St Ealdhelm’s Day 2018: a report

Wessex Society’s annual St Ealdhelm’s Day celebration started out as a pilgrimage to sites associated with the saint. Over the years, it has changed into more of an annual walking tour around sites of general historical interest within Wessex, ably escorted by Jim Gunter, But this year, we decided to return to our roots.

Whilst the use of motor vehicles was an option denied to proper medieval pilgrims, it was the only way that we were able to cover the 49 miles from Doulting to Malmesbury in a single day. The tour started at St Ealdhelm’s Well in Doulting, the site of the saint’s repose.

Behind the well was a bath where Ealdhelm was supposed to have bathed while reciting the psalter. The well is reputed to have healing powers, but they clearly didn’t work on Ealdhelm, as he died shortly after taking the waters. His body was translated to Malmesbury, along a 49-mile route divided into 7*7-mile stretches. In reality, this account was more likely symbolic than historical. The number 7 in medieval and biblical literature was the number of perfection, and Ealdhelm had written a treatise On the Perfection of the Number Seven. No detailed account of the route exists, but several theories have been proposed. The route we chose went from Doulting to Frome, Bradford-on-Avon, Ash & Elm and finally to Malmesbury.

Frome is a town founded by Ealdhelm, and which has not allowed his memory to be erased. There are at least half a dozen uses of his name (using the Mercian spelling, Aldhelm) within the town, including a pharmacy and a print works named after him. The church, however, is dedicated to St John the Baptist. This should not surprise us if the church was founded by Ealdhelm himself, as he would not have been a saint when the church was dedicated, and would not have dedicated a church in his own name. The church did have a notice on display detailing the saint’s life, however, and had dressed its well, an annual tradition on his feast day.

The next stop was Bradford-on-Avon, where the Saxon church of St Laurence is reputed to have been founded by Ealdhelm. Recent archaeological finds have cast doubt on this attribution, however, as the architecture of the building suggests a mausoleum or reliquary, rather than a church. Furthermore, the 12th century Holy Trinity Church is right next door, which seems odd. Why site two churches next to each other? One possible explanation is that Holy Trinity is actually on the site of the church founded by Ealdhelm, and St Laurence was originally designed to site the saint’s body during his translation.

After an enjoyable pub lunch at The Castle Inn, we headed to the most remote spot on our journey, Elm & Ash. This was once the site of a chapel, which is strange, as there is no evidence of a settlement there. It is, however, just off the Fosse Way, the ancient Roman road from Exeter to Lincoln, and is almost exactly 7 miles from Malmesbury, making it quite likely that it was a stop along the pilgrimage route. There is an ash tree there, but no elm, though there could have been one in the past. One of our party wondered whether Elm & Ash could have been a corruption of Ealdhelm, but this is highly speculative. I did note that Aesc and Embla (Ash And Elm) were the first man and the first woman in the Norse creation myth, but again, this could just be coincidence. There is no evidence that this myth was even known to the West Saxons, and I’ve read enough Ronald Hutton to be extremely sceptical when positing any sort of pagan survival.

Our final destination was Malmesbury, possibly named after Ealdhelm and his spiritual father, the Irish monk Maeldubh. We had to be discreet as we explored the abbey, as there was a service in progress, and it would have been rude to disturb the worshippers. Malmesbury Abbey is always worth visiting, though, and it made a fitting end to the day.

Next year, we plan to predate Ealdhelm’s floruit by half a century or so, visiting Dorchester-on-Thames, a site associated with the apostle of Wessex, Birinus or Berin. Berin is also patron saint of Berkshire, and Dorchester was the first capital of Wessex. The last time I visited there was a walk on Berin’s feast day in early December, when it poured down with rain the whole time. Hopefully, a summer visit will produce better weather, though of course nothing is guaranteed in England!

Wessex on TV

Tim Ritz has posted a rather wonderful map of British TV locations and settings on Facebook. It was posted in 2016, so there are some omissions (such as The Living and the Dead), but I have just come across it.

Wessex is represented as follows (I haven’t included The Office, as Slough is historically in Buckinghamshire):

Filmed and set in Wessex

  • Being Human (series 1&2)
  • Broadchurch
  • Father Brown
  • Flowery Twats
  • Inspector Morse/Lewis/Endeavour
  • Lark Rise to Candleford
  • Midsomer Murders
  • Skins
  • Teachers

Filmed in Wessex, set elsewhere

  • Downton Abbey

Set in Wessex, filmed elsewhere

  • Brideshead Revisited
  • The Vicar of Dibley

Obviously, this map is not complete. Can you think of any examples that may have been missed out?

St Ealdhelm’s Day 2018

This year marks 19 years since Wessex Society adopted St Aldhelm (spelled Ealdhelm in the West Saxon dialect of Old English) as the Patron Saint of Wessex and started to raise awareness of the saint and his day as the Day for Wessex. Since then St Ealdhelm’s day (25th May) has been officially recognised as Wessex Day, while support for Ealdhelm himself as our Patron Saint is growing.

Eric Pickles said in the House of Commons on 25th May 2013:

Recent events remind us that we are stronger as a society when we celebrate the ties that bind us together. Whatever one’s class, colour or creed, let’s have pride in Britain’s local and national identities. It’s right to celebrate the kingdom that paved the way for a united England: for today, the only way is Wessex.

But who was Ealdhelm? Well, unlike other British patron saints, Ealdhelm was not only real he was also a native of Britain, indeed of Wessex, probably born in Wiltshire. He lived between c640 AD and 709 AD. He was a poet, a musician, a singer and an orator, was the greatest scholar of his time, and copies of his writings still exist.

He was the first abbot of Malmesbury and went on to found many churches across Wiltshire and Somerset. Ealdhelm is claimed to be the founder of the church of St. Michael-intra-muros in Bath and the 7th century cross in Bath Abbey could be that of St. Ealdhelm. Bishopstrow in Wiltshire is said to derive its name from the time when Ealdhelm as Bishop planted his ash-staff in the ground whilst delivering a sermon but the sermon lasted so long that the staff took root and become the “Bishop’s Tree”, hence Bishopstrow. The churches at Bradford-on-Avon and Doulting, near Shepton Mallet are also claimed to be founded by Ealdhelm. At Frome he is reputed to have founded a monastery. Wells and Glastonbury were re-founded by Ealdhelm.

He later, in 704AD became the first bishop of the new diocese of Sherborne. He died in the visitation of his diocese at Doulting, near Shepton Mallet on 25 May 709. There is a legend that after his death, his body was taken in procession or translation of 7 miles a day for 7 days from Doulting to Malmesbury for burial. His burial site at Malmesbury became a centre for pilgrimage until after the Norman Conquest.

He was the first person in the West Country to be canonised

The journey on which his body was taken, was one of seven stages each of seven miles. The exact route is not known, but according to William of Malmesbury there were crosses still standing in his time erected at each spot where the corpse rested.

The suggested route was Doulting – Frome – Westbury – Bradford – Bath – Colerne – Littleton Drew – Malmesbury. This route joins all the major locations where Ealdhelm founded churches or monasteries.

To honour this day, in previous years members of Wessex Society have staged various events on 25th May such as walking the whole 49 mile route in relay between Doulting and Malmesbury over which St Ealdhelm’s body was carried in 705AD.

This year, we will be replicating that relay but this time – age taking its toll on many Wessex Society members – it will be by car in order to visit as many Ealdhelmian sites as possible.

Why not join us. We aim to start from the church at Doulting at 10:30, stopping off for a pub lunch somewhere along the way.

We hope to see you there.

Don’t let the bustards grind you down

About 13:45 on Sunday 8th April Derek Pickett, Jim and Emma Gunter, Mark Godwin and Peter and Marion Spencer met up with Lynne of the Great Bustard Group at Enford Village Hallf for a booked visit to the Great Bustard release site.

The Great Bustard features on the Wiltshire County flag and on the Wiltshire Coat of Arms. Note the dragon (based on the Wessex Wyvern?) in the canton of the shield.

Wiltshire Coat of Arms

The last Great Bustard was shot in England in 1832. David Waters, a retired Wiltshire Police Officer, set up a project to re-introduce the Great Bustard to Salisbury Plain. Details about the project including some short video clips can be found on the Great Bustard Group website at:

Salisbury Plain is a chalk plateau covering 300 square miles (780 km2) mostly in central and southern Wiltshire stretching into the neighbouring counties of Berkshire and Hampshire. Most of the Plain is military training area. There are a number of villages on the Plain including Enford and private owned farm land. The Great Bustard release site is on privately owned land. The wildlife on Salisbury Plain, including the Great Bustards, has adapted to their often noisy Army neighbours. Lynne did mention that the Great Bustards were not too keen on helicopters. Probably because they can fly very close to the ground and the down draft from the rotors stirs up the dust.

Bustards 1

We climbed aboard a Land Rover and Lynne drove us out of Enford village and on to Salisbury Plain. In order to protect the release site I will not go into detail of which direction Lynne took. After a short, rather bumpy in places, drive we arrived at the viewing hide; a large wooden hut. Lynne had brought several pairs of binoculars for us to use, I had brought my own. Those who work in the acting profession will advise you never to work with children or animals because both can be very unpredictable.
The Great Bustards that David Waters and his team released on Salisbury Plain are completely free ranging. The birds, who are not advised about group visits such as ours ,decide if they will put in an appearance or not. We were fortunate that two male birds permitted us to view them through binoculars.

Bustards 2

We climbed back aboard the Land Rover and Lynne drove us back to Enford and to the Great Bustard Group shop outside the village. The journey included a drive along a flooded track which Lynne informed us was Winterbourne. The shop had several items for sale with a Great Bustard theme. After we had made purchases and paid the £15 each for the tour, money well spent, Lynne drove us back to the Enford Village Hall where we said goodbye to her. We then adjourned to the village pub, the Swan Inn, for a drink.

Wessex Chronicle: The back issues


One thing I have been meaning to do for ages is upload back issues of the Chronicle to the website. Well, with the change in format, now seems the perfect opportunity. Each of the links below will allow you to download a PDF of all the Chronicles I still have available, starting in 2012, when the digital edition was first launched. The most recent issues are not included, in deference to those who had subscribed. Update 02/01/2018: All issues are now uploaded. An index will appear in volume 18 issue 4, being emailed to former members soon. All four issues of volume 18 will be uploaded to this site in January 2019.

Volume 13, Issue 1
Volume 13, Issue 2
​​Volume 13, Issue 3
Volume 13, Issue 4
Volume 14, Issue 1
Volume 14, Issue 2
Volume 14, Issue 3
Volume 14, Issue 4
Volume 15, Issue 1
Volume 15, Issue 2
Volume 15, Issue 3
Volume 15, Issue 4
Volume 16, Issue 1
Volume 16, Issue 2
Volume 16, Issue 3
Volume 16, Issue 4
Volume 17, Issue 1
Volume 17, Issue 2
Volume 17, Issue 3
​Volume 17, Issue 4