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CHURCHES

Churches on the Athelstan Pilgrim Way

The 36 churches in the North Wiltshire Deanery are found in the lush field-and-farm landscape of the Southern Cotswolds, often following the upper courses of the River Thames and the River Avon. Most of them have been here in some form for over 1000 years. The oldest at Malmesbury Abbey was founded in 676 AD by St Aldhelm, and Christian village communities began to flourish in the area under the Anglo-Saxon Kings of Wessex, whose leaders, including Alfred the Great (849-899) and Athelstan (894-939) were devoted men of faith.

As the buildings and communities grew, so did the networks between them. The area became prosperous through the Cotswold wool & cloth trade and was near to the London to Bath road, as well as being intersected by the ancient Roman Fosse Way. Such prosperity brought about the great rebuilding period of older church buildings in the 15th century, whose revisions in turn were continually modified and added to down the centuries (most visibly in the Victorian era). Throughout this time, enduring traditions of Christian religious practice took worshippers outside, whether processing at key festival times such as Easter and Rogation, or celebrating Patron saints through times of seasonal change and difficulty. Church life had a topography.

St Mary & St Ethelbert, Luckington;Holy Rood Rodbourne; Foxley Church; and Holy Cross Sherston.
Stained glass details from Foxley Church and St Mary Magdalene, Hullavington.

Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage has historically been a way to enact one’s dedication to God by undertaking a walk to a site of special religious significance. Liturgy, prayers, and material tokens of devotion (such as pilgrim badges) were particular features of medieval Christian pilgrimage. Today such enactments may take less devotional forms, but are increasingly found to be restorative and reorientating in surprising ways, both physically and spiritually.

Bishop Neil writes:

Whether you walk to enjoy the landscape or the architecture, the adventure of pilgrimage can bring a deeper spiritual connection. Christians believe that in Jesus, God has walked this earth before us, and that with Jesus as our companion and guide we can travel through life differently. I invite you to make your pilgrimage around these remarkable churches of North Wiltshire, to marvel at the history and beauty and perhaps take a moment for contemplation or prayer using the resource below.

Past Present Presence
The pilgrim Companion Guide

by Carole Britton

This personal guide offers a deepening of the modern pilgrimage experience. Following in the footsteps of local contemplative, Hilary Peters (1939-2022), Carole celebrates the viewpoint of interested, rather than disinterested, contemplation. She writes:

Towards the end of her life Hilary, a self-titled ‘part-time hermit’, had been on a church pilgrimage across the North Wiltshire Deanery, making brief notes about each, sometimes just a line or two. After she died, I began the process of continuing her reflections, and I started visiting each church: a few services here and there soon grew into hundreds of conversations with the people who were involved, from ministers to church wardens, from the visitors to the tea and coffee makers.

My book is not a conventional “here’s a font…there’s a pew” guide. I am not a historian, nor architect – though their books have been invaluable! Past Present Presence tells of my encounters, conversations, curiosity, in each building, community and village, with Hilary’s life and times becoming integral to each church’s entry. It has been a life-changing journey and experience for me: I sincerely hope that the book and the Athelstan Pilgrim Way, grown from a conversation between an elderly lady and her friend, give you reason to get away from the rush of modern life, and encourage you to develop your own pilgrimage
.

Holy Cross Sherston

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling,
but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends or beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitations of your glory and dominion,
world without end.
Amen.

John Donne