Saturday, May 29, 2010

Horningsham, Wiltshire


Discreet meeting place

Strung out along a valley in Wiltshire, Horningsham is a straggling village belonging to the estate of Longleat, the 16th-century prodigy house belonging to the Marquis of Bath. Scattered thatched cottages, a pub (the Bath Arms, naturally), and a church sit behind hedges, down slopes, and across greens. There is a backdrop of woods and parkland and a pervasive feeling that the great house cannot be far away. And down one lane is this building, which may be England’s oldest nonconformist chapel.

The traditional story is that the Congregational Chapel or meeting house at Horningsham was built in 1566 for Scottish workers who were building the great house. Its sweeping thatched roof and unassuming design certainly look as if they belong to a building from the earliest era of religious dissent, when places of worship had a domestic appearance, because dissenting groups spurned the decoration and imagery of Catholic churches, were persecuted and so had to be discreet about their religious observance – and anyway mostly lacked the money for an elaborate church.

There seems to be no documentary evidence that the chapel actually dates back to 1566 and the story of its origins has been questioned. But there are plenty of references to people worshipping here by the end of the 17th century, by which time the chapel was clearly well established. Some of the worshippers were coming from neighbouring towns and villages. And still they come. Whatever the building’s exact age, it is certainly one of the oldest nonconformist chapels still in use and, in both its setting and simple construction, one of the most attractive too.

8 comments:

Terry said...

Wonderful. Any interior pictures?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Terry. I don't have any interior photographs, but there are some here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/iantherev/2426110922/

Emile de Bruijn said...

I have just found your fascinating blog through the Architect Design blog, and I will ad it to my links.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Emile. I'll be giving your blog, which looks as if it will be one I'll be visiting regularly, a link shortly too.

bazza said...

I imagine that in the sixteenth century Scottish workers were 'foreign' and the equivalent of todays Polish construction workers.
The thatched roof looks to be in superb condition but I suppose thay have a limited life and this one has been replaced several times.

Wartime Housewife said...

The way it looks as though it's sinking into the ground puts me in mind of St Enedoc.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Yes, thatch has to be renewed regularly. Norfolk reed is said to be the longest-lasting thatch used in Britain, and usually that only lasts 50-60 years. Long straw lasts up to about 20 years.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Wartime Housewife: Yes, the lie of the land is similar, though at St Enedoc the landscape is one of sand dunes, where as Horningsham is in an inland valley. Both locations afford the pleasurable surprise of encountering picturesque roofs almost at ground level.