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A Norman church in a Neolithic henge

















A HIGHLY unusual pairing of a ruined Norman church and a Neolithic henge creates one of Dorset’s most curious if little-known sights.

Knowlton Church, not far from Wimborne, dates from the 12th century. Now in a state of ruin, it is built of stone and flint, and the roofline is still clearly visible on its eastern face.

It stands at the centre of a ritual henge earthwork and the pairing is said to symbolise the transition from pagan to Christian worship in Britain.

The site is the responsibility of English Heritage and is open to the public all-year-round. Although visitors are comparatively few, it is used by some in the know as a peaceful and scenic picnic spot.

The English Heritage website states: “Not many parish churches stand in ruins and fewer still occupy sites associated with prehistoric rituals. Four thousand years separate the main late-Neolithic earthwork at Knowlton and the Norman church that stands at its centre.

“The earthwork itself is just one part of a landscape which is one of the great Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial complexes in southern England.

“The main earthwork at Knowlton is of a type known as a henge. There are nearly 100 henges in Britain and Ireland, dating from about 3000BC to 2000BC. Although they are generally believed to have been ceremonial sites, it is likely that they fulfilled many functions and may have changed their role through time.”

Church Henge, as the one at Knowlton is now known, has been protected from plough damage, but the earthworks in the surrounding landscape have been less fortunate.

There are three other main earthworks nearby: the Northern Circle and ‘Old Churchyard’; and the Southern Circle, which encloses Knowlton Farm and is surrounded by a ditch 240 metres in diameter.

Associated with this group of henges is one of the greatest concentrations of round barrows, or burial mounds, in Dorset. A clump of trees 60 metres to the east of Church Henge marks the enormous Great Barrow, the largest individual barrow in the county.

The church was in use until the 17th century, serving a now-vanished hamlet by the riverside. Its Norman origins are evident from the plain round arch leading into the east end or chancel, and from the round-headed arches of the arcade dividing the nave from the north aisle. The south door also looks Norman.

The tower at the west end is 15th century, and is built of flint with bands of stone; the line of the church roof is clearly visible on its eastern face. At the east end of the north aisle there appears to have been a lady chapel.

Whatever the reason for building a church within a Neolithic henge, the curious pairing has undoubtedly contributed to the survival of both.

Knowlton, Wimborne, Dorset, BH21 5AE



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