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  • Paul Timlett

Old Dilton Church

Instead of a walk this blog is about a place. A very special place I have been meaning to visit for a long time. I was reminded about this place again when reading Andrew Ziminski’s brilliant book, The Stonemason. I was determined to go.

Typically, after weeks of never ending sunshine, the day I chose was one of mist and drizzle. But as it transpired, this made for the perfect conditions to photograph the interior of this wonderful building. I am of course talking about the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Old Dilton, just outside Westbury.

Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Old Dinton

Old Dilton is now little more than a hamlet nestling in a fold in the landscape down a quiet, narrow lane. Its tranquillity belies its proximity to the busy town of Westbury. The name of the hamlet is thought to derive from the Old English Dyllan-tun meaning Dylla’s or Dulla’s farmstead. I had always imagined the church as being a tiny chapel so was surprised to find it to be more than I expected, although it is by no means large. Before it became known as Old Dilton, Dilton was once a thriving wool producing community, with several mills once located along the valley of the nearby Biss Brook . However, the decline in the wool industry from the 17thcentury led to the decline of the village and a shift in population to the expanding settlement of Dilton Marsh, where a new church was built in 1844.

Western end of the church from the graveyard

The church can be reached from the west, passing underneath the railway line between Westbury and Salisbury, or from the east where the lane eventually reaches the busy Warminster to Westbury road. The lane is narrow with few passing spaces so keep your fingers crossed if you drive along it. Parking is very limited. There is just about enough room to get a couple of cars against the north wall by the lane but this might block it for passing tractors or hay wagons. Opposite the church on the apex of the bend is a footpath sign and some fields grazed by horses. I tucked my car in here in front of an old disused iron gate.

North Frontage - not much room to park

As you pass through the little gate into the churchyard you will see a door with a white notice on it. The church is now managed by The Churches Conservation Trust so, apart from the occasional service, is kept locked. The notice on the door provides instructions for obtaining the key which is kept around 100 metres back along the lane to the east at the white house called St Mary’s Cottage. Go round to the porch at the side of the house and you will find the substantial old key hanging on a hook to the top left of the door, easy to miss as I did!

Door to the School Room. And instructions for finding the key.

St Mary's Cottage - home to the key

Most of the building that we see today dates from the 15th century, although the southern porch may be around a century older. What strikes the visitor first is the unusual stunted steeple, like a needle cone pointing skywards. The key you now hold gives access to the smaller door to the right of the porch, the first door you reach as you follow the path round the corner into the church yard.

Door into Chancel. The way in.

Main Porch - not the way in!

After turning the key in the lock I hesitated for a moment. This was a moment I had anticipated for several years. As I opened the door inwards the sight that greeted me did not disappoint. Opposite the entrance door and above my eyeline was a gallery. During my exploration I discovered this was once the school room where a handful of children would have been taught, their elevated position providing a fine view of the interior of the church below. In fact I spent some time trying to find the stairs to the gallery when I discovered that access is gained from the outside via the door where the notice about the key was pinned. This door must lead into the vestry but from inside the vestry I didn’t notice it.

The School Room gallery

Below the school room gallery was a table with leaflets and a little booklet about the church. This can be purchased for £2.50. There was also a QR code on a board which once scanned provides an audio guide. However, the internet reception was so poor I couldn’t get this to work until I got home, which was a shame as the guide proved to be extremely useful. To the right of the entrance is a long 17th century communion table bearing a simple cross.

Box Pews and Communion Table

Cross on Communion Table

The interior walls of the church have been roughly restored with whitewash. I always find it so sad to cover up the original decorations this way but in one or two areas in this church you can see what lies beneath. On the north wall of the nave aisle is painted the Lord’s Prayer, dating probably from the 18th century. To the left of the pulpit on the south wall are the remains of what is thought to be a post-Reformation wall painting. Note the coat hooks for the occupants of the box pew below the painting.