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A Dorset church: St Mary’s, Tarrant Rawston

Tony Burton-Page finds a hidden gem in the Tarrant Valley: one of the very few privately owned churches in Dorset

St Mary's, Tarrant Rawston

St Mary’s, Tarrant Rawston


The River Tarrant is one of those ‘little rivers’ which give the English countryside so much of its charm; J R R Tolkien transplanted the concept to ‘the Shire’, his re-creation of what he loved about England. The Tarrant is only eight miles long but it flows into the Stour, Dorset’s longest river, and gives its name to the eight villages of the Tarrant Valley: Tarrant Gunville, Tarrant Hinton, Tarrant Launceston, Tarrant Monkton, Tarrant Rawston, Tarrant Rushton, Tarrant Keyneston, and Tarrant Crawford. Perhaps William Barnes had the Tarrants in mind when he wrote of ‘…parish churches in a string / Wi’ tow’rs o’ merry bells to ring’ in his poem ‘The White Road up athirt the Hill’.
There are churches in all the villages, but Tarrant Rawston, the smallest of the eight, is unique in that its church is privately owned. Regular services ceased in 1940; it was declared redundant in the early 1970s and in 1973 the ecclesiastical commissioners sold it to John Cossins, owner of Rawston Manor Farm, which is next to the church – so close, in fact, that the little church has often been mistaken for a garden house belonging to the large manor house beside it. The church, though, is much older: it dates back to the 14th century, whereas the manor’s oldest portion is from the late 16th century. However, the five-bay Georgian red-brick house of today probably replaced an ancient manor house, for which the church would have been the manorial chapel.

Looking down onto the altar

Looking down onto the altar

St Mary’s does indeed seem tiny in comparison with its neighbour, but it would have been able to seat a hundred people, although the original pews have been removed. It is almost certainly very old. It is mentioned in a document of 1524, but experts have estimated that the nave is from the early 14th century, and the list of rectors goes back that far: the first one was Richard Antioch, whose family were the ancient lords of the manor – Tarrant Antioch was an older name for the village. The south chapel and the south porch were added in the 16th century; the chancel and the north chapel in the 18th century. A gallery was inserted at the west end of the nave early in the 19th century; it could hold about 25 people. The walls of the church are of flint, squared stone and rubble, with ashlar dressings; the roofs are tiled with stone-slate verges. There is no tower, but over the porch there is a small belfry capped by a small stone cross; its single bell is inscribed ‘1588 GL’. The 1861 edition of Hutchins’s History of Dorset reports that ‘the church was entirely repaired and neatly refitted at the expense of Thomas Gundrey esq., at the close of the past century [i.e. the 18th].’ It was the Gundrey family who had been responsible for the building of the present manor house in the late 16th century.

 Rena Gardiner's view of Tarrant Rawston with the church in its farming setting

Rena Gardiner’s view of Tarrant Rawston with the church in its farming setting

Two of the Gundreys are commemorated inside the church by a monument on the north wall of the nave: the brothers Radford and Thomas, both interred in a vault below the floor. The church also has an early 17th-century oak pulpit and, either side of the chancel window, two boards with the Ten Commandments in elegant painted lettering by ‘G. Stevens, Blandford 1836’.
Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the church belonged to Shaftesbury Abbey, and it was on the orders of the Abbess of Shaftesbury that the village was deserted. It recovered thanks to the Agricultural Revolution of the mid 17th century; but decline set in in the late 19th century and by 1901 the population had decreased to 44, and it is no more than that today. Rawston Manor Farm has been run by the Cossins family since the 1870s and are now into the fifth generation. John Cossins, the preserver of this church, was the father of the current owner, who himself was baptised in it.
Today, the church is hidden from the Tarrant valley road by farm buildings, and few passers-by are aware of its existence. Perhaps this accounts for its serene peacefulness. ◗

Deep and crisp and even lies the snow over St Mary's church and its yew tree

Deep and crisp and even lies the snow over St Mary’s church and its yew tree


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