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Alton Priors

Christianised Site


Pulling in to a dead-end bit of road by Alton Priors church (now closed off by a farm gate) I was about to head across the field towards the church when a herd of cows started ambling by with a few of their calves in tow; I held back behind the gate to let them pass (good thing too because the cows were being gently herded forward by a very handsome and very big black bull). Halfway across the field, and between the gate and the church, I passed someone coming in the opposite direction. The gentleman turned out to be the landowner and he told me, as we stood chatting in his field, that his family had farmed the area for more than a hundred years (and that the big black bull was really a bit of a softie).

I asked the gentleman if the church was open and he assured me that it was. I asked him if he knew anything about the sarsen stones under the church floor and he assured me they were there. We talked a little more and then he casually mentioned that I should also take a look at the 1,700 year-old yew tree in the churchyard and the spring that rose close by. I thanked him for his time and we parted.

The church was indeed open. Hot English summer without, cool sacredness within. Just your regular little country church. But where were the trapdoors leading to another sacredness? I ambled about the church for a bit then spotted a trapdoor that was partly boarded over and couldn't be lifted.* Disappointed, I was about to leave when I spotted another trapdoor. Kneeling alone there in the silence, slowly pulling the clasp and watching as the trapdoor lifted to reveal a sarsen stone below was... mmm... more than a little magical.

I went outside and spent some time under the ancient yew tree in the churchyard - then tried to find the spring that the farmer had mentioned. I found the stream but everything else was too overgrown and the day too hot to look for more.

Alton Priors is a very, very special place. A little church built upon a sarsen circle set in the Vale of Pewsey. I've been to a lot of circles but none have had the sense of continuity that Alton Priors has. Go there and be at home (the church is open during the summer months; at other times the key can be obtained from one of the nearby houses).

* Since writing this the larger of the two trapdoors can now be lifted revealing a stone beneath. There is also a sarsen under the north-east buttress.
Littlestone Posted by Littlestone
22nd November 2008ce
Edited 3rd October 2009ce

Comments (2)

it was previously the site of a large benedictine priory, hence the name alton priors. it was excavated a few years back, has anyone read about the excavation? as to the stone circle under the church, i'd like it to be true but some of the stones do appear to be dressed and are probably remnants of the priory and small chapel that preceded the church we see today. the only stone of possible neolithic interest is the stone with the hole in it.local oral legend, according to some of the original villagers, tells of a single standing stone existing on the site prior to the church being built. also the ancient yew tree which is at least 1700 years old,using girth width dating technique's, points to this being an ancient pagan site of quite high order. the yew tree at priors could easily be a thousand years older or more,as yew trees have the potential to grow forever in the right conditions and the dating technique all tho reasonably accurate in general,{ like the dating of hedgerows,add 100 years for each species of tree in said hedgerow gives you it's age] can in extreme circumstances especially relating to yew trees , be dated to the end of the last ice tree in history has been more tangled in British mythology than the English yew taxus baccata.
Posted by wakefield
3rd October 2009ce
Thanks for that wakefield.

From memory, the stones under the two trapdoors at Alton Priors seem to be, as you say, one dressed and one natural (the one nearest and the one furthest from the alter respectively). There is also a stone under the north-east buttress and another quite large stone on the verge leading into Alton Priors. moss actually also touches on the priory connections (in the area) here - and on her blog where she quotes and says -

Tailpiece; the 'alien' priory on the site of the manor house, taken from an earlier blog;

""It is recorded however that there was a small 'alien' priory at Avebury, with only two monks, though the fact that there is only two 'proper' monks there might obscure the fact that their may have been lay monks and servants, and in their accounts they seemed to have owned 750 sheep, which would mean that they had plenty of land. The priory seems to have been where the manor house is now.These monks came from Rouen, and were from the Benedictine Order, but the fascinating thing is, that their Mother house was founded on a pagan site, presumably a Gallic settlement with a temple.

"The abbey of Saint Georges de Boscherville is located in Saint Martin de Boscherville, near Rouen. Boscherville was a pagan place of worship at the end of the first century AD. Abandoned in the third century, the first temple was converted into a funeral chapel in the seventh century probably dedicated to Saint George...""

"There had been a long going dispute between the Parish church and the Priory at Avebury about tithes and land, the parish church belonging to Cirencester Abbey, and eventually the priory seems to have disappeared. It is interesting to note that Cirencester Abbey, also had a long line of continuity from Roman times, Cirencester was one of the four principal towns, and the abbey, so it is said, was founded on one the earliest Saxon churches."

The concentration of churches along the Winterbourne and Kennet, and as far out as Pewsey in one direction and Clyffe Pypard in the other (nearly all with large stones in their foundations or under some of their buttresses) does seem to indicate a once hive of 'pagan' activity in the area - perhaps so much so that the Church felt the need to assert its own authority there.
Littlestone Posted by Littlestone
3rd October 2009ce
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