Coombe Keynes Church was dedicated to the Holy Rood, like the church in Wool for which it was the mother church until 1844. It is probable that there was a church on this site in the Saxon period. However, the earliest definite mention occurs in the Assize Rolls in 1280. The church was declared redundant in 1974.
As a county, Dorset is the proud inheritor of 136 medieval bells. There is a long-standing tradition that, following the dissolution of the monasteries, three of the bells from Bindon Abbey came to Coombe Keynes. However, only one of the bells belonging to the church at its redundancy is of that age.
The church’s finest treasure was the Coombe Keynes chalice which dates from around 1500 and is of silver, parcel gilt. Only 78 pre-reformation chalices are known to exist in England and it is on permanent display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It was in everyday use in the parish up until the 1920s.
Disrepair and Renovations
By the mid-nineteenth century the Coombe Keynes church was in a state of disrepair, with the three bells lying in the earth floor of the South aisle. In 1849 Sir Stephen Glynne, brother-in-law of William Gladstone (later Prime Minister) visited Coombe Keynes and described the church:
A small church comprising a nave with south aisle, chancel, western tower and north porch. The arcade between the nave and aisle has three pointed arches, with continued mouldings down square piers which have no capitals, excepting the western arch which rises from a shaft set against the pier. The chancel arch is low and semicircular on imposts. In the aisle (which has a separate tiled roof) are two lancets and two at its east end. The chancel has two lancets on the south – the south-western of which is a lynchscope – and there are two on the north. The east window is square-headed of three lights and late. Some other bad windows have been introduced. The walls are of flint and stone. The south aisle damp from the accumulation of earth and stone. The font a circular cup upon a cylinder. The tower low without buttresses, having a pointed roof; on its west side a long lancet and lancet belfry window. The roofs are chiefly of stone flags.
In the chancel was the flat gravestone of Samuel Serrell who married into the Salter family in 1688, and below it, at the east end of the nave, the stone of Jane, his wife (the Salter family resided here from the early fifteenth century until about 1700). At the lower end of the south aisle were three more gravestones: those of James Allner, Mary Allner and James Bewnel.
The moving force for restoration of the church was the Rev. Nathaniel Bond of Creech Grange, Rector of Steeple and Tyneham and the Rural Dean. The Diocesan Architect wrote on 7 August 1858:
I have never seen a sadder case than this of ecclesiastical dilapidation and difficulty. A portion of the church is a complete ruin and the rest little better.
He proposed a comprehensive plan of restoration, which was so costly that the alternative plan to demolish the whole structure was proposed to Joseph Weld by Nathaniel Bond. However, Weld replied that the tower at the east should be preserved and this was accepted by Bond. The preparation of detailed plans was put in the hands of the Dorchester architect, John Hicks, to whom Thomas Hardy was the senior pupil from the spring of 1860. The money for the restoration was raised:
Church rate, half in 1860 and half in 1861 contributed by 8 ratepayers – £100; Grants from Incorporated Church Building Societies – £100; Voluntary subscriptions from clergy and gentry in the area – £427; Further voluntary subscriptions – £35; Total – £662.
The floors of the nave, tower, porch and chancel were laid with Purbeck paving, together with some of the old paving and the existing flat tombstones. The floor of the sacrarium was laid with red black and buff tiles from the Poole Potteries. A specially made reading desk and communion table were installed, and a new pulpit of Bath stone was erected in the south-east corner of the nave.
The vica, Frank Newington, himself made the tiny glass windows on either side of the chancel.
They were painted on the diaphene principle, one with figures on a blue background representing the four evangelists, together with St Peter, St Paul and John the Baptist. Sadly these intriguing designs for a church window are now lost for all time; the windows were smashed by vandals in 1975, and their remnants are in the possession of the vicar of Wool.
The window showing St Cecelia (on the right) was erected in 1936 as a memorial to Miss Ethel Kate Ford, church organist. Her parents farmed East Farm. The window is now in the north aisle of Holy Rood Church Wool.
By the early 1970s, the old agricultural population of the village had dwindled and the average attendance at Sunday services was no more than half-a-dozen or so. A move was made by the Salisbury authorities to close the church down and without any local protest the church was declared redundant on 14 January 1974. The last marriage in the church was that between Anthony Wilkinson and Rosalind Whittle on 21 October 1967; the last to be baptised was Alexander, the son of Ian and Felicity Hedger, on 4 February 1973.
In the years after 1974, various attempts were made to devise a scheme for the church to be handed over for the use of the village. In 1978, a committee was formed from among the villagers to raise funds and to pursue negotiations with the Salisbury authorities for the purchase of the building. In 1980, the Coombe Keynes Trust was established under the presidency of Sir Joseph Weld, whose great grandfather had done so much to save what was left of the old church a century before. The general object of the Trust is:
To promote the restoration and permanent preservation for the public of the Church of the Holy Rood at Coombe Keynes in the County of Dorset as a building of historical and architectural interest which should be retained for the education of the present and future generations.
Finally in 1981, the long years of consultation and negotiation came to an end and the church was handed over to the Trust for a nominal sum, and the latter undertook responsibility for the upkeep of the fabric. Considerable sums are still needed to insure and maintain the church and to put it to community use. To that end further fund-raising activities take place each year.
The Trust’s Constitution envisages the use of the church for educational, recreational and leisure purposes, as well as public meetings, lectures, concerts and exhibitions. Membership of the Trust is open to all and the current annual subscription is £10 minimum.
The Coombe Keynes Trust would welcome support from anyone interested in helping to preserve the church and extend its use. Please contact us for information about the Trust, applications for membership, and offers of financial help.
Christopher Scoble, Cooombe Keynes Church: an object lesson in Victorian self-help. Dorset: the County Magazine, No 95 [c. 1981], pp 4-19