Sunday, 29 September 2013

Gillingham, Dorset

By the time I got to St Mary the Virgin it was quarter to six and locked but I suspect that's its normal status - unfair pre-judgement but probably true.

This is a shame because it sounds quite interesting inside, which it certainly isn't outside, being essentially a Victorian rebuild.

St Mary the Virgin (3)

GILLINGHAM. It is the most northern town in Dorset, two miles from Wiltshire and two from Somerset. It has two fine houses (Thorngrove in a park and Wyke Hall transformed from a Tudor house in our own time), and its old bridge over the River Shreen, close by the peace memorial, comes into a Constable picture.

The town has lost much of its ancient beauty, but it has a name from the history of a thousand years. It is Slaughter’s Gate, the place where  Edmund Ironside overtook the fleeing Danes after defeating Canute, and there is a proud memory of a day in 1042 when a Witenagemot was held at Gillingham at which the Confessor was elected King. Sir Walter Raleigh was ranger of the forest here, and our kings had a Gillingham Palace, but Gillingham used the last of its stones to mend the roads. So it used the stones of its old church to build its new one a hundred years ago.

Some things are left from the old church, however. There is the tomb of two Jessop brothers, their marble figures with pointed beards, ruffs, and academic gowns lying with clasped hands side by side. One was the vicar, the other was the town’s physician in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and often their signatures appear in the register attached to licences for parishioners to eat meat in Lent or on Friday “because of infirmitie of bodye.” Near by is a marble monument reaching nearly to the roof and showing beautiful draped figures of three young women. We see Frances Dirdoe, who died at 33 in 1733, standing between her sisters Rebecca and Rachel. She was the youngest of 15 children, and was the last of her family.

Three of the vicars have a claim to remembrance: Henry Deane for ministering here for half of the 19th century; Richard Elys of the 15th century, “learned enough to calculate the eclipses from the Creation”; and John Craig, whose mathematics earned for him the esteem of Sir Isaac Newton. Two traceried windows from the church have been built into the school which faces it. The grammar school, founded in 1516, is now housed on a hill outside the town. We understand that one of its pupils was the famous Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon, historian of the Civil War; and Robert Frampton, the Pimperne boy who became Bishop of Gloucester, was its headmaster. He was a stern Royalist, and in the days when he had 100 boys at this school he is said to have come to blows with a Parliamentary officer. Pepys liked his sermons, saying that one of them was the best he had ever heard, and adding: “The truth is he preaches the most like an apostle that ever I heard man, and it was much the best time that I ever spent in my life at church.”

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