tower with no spire is typical of Saxon and early Norman churches.
A number of major pre-Conquest [ie pre Norman] churches - abbeys, priories, minsters - were built around the region, mainly in Dorset in the reign of Alfred The Great. However, surviving examples such as Sherborne were rebuilt over the centuries for continuing clerical and parochial use, beginning in the subsequent Norman Era.

Norman Era
Sherborne, North Dorset
The original Saxon church [see above] was substantially rebuilt in the Norman and mediaeval eras, the later version being the one that appears onscreen, as in A Murder Of Quality, the 1990 ITV drama based on the novel by John LeCarre, who attended school in Sherborne, which he fictionalises as 'Carne.' (Mouse over to see screenshot showing interior.) Some of the former monastic buildings were taken over in the 16C by Sherborne boys school, which has also appeared on screen, eg. in Goodbye Mr Chips, 1969.


St Aldhelm's Chapel, SE Dorset
This late Norman chapel stands on the clifftop of the Purbeck headland named after it, was a sea-mark used by sailors, and after dark may have functioned as a lighthouse. (It appears there was a fire-brazier on the pyramidal roof.) The dedication is to Dorset's patron saint. It survived as a local chapel, still in occasional use. (Nicknamed The Devil’s Chapel, it's said to have been used for 17th-C black masses).


Studland Church, SE Dorset
The church, at the back of Studland village, with a churchyard overlooking the sea, is famous as the most perfect survival of a Norman church in Dorset, or at least “the oldest surviving complete church in Dorset.” In fact parts of it are Saxon, and parts mediaeval. The interior is pictured here at the midwinter solstice with its Xmas tree - the church's dedication being to St Nicholas Of Myra, the Christian component of Santa Claus. (The exterior is the b&w banner image at page top, also shot at dusk near midwinter.)


Arne Church, SE Dorset
Arne Church sits on a peninsula on the SW side of Poole Harbour. The locals were evacuated in 1942 as the area was used as a bombing decoy, lit up by flares, to deceive Luftwaffe bombers aiming for the nearby cordite factory. The peninsula was declared a nature reserve in 1954, with an RSPB bird-watching hide on the edge of the harbour.
Though renovated following damage from wartime bombing and death-watch beetles, and still in use, the church remains remote and without electricity. Sometimes described as a Saxon church, it must be later, probaibly Norman.

 

Right: Hollywood's soundstage depiction of the old Fleet church and graveyard, in Moonfleet (1955), set in the 1750s. (Mouse over to see 2nd image.)


Old Fleet Church, SW Dorset
The hamlet of Fleet sat alongside the Fleet Lagoon inside Chesil Bank pebble ridge. This chapel [OS map ref SY634805] is all that survived a storm in 1824 which came over Chesil Bank and swept away the hamlet, including the rest of the church, leaving only this - originally the chancel. The event is referred to in JM Falkner's classic smuggling novel Moonfleet. A new church was built in 1827 farther inland, alongside the relocated village. The building, maintained as a chapel, is of unknown date - usually classed as Mediaeval - and not necessarily Norman in its founding, but its isolated situation makes it appear early.


Old St Boniface Church, Bonchurch IOW
This survived by dint of a more modern 19C parish church being built nearby. The core of it was Norman, but additions were made through its lifetime, so elements are Mediaeval or later. Its abandonment in the early Victorian era however and its being built on a hillside gives it a tumbledown appearance.


Tyneham Church, SE Dorset
Tyneham became a deserted village in 1943 when the Army requisitioned the area for training, but the site is now open most weekends and the church is maintained by the Army. The church is largely post-Norman but appears older, being built in cruciform pattern, with walls of limestone rubble. It appeared in the 1987 historical drama Comrades, about the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Knowlton Church, East Dorset
Sited just off the Wimborne-Cranborne B3078 road [SU024103], this largely Norman church (the tower may be 14th C.), surviving only as a roofless shell, is of unknown date. Local folklore has it deserted at the time of the Black Death [1340s]. Others say it was later re-opened then abandoned again around the time of Cromwell's Puritan Commonwealth. What is of interest here is its setting - it was built inside a Neolithic henge, probably in pursuit of St Augustine's policy of building Christian churches atop pagan sites. Today it is popular with dowsers, who claim they can sense powerful force fields, and sometimes arrive by the coachload.

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire
The present church is Norman, an earlier more modest Anglo-Saxon church on the site being burnt by Viking raiders in 993. Though it survives today as the town’s parish church, it was a Benedictine nunnery until the Dissolution, which accounts for its size - it is now the largest parish church in Hampshire. It appeared in the ITV series The Ruth Rendell Mysteries with Inspector Wexford. (Mouse over photo to see publicity still.)

Boldre Church, New Forest
Probably built within a few years of the Norman Conquest, the hilltop church here was the main church for the southern half of the Norman kings' new royal hunting preserve, the New Forest.

Sparsholt, Hampshire
This is an example of the sort of church that could pass for Norman through the careful use of camera angles. Parts of this parish church are 12-13C, though ongoing use meant some features, like the west tower, were built later. The church was also subject to one of those Victorian restorations which married elements from different eras.
Christchurch Priory, Christchurch, SE Dorset
Originally a canonical establishment built in 1094 on Saxon foundations, it survived the Tudor-era Dissolution when the locals claimed it as their parish church - today it is England's longest parish church.
With some tapestry set-dressing, it even doubled for Westminster Abbey in the BBC's 1996 dramatisation of the Tudor-era set Mark Twain novel The Prince And The Pauper. (Mouse over photo to see publicity still.)

Mediaeval Era

The Middle Ages saw the building of some major churches - abbeys, minsters, priories, even a cathedral. Many were destroyed in the 16C Dissolution of the monasteries, while others were deconsecrated and became stately homes without a change of name, such as Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest, Forde Abbey in West Dorset, and Stapehill Abbey in SE Dorset. In some cases outbuildings, such as chapels and tithe barns, have survived.
St Catherine’s Chapel, Abbotsbury, SW Dorset
Even where an abbey was destroyed, an outbuilding might survive for its usefulness, as here, where a hilltop chapel belonging to Abbotsbury Abbey was left intact, reportedly as a seamark. It appeared as itself in the 1949 Powell-Pressburger film The Small Back Room, as a viewpoint overlooking Fleet Lagoon and Chesil Bank, to set up the film's bomb-defusing finale. (Mouse over photo to see screenshot.)

Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire
Founded in the 13C, the abbey was sold at the Dissolution as a private home, and part of it was destroyed. However much of its original monastic appearance survived. These parts are regularly used by filmmakers for scenes requiring a monastic setting, such as the Harry Potter films, the 1995 BBC Pride And Prejudice, The Other Boleyn Girl 2008, and more recently the BBC's Wolf Hall. The site was takan over by the National Trust during WW2, and remains a heritage site open to the public.
Milton Abbey, Central Dorset
Classed as an unfinished Benedictine Abbey, this has a complicated history, with a lightning strike in 1309 destroying much of and then most of the building complex taken over post-Dissolution by the local lord of the manor as a stately home, and finally turned into an exclusive boarding school for boys. It has appeared on screen as a monastery in the BBC's 1969 Canterbury Tales, the 1998 film Monk Dawson, and as a school in the 1980 13-hr RF Delderfield adaptation To Serve Them All My Days, Ripping Yarns' first episode 'Tomkinson's Schooldays', and the 1994 film of Rattigan's The Browning Version.
Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral, which not long ago celebrated the 750th anniversary of its completion and dedication, in 1258, is world-famous and needs little introduction here. It has the tallest spire, at 404', in England (some claim in all of Europe). However it's been difficult to get a classic exterior shot for some time, as the façade has been shrouded in scaffolding for extensive restoration to its crumbling masonry. Below: A useful wide-angle shot from a BBC documentary.
Wimborne Minster, E Dorset
This is a substantial building, a minster being a collegiate church for training clergy. It was formerly a monastery and Benedictine nunnery (the latter destroyed by the Danes). The original foundation was Saxon (Alfred's elder brother is buried here), but most of what is on view today is Norman or Mediaeval. The surrounding market town is named after it, and at the Dissolution, the building was adopted as the town's parish church, preventing Henry VIII from demolishing it.
 
Post-Mediaeval Parish Churches
The religious wars of the 17th C led to the vandalising of many churches, but these were mostly rebuilt in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Every parish had to have its own church, and so there were hundreds across Dorset and the surrounding area. There are too many to list on this page, so we have put up a separate gallery page with a repesentative selection of these 18-19C parish churches, here.

Victorian Era
With the spread of the Industrial Revolution and urbanised living, the new 'High Street' churches were often distinguished by 'skyscraper' towers meant to dominate the local horizon, which they still do, despite the surrounding modern office-block architecture. In the then-new seaside 'spa' of Bournemouth, several tall churches stand near one another in the downtown area, as shown below:

Left: [1] St Peter's (completed 1870, where the Shelley Tomb is); [2] the spire-less St Stephen's (built 1880, and praised by poet and architectural critic John Betjeman); [3] what is now the United Reformed Church (built 1891, seen here from the Central Gardens), which has the largest capacity of the three.

     
20th Century
The Victorian Era was the last great age of church building, but a few new establishments have appeared in the last century.
Carisbrooke, IOW

Designed aesthetically to fit into the fabric of an older framework, i.e. Carisbrooke Castle, this was actually built in 1904 as a combination of a private chapel and memorial to Charles I, who was imprisoned in the castle before his execution.
St Dunstans, Upper Parkstone, Poole

Built 1906-27 as the first use of Byzantine architecture in England, this Eastern Orthodox Church was rededicated [from St Osmund's] after changing hands following closure due to the need for roof repairs. [Details and images here.]
Quarr Abbey, IOW

Built in 1912, this Grade I listed listed French Benedictine monastic complex (map ref SZ562927), officially the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Quarr, is built atop the remnants of a 12C abbey, of Flemish brick “in a style combining French, Byzantine and Moorish architectural elements.” The architectural writer Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described it as "among the most daring and successful church buildings of the early 20th century in England".
Wimborne St Giles, E Dorset

While the exterior is older and unexceptional, the interior of the Earl of Shaftesbury's local church was redone in 'High Church' style after a 1908 fire.

 

Inclusive Community Church, Pokesdown, Bournemouth

Opposite: The Inclusive Community Church in Pokesdown, just east of Boscombe. This was part of the Metropolitan Community Churches initiative established in the 1970s to provide services for all, including the LGBT community. Recently repainted, it was originally opened in 1979.

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