In March 2023 I posted a blog about a walk I did on Salisbury Plain around the villages of West Lavington and Market Lavington. You will find a link to it in this blog. For my walking buddy Stu and I it turned into something of an epic as we ploughed our way through sleet and snow for the entire day. At the end of the walk we returned to our start point at All Saints Church, West Lavington hoping for a place to warm up whilst we admire what I was told was a spectacular interior. Sadly the church was locked, the second time I have visited to find it so.
On a Sunday of mixed torrential showers and sunshine I decided to try again. I usually park in a little layby on the western side of the large graveyard (not the graveyard by the church but the one that is reached by crossing the footbridge over Church Lane). As I approached the church I could hear the organ accompanying hymn singers, and I could see lights from the windows. The Sunday service was in full flow. Rather than interrupt proceedings I explored the two churchyards grabbing photographs as the sun peeped from behind the clouds to illuminate headstones some of which are hundreds of years old. Despite the proximity of the A360 it is a peaceful place as the church and its grounds are elevated on a little hill above the road.
Eventually I saw the vicar and her small congregation leaving so I ventured inside. I was welcomed by greetings from the few remaining parishioners who were tidying up. They urged me to join them for a coffee. I declined, telling them that I planned to return later in the day once I had a visited a photographic exhibition at Heddington near Calne. However, I got chatting and before I knew it I was on a guided tour of the church. It didn’t take long for me to unpack my cameras as by this time the sun was flooding the church with a rainbow of colour, filtered as it was by the stunning stained glass windows.
The small gathering drifted away one-by-one until I was left on my own for a glorious peaceful hour. An opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and feel the history run through my bones.
The main reason for my visit was to see the Whistler Window about which I wrote in March. This legendary etched window can be seen from the passing road by the few that think to look up, although drivers should obviously avoid doing so! But you have to view this remarkable work of art from the inside from where it was intended to be seen. The artist and musician Simon Whistler, nephew of the artist Rex Whistler, created the window which was installed in October 2002. Sadly he died in April 2005 at the tender age of 64 and this was one of, if not his final, piece of work. You can read more on the excellent West Lavington Parish Council website here The Whistler Window
The window is remarkable for the fact that it is etched and not of stained glass. Not unique, since Whistler also made windows for St Mary’s church in Alton Barnes where both Simon and his father Laurence lived. The east window in which the etching is installed looks out over the A360 and between it and the road is a large tree. Whistler said that if it weren’t for the fact the tree was already there it would be necessary to plant one. The window can only be viewed in its full glory with the dark background of a tree in full leaf. The window truly is something of great beauty, the work of a remarkable artist. I was left wishing that I had brought my binoculars with me in order to get a closer look at the incredible detail. But I was just thankful to be able to enjoy this great wonder alone, undisturbed.
However, there is more to All Saints than just the Whistler Window. Its origins are from the 10th and 11th century although it’s possible that only the stones at the foot of the inner doorway of the south porch remain from that period. Like so many of our churches it has been added to and restored over the centuries, including the inevitable Victorian restoration as evidenced by the encaustic tiles in the Chancel.
As I explored alone I was aware of the ever present ticking of the bell tower clock.
Even Pevsner described All Saints as "an interesting church with a somewhat complicated story". No small praise indeed from him! There are many wondrous works of art in the church, although according to the visitors’ book the church silver was stolen in June. The stained glass is every bit as beautiful as the etched. The window in the South (Dauntsey) Chapel dates from the 15th century and somehow survived the attention of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War.
Below lie three tombs, the grandest of which is a memorial to Henry Danvers who died aged 21 in 1654. Somewhat of a dandy by the looks of his monument. His father Sir John Danvers was lucky enough to have died before the restoration of Charles II to the throne, having been one of the signatories of the death warrant of Charles I.
Next to the Dauntsey Chapel is the à Beckett Chapel which was added in the 16th century, the two chapels divided by a screen of stained glass depicting mythical creatures.
The history goes on and on with many interesting plaques and memorials on the walls and the floor. I can only suggest you visit it for yourself and enjoy one of Wiltshire’s most remarkable churches. But for me no church visit is complete without an exploration of the churchyard which at All Saints is in two parts - that surround the church itself and the other larger part across the footbridge. One headstone that caught my eye this time belonged to the actor George Baker and his wife Sally Home. George was a well-known figure in the area and people I know who met him said he was the most delightful of individuals, always ready to make an appearance at village fêtes to draw the crowds. I’m not sure many celebrities these days would be so generous.
Just beyond George Baker’s grave is the garden wall of The Manor House. Being men’s final day at Wimbledon, I could children’s voices and the thwack of racket on tennis ball on the other side of the wall. I’m not a fan of tennis (a crime almost as heinous as not liking dogs of which I am also guilty) but it sounded like someone practicing their serve. Maybe a future champion in the making and another claim to fame for West Lavington?