If you’ve been around here for a while, well first of all- thank you! Secondly, you’ll know that of all the things I love, there is a special place in my heart for a pretty church, a good grave yard and anything with vintage vibes. This weekend just passed was a happy one for me, as I was lucky enough to attend an open afternoon that combined all of these things.
Just writing that I’ve been to any sort of community gathering makes me smile. It’s been a long time and we’ve missed out on so much. It was genuinely lovely to be out mixing and chatting, meeting people and learning a bit about the history of my adopted home. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
When I moved here almost two years ago, I spent a lot of time out walking with the dog. Getting to know the place. On one walk, I got lost and discovered this little chapel nestled into the woods, complete with a tiny graveyard. St Mary’s Mortuary Chapel. The graveyard is open always to all, but the chapel is not. It’s opened annually to visitors in September, so moving into the area in November meant I’d just missed out.
And then a little time passed and the world went a crazy. Covid meant the next open day didn’t happen. Despite not being able to venture into the chapel itself, I continued to visit the graveyard regularly. (Yes, I’m aware that makes me sound a bit weird but it’s such a beautiful spot) I’ve loved seeing it through the seasons. Full of Spring flowers, Summer blooms, falling leaves in Autumn and dusted with snow and frost in the Winter. The little place is very much part of my life here.
So imagine my joy when it was announced that in September 2021, the Chapel would be open once again for an afternoon of history, coffee and cake.
The interior is small and simple, rustic. The volunteers who care for the Chapel had the interior dressed beautifully with foliage and floral decorations. The beamed ceiling and simple altar sits in stark contrast to the ornate tributes on the walls to residents past of this little town on the edge of Salisbury Plain.
The chapel looks like it’s been there forever but it’s actually the second to be built on the site. The current chapel dates back to the 1800s and was built within the footprint of the original St Mary’s church, demolished in 1784. Materials from that first church were used in the building of the chapel. Records relating to the site and the burials within it are incomplete, giving the place a real air of mystery.
The biggest mystery lies, literally, within the crypt. Two coffins. One adult size, one child size. Very small child size. The brickwork used in the crypt is of two different standards, suggesting a repair was made at some point and a memorial stone removed. If it was removed, it hasn’t been found. The coffins were discovered during restoration work in 2008, but don’t tie in with locally recorded deaths or records from the adjacent stately home, Tedworth House.
A local historian has uncovered some evidence to suggest that the adult sized coffin might be that of Ann Smith who was buried in 1727. She was the widow of John Smith the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Speaker of the House of Commons. The smaller coffin may be her grandchild who passed a year after his Grandmother. One theory is that they were buried in the Sanctuary of the medieval church that originally stood on the site and that after demolition, they remained and the Mortuary Chapel built in the footprint.
Gaps in records, mismatched brick work, no memorial stone and no exact evidence means the Mortuary Chapel will keep its secrets. The exact identity of the bodies in the crypt will remain a mystery. I like to think they were related and laid to rest together. The coffins can be viewed through a secure grill. I love that local historians and volunteers are making sure that whoever they were, they aren’t forgotten.
After enjoying a look into the chapel came the important business of coffee and cake. Home baking served on vintage china. A cake stall strung with bunting, tables beautifully dressed with embroidered table linen. Tables and chairs were set out in such a way to encourage table sharing and conversation. A real community event; such a joy after the all social distancing and lock downs we have endured.
Do you have a local heritage hidden gem? Let’s chat in the comments.
If you liked this post you might also enjoy The Victorian Cemetery, Highclere.