Written by Luke Mouland
Dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the church at Holnest is situated on low-lying ground between the River Cam and one of its tributaries. A small but attractive building, mainly dating to the 14th and 15th centuries, it is believed to have been built of local stone on the site of a former timber-constructed church.
Dean Chandler’s register of 1405 tells us that Holnest was a chapelry of St. James the Great, at Longburton, with burial taking place at the mother church of Sherborne. This link was maintained until the benefice was reformed in the 1920s.
Interior of the church, looking towards the East window © Graham Bendell
While the church now stands in “splendid isolation,” it would have been a focal point in a once thriving community. During the 17th century, the parish sustained orchards, brick and tile makers, potteries and lime kilns, and boasted no less than four public houses at one time – the Black Lion being sited in a field near the church. Evidence of this affluence can be seen in the church, which was largely remodelled at this time.
Mostly left untouched by the Victorian restorers, it contains a number of interesting features, including a fine Jacobean pulpit, rare examples of Georgian box pews with candle sconces above, and an original medieval barrel-vaulted roof. As a unique and important part of our local and national heritage, this Grade I listed building should be cherished and preserved, not only for ourselves but for future generations.
However, owing to its situation, the church has always suffered from long-standing problems with damp, occasional localised flooding and structural issues. When the Rev. Robert Cooper Fugard arrived in the parish in 1913, he found tarpaulins tied to the roof to keep out the rain. Ten years later, the local newspaper reported that the building was “fast becoming derelict” and had been “unused for some considerable time.” The tower walls were crumbling and the bells out of use; the ground about the walls was “thick with brambles and undergrowth.”
A spell of fundraising events were organised during the 1920s, including a pageant in the grounds of nearby Leweston Manor and a fete at Holnest House. It was then that the Drax Mausoleum was opened for the first time since 1887, with visitors being admitted to inspect the interior for a contribution to the church restoration fund. The efforts to repair the church attracted the patronage of some notable figures, including the Marquis of Bath, the Earl and Countess of Pembroke, and the Earl and Countess of Ilchester – but, although some repairs were made to the tower and nave, the interior was left untouched due to insufficient funds.
Holnest was made redundant in July 1939 and all attempts at repairs were brought to a halt. It was during this period that much lead was stolen from the roof, the sounding board from the Jacobean pulpit removed and, due to the tower being in an perilous state, the bells were lowered and sold. In 1957, the Council for the Care of Churches put forward a proposal to partly demolish the building, leaving the chancel to become a “tidy ruin” in which occasional services and funerals could be held. These suggestions were met with fervent opposition from Miss Marion Belita Debenham (1896-1985), of Glanvilles Wootton, and Miss Charlotte Gwenllian Mary Morgan (1895-1981), of Holnest. As members of the Parochial Church Council, the ladies launched a petition which attracted national interest and much coverage in the local media.
Their efforts also attracted the attention of Ivor Bulmer-Thomas (1905-1993), founder of the newly-formed Friends of Friendless Churches, who campaigned for the restoration of Holnest church and helped to finance some of the repairs. In particular, he focused on the medieval barrel-vaulted roof in the aisle, which one contemporary architect had likened to the trussing in the cloisters of Chichester cathedral. The church was finally reopened for worship in October 1968 and in the 1970s two 19th century chiming bells were hung in the tower at the expense of Miss Marjorie Delahaize Ouvry (1892-1984).
Today, services are held at Holnest on the first Sunday of each month, with the addition of an annual Flower Festival and a candlelit carol service. The church falls within the White Hart Vale group of churches in the Three Valleys Benefice.