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  • Paul Timlett

Little Langford and stories of Ghosts

Those who have followed Hidden Wiltshire for a while will have noticed I’m fond of old churches, almost to the point of obsession. I’ve been thinking about what attracts me to them, not that justification is needed. I am not a religious person in the conventional sense of the word. I rarely attend church services. What draws me to them is the connection they provide with the past. So often the church is the oldest building remaining in a settlement. This is even more true of older places of significance – henges, hillforts and enclosures are frequently all that survive from prehistory beyond the artefacts that are extracted from the earth. They survive long after the dwellings and other buildings have disappeared.

Whilst everything else has crumbled or been repurposed the church remains as a symbol of strength and of our connection not just with some higher being but with the ancestors who may lie in the church yard or whose spirit dwells there. Their spirit is so often made tangible through the skills of the masons and carpenters who made the building, or just the graffiti of ordinary parishioners. The church is the most important edifice in the community because of those connections and is therefore preserved even in times of great turmoil, suffering and poverty. And right now I feel their importance greater than ever, yet many of our churches are at their greatest risk of being lost requiring huge investment in structures that have lasted a thousand years or more. Perhaps recession and austerity will succeed where the Civil War and 18th century Protestant reformers failed?

Welcome to Little Langford

Shortly before Christmas I found myself in the Wylye Valley. When you get to my age it’s not unusual to unexpectedly find yourself somewhere. My plan was to park in Wylye and to walk along the river to the unusually named Fisherton de la Mere where many years ago I nearly bought a house. Driving along the minor road along the valley, upon reaching the farm at Little Langford I made a spontaneous decision to divert down the no through road over the railway line towards the church. I have passed this point a hundred times either by car or by bike and always thought the church on the other side of the railway line was a private chapel. Several hours later I gave up any plans to go to Fisherton de la Mere. So what delayed me?

St Nicholas Church, Little Langford

I spent some time exploring the outside of this lovely little church and its churchyard before venturing inside. I tried the door only to find it locked. Somewhat irritated I decided to phone one of the two church wardens listed on the noticeboard by the gate to see if I could locate the key. What followed was the most enjoyable hour in the company of the delightful Andrew Lunt.

Having told me he was full of a cold and that he would leave the key on his front doorstep, as I approached the house Andrew greeted me and cried “come in, come in”. Standing before me was an immaculately groomed elderly gentleman who I estimated to be perhaps in his 70s. During conversation Andrew announced that he was 92 and that this was his final week as church warden pending his retirement! He then proceeded to tell me the story of The Church of St Nicholas of Myra, Little Langford.

Andrew moved to the hamlet in the 1980s following his retirement from the tannery in Downton. As he led me into his sitting room to show me some photographs of birds on the neighbouring Langford Lakes I enquired about two photographs on the wall of an old manor house. Andrew explained that this grand house was in Homington and that he and his family owned it when they first came to Wiltshire. It transpired Andrew owned the tannery! Having sold up he moved to Little Langford and decided he needed a new challenge. He found the church in a sorry state so set about renovating it together with an old colleague from the tannery in Downton where they worked together.

During the course of their work Andrew and his colleague found the foundations of an old building in the churchyard which, unusually, is round. It is believed the site was originally occupied as a hermitage before the Saxons built the first church here. The building we see today is of Norman origin having been built by a member of the family that took its name from the settlement, Ellis de Langford. But the interior bears the hallmark of the prolific Victorian restorer T H Wyatt who turned his attention to St Nicholas’ in 1864. His restoration was funded by Lady Herbert of Lea, widow of Sydney Herbert 1st Baron Herbert of Lea, a close ally and confidant of Florence Nightingale and younger son of George Herbert 11th Earl of Pembroke. He spent his life running the Wilton Estate for the family, of which Little Langford was a part.

The church sits beside what is now a track that becomes a footpath running parallel to the railway line between Warminster and Salisbury. There is some evidence that this track was once the main route along the Wylye Valley. However, it seems the road was moved to the higher ground to the south where it is now and was, in the mid 18th century, turnpiked. A model farm, the Victorian Gothic Little Langford Farm, was built in the village in about 1858 presumably to take advantage of the adjacent railway line which was opened in 1856.

Victorian Gothic Little Langford Farm

The railway split the village in two and what was once the main road through the village running by the church became a backwater, now served by a road to nowhere and a footpath across what were once flood meadows which still contain the usual ditches to control the flood waters.

Water Meadows, Little Langford

Before obtaining the key to the church I had noticed that a number of headstones in the graveyard shared the same symbol carved in them – the letters ‘IHS’. But those who occupied these graves did not share the same name or anything remotely like the initials IHS.

Headstone St Nicholas bearing the inscription 'IHS', Church Little Langford

Door of St Nicholas Church Little Langford lit by a winter's afternoon light

For me one of the most fascinating aspects of the church can be found above the 12th century south doorway. A beautifully carved tympanum dating to around 1120 shows, on the lintel above the door, a hunting scene depicting dogs, a huntsman and a wild boar. However, legend has it that the scene shows the killing of a giant maggot that had killed a lady who in turn had tried to deprive the villagers of their right to gather firewood in Grovely Wood. I’m not sure why they killed the maggot after it had seemingly done them a favour!

Tympanum, St Nicholas Church, Little Langford

Inside the church there is the tomb of an Elizabethan nobleman bearing the initials IH. It’s not known for certain but this may be a member of the Haytor family, for above it is the effigy of William Haytor who died in c.1632. One of the graves with the inscription IHS is that of Anne wife of Charles Maitland once a rector of the church. One of his predecessors was a Haytor. So, I made the tenuous connection between the letters IHS on the headstones and IH and assumed it was something to do with the Haytor family. But as we shall, see I was wrong.

Tomb of 'IH'

Inside, St Nicholas’ church is light and airy, lit by the enormous south facing window in the south chapel looking towards the hills above that contain the Iron Age Grovely Castle hiilfort.