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Little Langford and stories of Ghosts

Updated: Feb 15

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.

South Chapel, St Nicholas Church Little Langford

In the south chapel can be found the aforementioned tomb of IH and effigy of William Haytor. Almost hidden on the floor beneath this large south facing window are what I thought were Victorian floor tiles but they are in fact Medieval encaustic tiles. Beautiful! Outside, below the 13th century lancet set in the south wall of the south chancel chapel, can be found the small coffin lid of a child carved with a round headed cross. Presumably repurposed.

Child's Coffin Lid, St Nicholas Church Little Langford

Meanwhile, inside the church, there is an impressive brass lectern which Andrew confessed he acquired from a church in Bournemouth!

Brass Lectern, St Nicholas Church Little Langford

Alter Table, St Nicholas Church Little Langford

Chancel Window, St Nicholas Church Little Langford

Aisle, font and west window, St Nicholas Church, Little Langford

As I took my leave of Andrew Lunt he asked if I had been to the church at Steeple Langford, a little way along the valley. I said I had not. He then told me the story of the poltergeist. Legend has it that there was a brutal murder by the Norman font in All Saints Church and that many people have felt a presence in the vicinity. Andrew said he had met one or two individuals who won’t even enter the church. So, in the dying hours of daylight I simply had to go! But not before Andrew also told me the story of the little girl dressed in a white night gown who haunted his beautiful house in Homington.

All Saints Church, Steeple Langford is a large church with much to explore. But that is for another day as I didn’t have much daylight left.

All Saints Church, Steeple Langford

Cutting to the chase I didn’t feel anything but warmth and tranquillity in the church, despite being quite alone. There was lots of artwork by local children together with drawing tables set out on cosy woollen rugs. This was clearly a place where small children visit, untroubled by any supernatural presence. I explored for a while and photographed some of the colourful friezes and memorials, several to the Mompesson family.

Lectern and colourful frieze memorial to the Mompesson family, All Saints Church, Steeple Langford

Font, All Saints Church, Steeple Langford. Scene of a brutal murder?

Alter table All Saints Church, Steeple Langford

Saxon stone cross, All Saints Church, Steeple Langford

Chancel All Saints Church, Steeple Langford

As I explored the church and took photographs I heard the voice of a small child singing Christmas carols. Feeling slightly unnerved I went outside to find a small boy with his grandmother laying straw in a manger all ready for Baby Jesus as I heard him say! No poltergeists here. I was though fascinated by the array of hunky punks below the eaves of the roof. Here there were one or two quite grotesque stone heads including one that appeared to be being bitten in the neck by a monkey! However, it may represent temptation whispering over a shoulder into someone’s ear. But knowing how mischievous stone masons can be, it may be an early selfie of a mason being nagged by his wife!

Hunky Punks, All Saints Church, Steeple Langford

A few days later after Christmas and New Year I returned to Little Langford to take some more photographs, and in particular one of the child’s coffin on the exterior wall of the church. I met a delightful couple from Wylye who had also come to see the church for the first time. As I explained the carvings above the door and some of the other features of the church I mentioned the initials carved on the headstones in the churchyard and the assumption I had made. With the utmost tact and diplomacy the chap said that he thought IHS was a religious inscription, the letter ‘I’ standing for ‘Iesus’ ie Jesus. A quick Google search revealed that the inscription is indeed an abbreviation for ‘Iesus Hominem Salvator’ – Jesus Saviour of Mankind. Thank goodness I was put straight before going into print, which might have confirmed some people’s belief that we make stuff up at Hidden Wiltshire!

Before we said our farewells as the couple went to see Andrew Lunt to get the key, they asked if I had been to the Church of St Mary at Wylye. Despite having family connections there I never have. They told me about the ornate tomb in the churchyard. From their description it sounded like the mortsafe at St Leonards’ church in Sutton Veney. As I was to find, it was not!

So, for the second time in just over a week, after a visit to St Nicholas’ Little Langford, I found myself continuing up the Wylye Valley to another church. But first I needed a coffee. Having found the café at Langford Lakes closed (on a Bank Holiday!) I tried The Bell at Wylye. Here the delightful staff topped me up with coffee and cake before I went to look at the church next door.

Church of St Mary, Wylye

I was somewhat taken aback by the sight of what turned out to be a substantial tomb in the churchyard. Again, the Britain Express website helped me out. It seems this is the Popjay Memorial. Here is what Britain Express says:

“Opposite the south porch is an ornate tomb inside railings. A fascinating story relates to the tomb, related by antiquarian Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead House. According to the story, an 18th century local man by the name of Popjay was convicted of crimes and transported to Australia. When he eventually returned to Wylye it was in a fine carriage, and he was dressed with all the trappings of great wealth.

Popjay lodged at the Bell Inn and enquired after his mother and sister. He was dismayed to find that in his absence both had died and been buried in pauper's graves. He ordered an elaborate tomb and had his relatives reburied.

Ah, but then the bills arrived for the work on the tomb. Popjay disappeared, leaving the bills unpaid. He was never seen again, and the rector of St Mary's had to pay the bills out of his own pocket. There is some doubt over the authenticity of this story, but the tomb does stand opposite the porch! In 1840 Rev Francis Baker chose to be buried within the Popjay tomb.”

What a fantastic story and I for one am happy to believe our friend Colt Hoare!

Popjay Tomb, Church of St Mary, Wylye

Anyway, this brought to an end my second day in this short stretch of the Wylye Valley and an unintended look at three of its churches. I think between us here at Hidden Wiltshire we have probably covered in greater or lesser detail almost all of the churches in the section of the valley between Great Wishford and Sutton Veney in various blogs. But there is so much more to discover. As I started out by saying, the churches were once the heart and soul of these communities and in some cases are the oldest surviving buildings. They frequently contain information about the wider environment telling us so much more about the people that once lived here. I will return, not least of which because I still haven’t made it to Fisherton de la Mere.


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2 ความคิดเห็น

John Ernest Weaire
05 ม.ค. 2566

Really enjoyed this blog especially St. Nicholas Church.


02 ม.ค. 2566

A great article as usual. I like churches for the very same reasons that you mention and always like to visit one when I visit somewhere new. Thank you.

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