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Small but perfectly formed

Ken Ayres and Lilian Ladle visit St Andrew’s Church in Winterborne Tomson

St Andrews Church, Winterborne Tomson
The church now stands within a small walled and grassed enclosure and would have been the centre of a thriving medieval community

Blink and you’ll miss it’ is an apt epithet for Winterborne Tomson. This little hamlet, consisting of a couple of cottages, farm, magnificent manor house and tiny church, can be found along a single track road, just off the busy A31 Poole to Dorchester road. The place name refers to the Winterborne, a small seasonal stream, a tributary of the River Stour, which generally only flows during the winter. There was a settlement here when the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 but it was only in the 13th century that ‘Tomson’ (Thomas’s estate) was appended to distinguish it from the other Dorset Winterborne villages. We do not know who Thomas was, but it is very likely that he worshipped in the little church, which had been built in the early 12th century. The parish was never large and a maximum of forty worshippers could have been accommodated within the church, which was a chapel belonging to the church at Bere Regis.

St Andrew’s is special for a number of reasons, but principally because the building has been little altered since it was built and has the only Norman apse in the county. In addition, it contains wooden fixtures and fittings of the 18th century, complete and in situ. The church is one of the smallest in Dorset and is built of knapped flint set between bands of red heathstone. The walls bow outwards, giving the uncanny impression of a small, upturned boat. A red, clay-tiled roof with seven courses of limestone slates defines the unusual shape of the building. A few of the ridge tiles are said to be medieval. A small bell, dated 1668, hangs in the tiny weather-boarded bell cote. The exterior of the building bears silent witness to repairs and alterations carried out over many centuries. Original features include three slender buttresses which support the eastern apse and a narrow, single-light, round-headed window on the southern side of the church which is blocked on the inside of the building. On the northern side are the remains of a square-headed doorway, its opening framed by large rectangular blocks of heathstone and now blocked by a sturdy buttress. Above is a rather shapeless lump of stone, which was likely to have been a corbel, probably in the shape of a head, and helped support the original roof.

The nail-studded west door, St Andrews Church, Winterborne Tomson
The nail-studded west door was installed at the beginning of the 18th century

It is, however, the inside of the church which is remarkable, both for its simplicity and state of preservation. The interior, which measures only 40 feet long by 15 feet wide, comprises a stone-flagged nave, with two stone steps leading up to the apsidal chancel. The wagon roof with oak ribs and plastered panels was added probably in the late 1400s or early 1500s. Said to be of unique construction, the roof curves around the apse with slender radial ribs and carved foliate bosses masking the intersections. Small, plain wooden shields mark the point where the ribs meet the wall plates in the nave. The Norman walls were raised by a couple of feet before this work was undertaken. The octagonal Purbeck stone font in perpendicular style, which now stands by the north door, is also of this date. A wooden rood loft was installed at the junction of the apse and nave, but this was moved during the next stage of alterations and now forms part of the western gallery. It is possible that these works were instigated by Cardinal John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who paid for the carved wooden roof in the church at Bere Regis at about the same time.

Eighteenth-century woodwork ,St Andrews Church, Winterborne Tomson
Eighteenth-century woodwork complements the Norman interior

The church underwent a major re-fit at the beginning of the 18th century, funded by another Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake, whose family lived locally. A new west doorway was constructed and a sturdy nail-studded door fitted. Three large two-light windows were inserted into the south wall of the nave to provide natural illumination. Inside, the earlier fitments were all replaced in oak. This woodwork, now nearly three hundred years old, has mellowed to a pale, silvery grey. Ten high-sided box pews (which were nicknamed ‘horse boxes’) provided relative comfort for the Georgian congregations, sheltering worshippers from draughts in a no doubt often cold and unheated building. They vary in size, the larger ones reflecting the higher status of the families who used them. The pulpit is raised and accessed through the clerk’s pew. Above it is a hexagonal ‘tester’ or sounding board. The screen which separates the nave from the minute chancel consists of plain oak posts and a rail, which, at the south side, has been curved to give better access to the pulpit. Behind the barley-twist communion rails is a communion table, with similarly turned legs and an unusual top, which is curved to fit against the apse wall. At the west end, a simple step ladder gives access to the gallery, which provided seating for those too poor to rent a pew, as well as playing space for church musicians.

Clerk's pew, double-decker pulpit and sounding board , St Andrews Church, Winterborne Tomson
Clerk’s pew, double-decker pulpit and sounding board were fashionable church fitments of the early 18th century

Patrons of the living have included William Wake, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Viscounts Spencer of Althorp and the Bankes family of Dorset. The last incumbent was George Pickard-Cambridge, who was vicar at Bloxworth. He calculated that he had walked 7000 miles between the two parishes, in all weathers, to take Sunday services. By the 1890s, the church was no longer in use and apparently had become part of the farmyard, with animals using the building for shelter. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings undertook responsibility for its repair and reconsecration and under the supervision of architect Albert Reginald Powys (of the prolific Dorset literary family), minimal and sympathetic restoration commenced in 1931. Building work was funded by the sale of some Thomas Hardy manuscripts which had been donated to the society by Hardy himself. Powys was buried in the churchyard in 1936, his resting place marked by a simple border. His work is commemorated on a plaque within the church, carved by Reynolds Stone.

A commemorative plaque to AR Powys , St Andrews Church, Winterborne Tomson
A commemorative plaque to AR Powys was set up by his wife Faith, who survived him by 47 years. The plaque was carved by Reynolds Stone, who also carved the memorial to Winston Churchill in Westminster Abbey and Benjamin Britten’s gravestone at Aldeburgh

Since 1974, this little church has been cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust, whose remit is to ‘care for and preserve English churches of historic, architectural or archaeological importance that are no longer needed for regular worship’. There are 340 Trust churches in the country and the nine in Dorset are all very accessible. Winterborne Tomson is a real gem and well worth a journey off the usual beaten track.

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