Being gentlemen of leisure, now free from the tyranny of the daily toil, we are usually able to choose the sunniest day from the weather forecast for our Dine and Divine visits. In general this has worked well but, on this occasion, the outlook was for perpetual gloom and all we could do was to opt for the day of least rain. I mention this by way of apology for the drab appearance of the overhead shots which do no justice to the beauty of the richly coloured Ham stone from which most of Sherborne’s buildings are constructed.
So far I have enjoyed travelling by rail rather than by car for these church visits, but today was a disappointment. The train that arrived at Salisbury to take us on to Sherborne was virtually filled to capacity on arrival so that, by necessity, we were seated far apart. I had the misfortune to be sitting next to a corpulent businessman, unsuccessfully trying to keep his laptop and files on his side of the double seat while BQ spent the journey in animated conversation with his elegant lady travelling companion. On arrival, in poor fettle, I questioned the Sherborne stationmaster as to why the train was so crowded at a time outside the rush hour and he explained that it was all due to limitations of the infrastructure. Apparently much of the track we had come along was just a single line, worked in both directions and so it was impossible to add extra services. Furthermore, many of the existing trains were already twice as long as some of the platforms they served so could not be lengthened. All this on a route from London to Exeter! For the first time I could see some merit in the argument that perhaps investment should be made in our existing rail network rather than in an entirely new high speed track. It was a short walk from the station to the Chapter House bookshop and cafe where the charming proprietress improved the day by serving us some excellent freshly brewed coffee. I left BQ to explore the shelves while I deployed the drone for our usual overhead photos. MW
BQ, who has done the lion’s share of the research for this visit, continues…
On arrival at the station I was ushered by MW into the Chapter House bookshop for a cup of coffee in the midst of the most wonderful Aladdin’s Cave of books, which despite the muddled appearance was well referenced.
On leaving on this dull and dark morning I was suddenly aware of being surrounded even on this dank day by a delight of buildings in the distinctive Ham stone. It has a warmth which transcends everything and leads gently into the centre of the town and the Abbey church.
If judged by status, Sherborne Abbey can be compared to a fallen lady. Once a Cathedral, then an Abbey and now a humble Parish Church but wait, as John Constable once described it in a letter, ‘On Monday Fisher took me a magnificent ride to Sherborne a fine old town with a magnificent church finer than Salisbury Cathedral’’. However this lady survived, which is more than can be said for many monastic structures and Queens during the reign of Henry VIII. Not only survived, but each new generation has enhanced the structure including our own with contributions from Laurence Whistler, Richard Carpenter and John Hayward.
Dating from 705, when the diocese of Winchester was divided, St Aldhelm the Bishop of Malmesbury was appointed and built his cathedral at ‘Siere- burne’ or ‘clear stream’. After the Norman conquest the diocese was moved to Old Sarum , and subsequently the building became a Benedictine Abbey until surrendered to the King at the dissolution in 1539.
How strange that the glorious building we see today was born out of a riot against the Abbott by the local citizens in 1417 in which the nave, tower and roof were burnt. The town was punished and ordered to pay for the reconstruction. After half a century the Abbot and monks had only seventeen years before it was surrendered to the King. What a pity the day we visited was so dark, as with sunlight streaming through those large perpendicular windows, it must look sensational.
Note to visitors, remember to take binoculars, I didn’t and regretted it. I will have to be content with MW’s excellent photographs. I am no expert in this area so let’s turn to Simon Jenkins, who is – “I would pit Sherborne’s roof against any contemporary work of the Italian Renaissance’’.
The Quire: Here the Saxon-Norman origins are clearly visible as in the porch in later picture
The Chancel: The perpendicular dominates in all its glory, restored in the Victorian era. The Reredos is in Caen stone by R .H Carpenter and portrays the Ascension.
Pulpit and Quire: The flower arrangements in preparation for a wedding the following day.
Lady Chapel is 13th century early Gothic and the home of the blessed sacrament. The chandelier of 1657 is the earliest dated one to survive in an English church. The glass reredos was engraved by Laurence Whistler and placed here in 1986.
St Mary le Bow Chapel was originally the drawing room and study of the headmaster of Sherborne School. An old fireplace is still visible on the east wall. Rumour has it that on windy nights one can still hear the swish of the cane (see MW notes on misericords). Inside and visible through the doorway is a composite font which is the result of the antagonism in 1473 between the Abbey and Allhallows Church.
South Transept – Earl of Bristol Monument memorial to John Digby (d 1698} a swaggering, smug, pompous gentleman flanked by his two adoring wives. Besides the supporting columns are figures weeping, presumably with laughter. So will you when you read the inscription.
The Organ, but more importantly this view shows the heavy Norman supports for the tower which houses the largest peal of bells in Britain and at the time of our visit my enquiry regarding their use on the 31st of January was not known
St Katherine’s Chapel, which houses in the distance the remaining medieval stained glass. In the foreground the memorial to John Leweston and wife of Leweston Manor.
Sherborne’s most famous resident Sir Walter Raleigh worshiped here after he bought the Manor from Queen Elizabeth.
The Great Hailstorm of May 16th 1709. A salutary tale and a reminder that not all natural disasters are of recent times
The Horseys – The Wykeham Chapel portrayed even as late as 1546 in full armour are John Horsey and his son, who purchased the abbey at the time of the dissolution and then sold it to the town. In these days of entrepreneurs he must command respect for the town having paid for the reconstruction after the riot then had to buy it back.
The Great West Window is a wonderful addition to the structure designed and executed by the eminent stained glass artist the late John Hayward, and was dedicated in a service attended by Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1998
The Norman Porch and those wonderful perpendicular windows above
The Three Wishes Restaurant
The Three Wishes Restaurant was just a five minute stroll from the Abbey. The food was efficiently served, but the quality was good rather than great and we both felt that three stars would be appropriate. I am curious that in these days of equality between the sexes, the clientele that we see at lunchtimes is always almost exclusively female. On this occasion we were the only two representatives of our gender. I wonder why.
Sherborne is one of those churches which has such an embarrassment of riches that it is difficult to know what to include and what to leave out. Romsey Abbey, which we visited in June 2018, presented us with the same dilemma. They have much in common, both buildings were originally vast medieval abbeys which were confiscated by Henry VIII during the reformation, then later purchased by the townspeople as a suitable place of worship for their expanding populations. As a result, both buildings are substantially larger than any of the other churches we have visited and contain more historical detail and artefacts. Hardly surprising as they share a similar history – five centuries as a Roman Catholic Abbey followed by almost five centuries as a Protestant church.
BQ has done an excellent job with his research on the Abbey, as shown above, but it is worth drawing attention to some less obvious details where the sacred gives way to the secular. These features are tucked away and not easily seen but they are fascinating as they give an insight into the human interest and humour of the late 1400’s.
The abbey’s most celebrated features are the spectacular fan vaults. They were completed at the end of the 15th century and, incorporated into the design of the nave ceiling, are 115 bosses, each one fixed at the point where the ribs of the vaulting meet. The majority of the boss designs are either heraldic or of flowers and foliage, but if one has brought along a pair of binoculars and is prepared to forego dignity and lie flat in the centre aisle, as suggested in the abbey guidebook, it is possible to pick out a few where the mason’s imagination has been given a free rein.
On the left is the most famous of Sherborne’s fan bosses, an eye-catching mermaid holding a comb and mirror. To the right, two dogs argue over a bone
Four lions licking. Few people in the Britain of 1450 would ever have seen a lion, so this representation could only have been based on descriptions from returning overseas travellers. On the right an owl is shown being mobbed by birds – still relevant.
Misericords, sometimes called mercy seats are the small hinged flaps situated in the choir stalls of a monastery. In medieval times the unfortunate monks had to attend up to eight masses a day where they were expected to stand during the long periods of prayer. This would have been hard enough for the young and fit, but when old and infirm this became an impossible ordeal and so the narrow mercy seat could be lowered thus allowing the unfortunate monk to appear to be standing whilst getting some modest relief. The craftsmen of the day used their skill to decorate the undersides of the misericords, but the sacred or religious themes that they would have normally have worked on were not thought to be appropriate, being in such close proximity to the unworthy posterior. As a result humorous and sometimes even bawdy scenes were depicted. There are ten such carvings in Sherborne Abbey from around 1450 and they are some of the finest in the country but of course you will have to lift up the seat to find them!
Perhaps the best known of the misericord carving. A schoolboy being thrashed by the schoolmaster as his classmates look on, laughing.
Another violent scene. A wife gives her husband a good whack, no doubt for some discovered transgression.
A face-puller. A common medieval subject.
- Risotto of smoked salmon, spinach & pea with double cream BQ
- The Three Wishes fishcakes, minted crushed peas, chilli jam and balsamic syrup with dressed salad and chips MW
- Corte Vigna Merlot BQ
- Pays d’Oc Malbec MW
One thought on “Sherborne – Sherborne Abbey”
How I wish I could go back in time (only for a short stay mind you) and be able to watch the master craftsmen at work on such a building. The ceiling – how?? The photography you’ve included is wonderful. I’ll pack my binoculars when I visit the Abbey. Thank you for the tip BQ. Another great write up leaving me looking forward to exploring this amazing Abbey when the clocks change and weather warms.