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Dorchester Abbey

Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.


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DORCHESTER

In late October, at Chesters Coffee Shop in Dorchester, wedding guests are all of a hoo-hah over their lunch. Probably too excited even to appreciate what extremely fine home cooking they are being offered. If you were ever to be suddenly overcome with longing for a slice of mince pie with apricot with lashings of clotted cream I would recommend a trip to Dorchester-on-Thames.

What a wonderful place to get married! This village is pure picture-book, or you would think so if it were not for its extraordinary history. Each of the old pubs is picturesque and friendly. The bridesmaids waiting, chilled, in the churchyard, are dressed in mulberry and cream, almost too perfectly synchronizing with the autumnal leaves on the shrubs and the rosehips amongst the ancient yews and tumbling gravestones. The glorious abbey building (mainly fourteenth century - from the time of Edward II) sports a chequer-board pattern of flint and stone on octagonal pillars at the corners of the massive turreted tower.

Late at night, the door to the abbey is mysteriously left unlocked. Inside, a single light in the chancel burns, barely enough to illuminate the beautiful stone tracery of the famous Jesse window, doubling as the branches of the genealogical tree which details the descent of Jesus from Jesse, father of David.

Here is also an unusual memorial to a crusader: the curved effigy of Sir John Holcombe, knighted on the field of battle, who died of wounds received in the Holy Land. This may explain the curious position of the effigy - the body twisted around as if he wanted to reach something just... over... there.

The monks of Dorchester were famous for their beer. I try to explain the quality of the silence to a local in the pub over a pint of the local. He says: `I have felt that - and the deathly cold. The time I saw the monk disappear behind the pulpit, where the tunnel begins.'

I am not fortunate enough to see the ghost of the monk, nor indeed unfortunate enough to feel the deathly cold. Instead, there is a silence so beautiful and so profound that I am loath to leave. Emanating from the bouquets of lilies left from the wedding earlier in the day a faint scent of spice - like nutmeg? - permeates the stone.

Dorchester is perhaps most famous for a baptism. St Birinus was a missionary bishop, probably of Germanic birth, sent from Rome to preach in the `inner parts' of England, but when he found that the people of Wessex were still heathen he decided to stay and work there. He baptized King Cynegils in the river here at Dorchester in 635 and here, too, is where he set up his see.

The year after the baptism of Cynegils Birinus also baptized the king's son, Cwichelm. Cynegils and Cwichelm seem to have been a formidable combination. They fought the great Mercian king Penda (575 - 655) at Cirencester in 628 and, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, `then came to an agreement'. Anyone who came to an agreement with the warlike Penda is worthy of respect, but as far as Penda was concerned, they chose their friends badly.

For their respective baptisms both Cynegils and Cwichelm had as sponsor the Northumbrian king Oswald, whose daughter Cynegils married, and no friend of Oswald was a friend of Penda. Penda spent a large part of his time fighting Northumbrians and, it must have seemed, an increasingly large part fighting newly converted Christians. He never converted himself, but his son, Peada, was baptized when he married the daughter of the Northumbrian king Oswiu, and even before his father's death he had begun arranging for the conversion of the Midlands.

In 636, the year after his baptism, Cwichelm died and perhaps it is he remembered on the Sinodun Hills on the `Poem Tree'.

That ancient earthwork form'd old Murcias bounds
In misty distance see the barrow heave
There lies forgotten lonely Culchelm's grave.

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.


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