The Cathedral of the Vale

If you have ever tried to drive along the A35 in mid-summer, you will be well aware that West Dorset is a major holiday destination. In 2014, there were over 3.4m visitor trips to West Dorset, with an estimated 14.7 million visitor nights, with visitors listing the scenery, pretty villages and walking as the main draw factors for choosing the area.

What you may not know is that the area has been a destination for centuries, as part of a pilgrim trail cuts through the Marshwood Vale, leaving a trail of monastic place names such as Shave Cross, Whitchurch Canonicorum and Abbotts Wootton.

Shave Cross, as its name suggests, was an important crossroads right in the heart of the vale, where weary pilgrims could rest, get refreshments and even get their hair trimmed and tonsures shaved before heading further along the route. It’s still a popular hostelry, as the Shave Cross Inn has a fantastic, quiet pub garden and, rather strangely, a restaurant serving very good Caribbean food! (If they still do it, I thoroughly recommend their jerk chicken salad).

In the middle of the small village of Whitchurch Canonicorum you will find the ‘Cathedral of the Vale’, the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross. This claim doesn’t seem so far-fetched once you visit, as it is a disproportionately large church for a small village, and has a disproportionately large claim to fame as being the only church in the UK other than Westminster Abbey to still house a saint’s remains in a reliquary.

The Shrine of St Wite
The Shrine of St Wite

For some reason it escaped King Henry VIII’s Reformation intact, and to this day you can see the shrine of St Wite. It is a long, low, altar-like bench with three oval holes in the front, where pilgrims could insert their afflicted limbs for healing by St Wite. It is still well-used these days, and is full of tokens and notes from parishioners asking the Saint to intercede and help heal the bodies or souls of them or their loved ones. The only time I’ve ever seen anything similar was in Mistra in Greece, and it’s strangely quite moving.

When repairs were being carried out in 1900 workmen found a lead box inside the Portland marble coffin containing remains of what appear to be a 40 year-old woman, from the 9th century AD, which backs up the local, most likely story about the actual identity of St Wite (Latinised as St Candida). She is believed to have been a Saxon hermit, probably killed during the slaughter following the Danish landing at Charmouth in 831AD, when locals were defeated in a fierce battle on nearby Chardown Hill. If you walk on Chardown Hill, look out for the holy well of St Wite, which some sources say you can still safely drink from. Not surprisingly, as the focus of centuries of walking, the area is cross-crossed with public footpaths, so you can easily do a long or short walk while you’re in the area. There is also a pub (The Five Bells) in Whitchurch if you need refreshment of the slightly less spiritual kind..

I am not a church-goer, but I do love churches, and this one is well worth a visit for the shrine, the painted and carved bosses in the ceiling and a fabulously elaborate tomb of Sir John Jeffery; featuring everything from cornucopias to cherubs to skulls, there seem to be momento mori everywhere. It is also the final resting place of Sir George Somers, who sailed to the West Indies with Sir Walter Raleigh and whose shipwreck on Bermuda was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. (The Marine Theatre are staging a special adaptation of ‘The Tempest of Lyme’ in July, details on the website).

As I said, I am not a church-goer, but as a lifelong walker I can totally understand the appeal of a pilgrimage, as there is something very meditative about a long walk, and the popularity of distance walking, be it the South West Coastal Path, one of our national trails (many of which pass through the area) or a proper pilgrimage like the Camino de Santiago mean they are still relevant in the modern age – maybe even more so, as we are so surrounded by technology, people and hustle that fresh air, solitude and physical effort are rare commodities for many people.  The Dioeces of Salisbury produce a suggested pilgrims trail leaflet, and you can find routes of the Monarch’s Way, Jubilee Trail or any of the national trails through the local OS maps.

The tradition of the Marshwood Vale as a place of retreat still holds, too, with places such as the Pilsdon Community, a working Christian community of around 25 people, who come for space, hark work, acceptance and spiritual reflection. Nowadays, with a more secular society, many people are attracted to places such as Bonhays, which offers a more eastern spirituality and reflection, or just a simple holiday getaway in one of the many holiday cottages tucked away in the vale, but the idea of cutting yourself off for a bit to recharge, refresh and start again is obviously still as attractive today as it has always been.

I’d really recommend that next time you’re out walking, driving through a little village or looking for a place to walk to, it’s well worth taking even just five minutes exploring the village church as so many have unique stories of our history of invasions, battles, peace, community and spirituality that have made this such an interesting place to live.

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