St Mary’s is both peculiar and picturesque. Set in to the chalkland of the Cranborne Chase, the design combines a late medieval tower with a nave, transept and apse built in stages between 1852 and 1875. Nikolaus Pevsner described St Mary’s as ‘… a Georgian space in Perpendicular form, long, uniform, well-lit – it might be a schoolroom.’
The identity of the 19th century architect was unknown until recent research by Michael Hill revealed evidence, suggesting that a distinguished trio were responsible. Hill credits the rebuilding of the nave of 1852 and the elaborate ‘flamboyant’ west door surround, complete with sculpted bishop’s mitre, to P.C. Hardwick, son of the designer of the much-lamented Euston Arch. William Burn, designer of country houses, did some work apparently in 1854, while MacVicar Anderson, also better known for his houses, is credited with the two transepts. The shorter south transept was almost certainly the family chapel for the residents of Crichel House, and that to the north, which is larger and shielded by a screen, intended as a schoolroom.
A particularly interesting feature of the church is the collection of ceilings, which strongly reinforce the secular feel that Pevsner noted – timber panels with reticulated tracery that appear straight out of a fashionable drawing room.
Other highlights include survivals from the earlier church, the late medieval font, the tiny monumental brass in the sanctuary, 1360, and the oldest in the county and the flattened Gothic niche on the exterior north face of the tower.
The most playful presence is the Noah’s Ark set in the niche on the north wall, complete with animals peeping through windows. The glass in the west window shows the Emblems of the Passion, those associated with the trial and crucifixion of Christ, including the nails, the ladder and the sponge dipped in vinegar.
The church is intertwined with the Crichel Down Affair, the Bloomsbury Group and the gay rights movement in the 1960. Click here to read more about these connections in our blog.