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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
But the real attraction for me in Old Dilton church is the furnishings. Unusual in today’s churches is that nearly all of the pews are box pews, a typically 18th century feature. However, the pews have been manufactured over the centuries using even older materials, including Medieval benches and a Medieval screen. Two Medieval benches can be found next to the font. The font itself is a 19th century copy of a 15th century design.
A little staircase with a well-worn handrail gives access to the three-decker pulpit, with a simply carved wooden canopy above.
Another gallery can be found above the western end of the aisle, with stairs leading up to it on the right (north). The clock on the front of the gallery was manufactured by the highly regarded Warminster clock maker Cockey. But look closely and you will see that the hands are missing, having been removed for repair long ago together with the works but never returned.
Something that caught my eye in particular was the organ, which for some time I hadn’t noticed. Above the right hand end of the keyboard is the legend “Woodstock, Canada”. The opposite end bears the name D.W. Karn & Co who were indeed a large piano and organ manufacturer. How it ended up in Old Dilton I don’t know but from the company’s birth in Woodstock, Ontario in 1867 the company continued making pianos and organs in the Karn name until 1961.
There are a number of panels on the walls commemorating notable local families – William Budd who died in 1766; William Grant (presumably not the distiller) who died in 1769; and Edward Line who died in 1744. Above the entrance to the chancel can be found the coat of arms of King George III.
Old Dilton’s Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary may not be striking in the way that Inglesham Church is, but I found it a wonderfully peaceful, calming place. Apart from the occasional train passing on the nearby railway elevated on an embankment to the west of the churchyard there was little to disturb the tranquillity. Before I knew it two hours had passed as I explored every nook and cranny of this wonderful little church. I did though fail to find the face scratched into one of the doors and only on leaving did I notice the graffiti above the door to the school room scratched by American serviceman during the Second World War.
The steady rain meant that my exploration of the church yard and the exterior walls would have to wait for another day.