MAIDEN NEWTON, DORSET lies in a chalk valley at the confluence of the River Frome and its tributary the Hooke. The Church of St Mary is of particular note, dating from the C12 with earlier Saxon origins. The interior was badly damaged by fire in 2011, and has been rearranged – understandably – as a largely open space, but not fully restored. Many treasures were fortunately unscathed; one in particular received special treatment from the fire crews that saved it.
Behind the new Altar is an ancient wooden door set into the narrow arched north doorway. A plaque states that this is ‘the oldest door with original hinges in the country’. One theory is that the door is pre-Conquest, later incorporated into the Norman church built sometime between in the late C11 and 1200. Owen Morshead dates it C12; Pevsner describes it a ‘a good early door‘. So it is certainly early medieval and – whether or not actually the oldest door with original hinges – it is remarkable for its battered beauty and its overall condition.
A report of the 2011 fire and its aftermath states that “four fire crews initially used an aerial platform to avoid damaging the original doors and hinges, thought to be among the oldest in England”. On any view, it is almost certainly the oldest medieval door hung on its original hinges to have survived a major fire without damage.
The image above shows a Hunky Punk. These strangely-named grotesques are found on churches in many areas of the country, especially Late Gothic ones. Usually where there is one hunky punk, there will be several (as with gargoyles). Sometimes, there may be a lone one lurking over a buttress or above a porch.
Different regions have different names for these intriguing ornaments. The name hunky punk is associated most strongly with Somerset, and more broadly with Wessex. They range from the dramatically gross to the disconcertingly lurky (see above). There’s nothing anodyne about them.
Wherever they are found, hunky punks all have a common factor: they are distinct from gargoyles. They may be very similar in design and style, but they have different functions. Gargoyles are working grotesques, usually acting as outlets for rainwater on church roofs. A length of lead pipe – or metal or (occasionally / regrettably) plastic – is the sign of a gargoyle. This usually but not invariably protrudes through the stone mouth.
A hunky punk, on the other hand, has a purely decorative function. One might dignify it with the term ‘architectural feature’. But then so is a gargoyle. Confusingly, where several grotesques are found, eg on a tower, only one or two may be functional gargoyles and the others not. Here’s an example where it is easy to tell which is which. The hunky punk appears to be praying with some distaste; the water drain (non-gargoylic) is separate.**
There are a number of theories about the purpose of hunky punks, absent a water spout function to make them useful as gargoyles. Symbols of (benign) evil to counterbalance the prevailing piety of the church precincts. Sculpture practice for trainee stonemasons. Caricatures of priests or local people; or perhaps representing Parish folklore .
My current favourite hunky punks are from St Mary’s Charminster. This church deserves a post in its own right, not least because it also has 2 medieval scratch dials (my current project), one of which was moved from the south side and replaced upside-down on the wrong face of the building.
While other more distant projects are marking time, I am currently investigating Wessex churches – strictly within prevailing Covid rules, obviously. So there’ll be more posts along these lines in due course, mostly about exterior features.
** This one may be a double bluff. It’s possible that the modern water spout to the side replaces an old pipe that emerged from the clasped hands of the priest, and channelled the rain water even as he prays. On the other hand, the aperture isn’t quite right for that. I need to check that tower again to see if any of the other 3 are water-spouting gargoyles…
Churches: Rampisham – St Michael & All Angels (1); Bradford Abbas – St Mary (2, 3); Nether Compton – St Andrew (4); Leigh – St Andrew (5); Trent – St Andrew (6); Charminster – St Mary (7, 8)
The village of Piddletrenthide in Dorset lies by the upper reaches of the River Piddle, Dorset’s most amusingly named river. Like its close neighbour, the larger River Frome, the Piddle flows roughly ESE to Poole Harbour. Piddletrenthide is an interesting village for many reasons, but I am heading straight to the northern end, to All Saint’s Church which dates from C12. And I’m zeroing in on the porch.
As you can see, centrally above the porch entrance is, firstly, a badly degraded tablet (only the letter A is clearly visible). Above it is a fine, well-defined sundial. Probably, the experts would not call it a mass dial at all, since it is not actually cut into the church’s stonework, but is on its own block stapled (now anyway) to the church wall. As British History Online (a great resource) puts it, Sundial: Above entry to S. porch, rectangular stone slab with enriched border, Roman numerals, wrought-iron gnomon and date 1602.
There’s no doubt about the date. ‘1602’ is completely clear, though the preceding inscription is harder to decipher. By sight, I could only clearly make out the words TO BE, as mentioned by the British Sundial Society (see below). Photographs taken on a sunny day reveal more, and I have done a bit of work on one of them – making it black and white for a start. I believe the legible part of the inscription reads OCTOBER ? ? 23 (possibly 1523). A ladder might make the task of completing the inscription easier!
The design is rather more sophisticated than earlier dials. For a start, marking the canonical hours is by now a thing of the past; this dial is on the 24-hour clock that arrived with the early timepieces. The dial marks from 6am to 6 pm, but it is old enough for IV to be rendered as IIII. Also, this is a ‘scientific dial’. With very early dials, the distance between the markers was equal, an inherently unreliable system throughout the year. Gradually, dials acquired graduated markers that narrowed towards the lowest mark, and widened after it. This provided greater accuracy. Among the earliest – if not THE earliest example – is atLITLINGTON CHURCHin East Sussex.
The above photograph shows the stubby gnomon. I assume it is not the original one. I must have taken this photograph around midday. The face is decorated with a lattice design on both sides, the right side being rather more worn. In addition there are two attractive roundels with a design I can’t make out. A Maltese cross, perhaps? The British Sundial Society describes the dial thus: Shows 6am to 6pm in half hours. Two circular motifs cut into either side of gnomon, decoration cut into dial sides. IIII for 4pm. Triangular sheet gnomon with lead fixings – possibly not original. A possible inscription at bottom “.. ..To Be.. ..”.
All Saints is a fascinating Church, both outside and inside. There are many inventive gargoyles and other carvings; and the interior is very rewarding. Another post about this church will follow in due course. Meanwhile, as a side note, the Piddletrenthide Parish Records detail a most interesting fact that will have me revisiting the church for sure: The first known use of Arabic numerals can be seen in an inscription on the west door of the church tower ‘Est pydeltrenth villa in dorsedie comitatu Nascitur in illa quam rexit Vicariatu 1487’. The use of Roman numerals continued in Europe for at least another century so it is quite something to find Arabic numerals inscribed over a doorway in a small village in Dorset.
Milton Abbey, more properly called ‘The Abbey Church of St Mary, St Sansom and St Bradwalader*’, is a former Benedictine monastery founded in c10. The present building dates from the c14 and c15. The Abbey, with a post-reformation country house attached where the monastic buildings used to be, is now a school.
The Church building consists of the tower, transepts and choir. The nave is entirely absent, not as the result of the reformation’s destructive zeal (though that may account for the absence of statues in the empty interior niches). In fact, the nave was never built. The blank arch on the ‘front’ side (below) indictes how huge the nave – and the completed edifice – would have been.
The country house / school buildings are to the left side of the Abbey. This isn’t the place to detail the comings and goings of the various families who lived there, but it’s all on Wiki and also in an exhaustive entry in the Dorset ‘Pevsner’ – or in more technical detailHERE
We enjoyed a c15 pun high on a wall inside the Church. The date shown on the device looks at first sight to be 1618, but is in fact 1514. Medieval numbering was not formed in quite the way we are familiar with now. The W stands for Abbot William of Middleton (the original town name, shortened to Milton), with his rebus, a mill on top of a tun.Close to the Church, there is a small stone circle about which I became quite excited. Sadly, a complete lack of mention of this circle in any historical context suggests that it is a modern imposter, perhaps related to a school project. But it’s pretty convincing!
*Me neither. And online research doesn’t disclose much about St Bradwalader. Or indeed anything at all.
St George, Portland stands high up on Portland, Dorset. Built from the famed local Portland stone in an unusual mish-mash of styles, it is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, which will at least ensure its survival even if services are no longer regularly held there. Pevsner calls it “the most impressive c17 church in Dorset”.
The church and churchyard contain plenty of reminders of Portland’s past both as a significant stone quarrying area, and as a place of major nautical importance. There can’t be many churches with a memorial for those killed by a press gang.
The churchyard is rather wild in places and contains some large commemorative statues. We were intrigued by one quite tidy grave (below) and were left wondering about the design – the little roofed gateway, the raised apart in the top right corner. What does that indicate?
The thick grey walls of St George are typical of the local stone.
The unkempt churchyard is a good place for wildlife, with plenty of hunting perches for kestrels