Guided walk - the history of Alton Barnes and Alton Priors
"WALK (AND TALK) UP AN APPETITE – AND LEARN A BIT OF LOCAL HISTORY AT THE SAME TIME!
Local Historian David Carson is starting local history walks of Alton Barnes and Priors – the first one is on Wednesday the 2nd of November, and then every Wednesday throughout November... continues...
In the village of Alton Priors. Due south of Avebury.
Ever since my previous visit, when I didn’t get to lift the trap doors to see the sarsens, I had been itching to come back At last, today was the day.
Karen stayed in the car while myself, Sophie and Dafydd walked through the wooden turnstile (yes, it’s still there!) and across the field to the church. At first I feared we had had a wasted journey as the church doors were closed but it was relief to find they were closed but not locked. Earlier in the day I had visited the church in Tockenham (to see the Roman sculpture embedded in the wall) but that church was locked – not a problem as the sculpture is on the outside. A sign on the door said that the church is open during daylight hours from May to September and access can be had via a local key holder between October and April.
Unlike my last visit, this time the church was empty. I looked to my right and saw the first of the two trap doors – it is approximately 1m x 0.5m. The organ which stood on top of the trap door last time I visited had been moved over to a small recess. The handle to lift the door was broken but I was able to put a finger in a ventilation hole and prise the door open. There below me was a stone about the same size as the trap door, broken in two, with a hole drilled into one end.
The second trap door is near the step leading to the altar. This one is the larger of the two. Approximately 1m x 1m. The little brass handle made this a lot easier to open. Upon lifting the door the whole of the space is filled by the sarsen stone. Dafydd quickly jumped down onto the stone but Sophie wasn’t keen and wanted the trap door closed. I assume she was afraid of what may come up out of it!
I picked up a leaflet issued by the Church Conservation Trust which gave a detailed history and contents of the church but strangely makes no mention of the trap doors and sarsen stones. Perhaps the church is embarrassed of its origins?
As far as I know this is the only church that has trap doors in order to be able to see the stones. Top marks to the person who was thoughtful enough to put them in when laying the floor. This is an excellent place to visit and well worth the detour when visit Avebury. From the church you get a good view of the white horse and Adam’s Grave.
I am surprised more people don’t visit intriguing place.
I found the church easy enough and that funny wooden turnstile is still in place. When I entered the church I discovered a meeting was taking place. I looked around for the trap door but at first couldn't see it. Then I spotted that the church organ had been placed on top of it. I was in two minds to ask someone from the meeting to give me a hand moving the organ - but thought better of it. I also noticed there was a lock on the trap door - don't know if it was locked or not? One to visit again when no one else is there!
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.
I'm not normally one for churches (I tend to burst into flames!), but I couldn't pass this one up.
Therer's a delightful old wooden 'turn'-stile into the field containing the church, which is contained in the middle of a field.
As juamei says, there's a trapdoor to the right inside the church proper, and a sarsen can be seen here. There's what looks like a drill hole, at least 6 inches deep into the stone, and the end nearest the door looks as if it's been sheared at some point - very flat and angular. Sadly, the other trapdoor cannot be opened due to staging being constructed over it - I'll try writing to the church conservation people to find out why.
It was a very peaceful and cool place to rest on a warm day though. And there are information leaflets available about the church (which don't mention the sarsens at all).
[visited 19/4/3] So first of all I went to the church in Alton Barnes, St Marys, which a pleasant enough Saxon church but not what I was looking for. A bit of intelligence took me to All Saints, the church in question located surprisingly in Alton Priors.
I can happily confirm it is indeed on a mound, there is a 1700 year old yew tree in the churchyard (according to the certificate inside the church) and there are indeed sarsens under the floor boards. The church is no longer used but is still consecrated and is maintained by The Churches Conservation Trust.
I was pondering on how I was gonna find the sarsens, but one is located to the right as you enter the church, under a handy trapdoor. I presume one is located under another trapdoor near the altar, but someone seems to have built a plywood stage over it...
This is well worth a visit if you are in the area and (I think) is open everyday in the summer. There is a note on the door telling you where to get the key from if its locked.
Alton Priors church is built on a mound above the level of the field. If you go inside, there are wooden panels on the floor - and if you lift them up there are sarsen stones under the panels. Pretty cool eh.
In the churchyard there is a yew tree, said to be 1700 years old. If this is true the yew is older than the church - a church in a tree yard, not a tree in a church yard. But then again, maybe yews grow at different speeds during their life. It's a contentious issue! - look at the forum discussion (link at the top of the page).
Nearby there is a 'laughing well' - the Broad Well (SU108623) - this apparently means you can see the bubbles coming up off the bottom of the spring. (mentioned by Katy Jordan in her excellent book on Wiltshire 'The Haunted Landscape')
Could 'Broad Well' be a corruption of Bridewell (or is that just new age speculation?). It is named in an AngloSaxon charter as 'BradeWyll'. (mentioned in the imaginative 'Legendary Landscapes' by J D Wakefield (1999).