The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Horizontal Apostles

Lilian Ladle and Ken Ayres have visited the church of St John the Baptist at Bere Regis

The builders of St John the Baptist, Bere Regis, used the local Purbeck limestone, heathstone and flint to pleasing effect

A devastating fire in 1788 destroyed many of the buildings in the large village of Bere Regis. The church, however, escaped unscathed. For that we must be thankful, as it is one of Dorset’s finest late medieval parish churches. It is sited at the south end of the village, just off the Bovington/Wool road.

Entry is through a south porch, re-built in 1875 but of 16th-century origin. Around this time the church was extensively and sympathetically restored by architect G E Street, who wisely retained many of the ancient features. The earliest building on the site was a cruciform church of about 1050 AD, consisting of a nave, chancel and transepts, which over the next four centuries was gradually extended and embellished until it attained its present form.

The banded flint and brick of the porch frame the interior14th-century
south door, above which hang iron flails and chains used to pull thatch
off burning buildings

In the 12th century the church was extended by the addition of south and north aisles which were separated from the nave by four sturdy cylindrical columns with pointed arches. The capitals of some of the arches are enlivened with foliage, grotesque figures and heads. There are two amusing mustachioed faces representing the agonies of headache and toothache. The north aisle is at a higher level, due to the naturally sloping site. A deep bowl-shaped font with interlaced arch and foliate decoration is also of this period and is now sited in the west tower. A century later, the chancel was lengthened and the nave and aisles were extended westwards by a further arch. In the 1300s, the south transept was demolished, a fourth column and arch were constructed and the aisle was widened with a new south door. The works were probably financed by the Turberville family (immortalised by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles) who were lords of the manor until the 18th century and whose burial vault and memorials are prominent in this aisle.

Decorating a column capital and dating to the mid 12th century, this gentleman is alleged to be afflicted with a headache

However, the most spectacular addition to the church was the construction of a new nave roof in the late 1400s. It was the gift of Cardinal John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the Exchequer to King Henry VII. Morton was born in 1420 at what is now Milborne St Andrew, and was initially educated at Cerne Abbey, then at Balliol College, Oxford. The college still shares the right of appointment of the incumbent. This spectacular creation in English oak is certainly the finest timber roof in the West Country and is said to be a memorial to his mother by one of Dorset’s most illustrious sons. It absolutely oozes power and prestige. The roof consists of five bays divided by horizontal beams, each with arched braces meeting in the centre. Wall posts which support this structure rest on shaped stone corbels.

Flowers in roundels above interlaced arches decorate the 12th-century font which is complemented by a 19th-century base

The magnificence of this construction is highlighted and emphasised by the quantity and quality of the decorative carving. What appear to be hammer beams are in fact decorative devices in the form of twelve full-size figures, richly painted and gilded and representing the apostles with their insignia. The central bosses depict the full, well-fed face of Cardinal Morton, his coat of arms, a Tudor rose and a golden cord representing the marriage he brokered between Elizabeth of York and Henry VII, thus bringing to an end the war between the Houses of Lancaster and York. The roof was extensively repaired and re-painted in 1875 by the distinguished ecclesiastical firm of Clayton and Bell of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The complex timber roof dominates the medieval nave of the church

A chantry chapel to Morton occupies the extreme north-eastern bay of the north aisle and has an original roof of intersected moulded beams dating to about 1500. Panelling in this chapel came from the 17th-century pulpit, reading desk and box pews. The chancel was also renovated at this time with new windows and a priest’s door cut through its south wall.

The final major building work began in the early 16th century when a three-stage tower of Portland stone, heathstone and flint in chequer-board pattern was added to the west end of the church. The top is glorified by an embattled parapet, crocketed finials and gargoyles. The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (Dorset) describes this work as ‘among the more imposing late Gothic towers in the county’. Other features also date to this period. Within the nave are thirteen bench-ends elaborately carved with tracery, foliage and linenfold which have been re-instated as pew backs. One of these has an inscribed date of 1547.

Exquisitely carved, painted and gilded, the roof is an awesome monument to Cardinal John Morton

There are three canopied table tombs of note. On the north wall of the chancel, a crisply carved fine-grained limestone monument commemorates John Skerne (died 1593). Above the tomb chest are three brasses depicting John, his wife Margaret and the family coat-of-arms. There are two earlier but similar monuments of the Turberville family both dating to the early part of the 16th century; they are both of Purbeck marble. One is placed on the east wall of the south aisle and the other on the south wall. Both tombs lack their dedicatory brasses. Above the latter tomb is a beautiful five-light window dated to c.1535 and alleged to have been a memorial to John Turberville. The 1875 stained glass bears the family arms as well as that of the Drax family, who are now lords of the manor.

The ‘Turberville’ window and tomb with coats-of-arms illustrated in stained glass setting off the table tomb below

Until the late 19th century, alterations were minimal. The 1875 restoration ensured that the medieval features were retained and that the new work would blend sensitively with the old. The most visible of the restorations is the stained glass, which is of particularly high quality.

For 1000 years, the church of St John the Baptist has been the focal point of the village. At Christmas in particular, it is central to the seasonal festivities. On Christmas Eve at 6 pm the village children assemble for the Christingle service with their candles cupped in oranges and later at 11.30 pm a further service heralds the celebration of Christmas Day. The church is full to capacity on both occasions.

The incumbent, Canon Ian Woodward has responsibility for Bere Regis, Affpuddle and Turners Puddle, known collectively as the parishes of the Lower Piddle, and as such is part of the Purbeck Rural Deanery. He has been vicar of this living for the last seven years and in that short time has seen dramatic changes, in particular the demise of six local dairy farms with the result that the landscape is now bereft of grazing cattle. Village life continues, however, with the church still a focus and influence for many. In particular, there are strong links with the first school in the village and the middle school at Sandford. Parish activities and a vibrant monthly parish magazine help to strengthen the community and an excellent website, www.bereregiswithaffpuddle.org.uk, takes communication firmly into the 21st century.

Dorset Directory