Shaftesbury is a very ancient settlement and it was here that King Alfred is reputed to have founded a nunnery for his daughter as its first abbess, but there is older evidence still of earthen walls suggesting there was shelter for people 2000 years ago. Edward the Martyr's bones (978) were preserved in the nunnery, which made it one of the foremost pilgrim destinations in Europe and, as a consequence, it became the richest Benedictine nunnery in the country. By the time Sir Frederick Treves wrote his excellent book about Dorset at the start of the twentieth century he described St Peter's church thus...."Not least the headlong of these lanes is Gold Hill. It is a cobbled way, slow to climb, at the summit of which are the not unpicturesque Town Hall, the crumbling church of St. Peter and the Sun & Moon Inn." The building was obviously in a parlous state and was allowed to deteriorate still further so that by the Second World War, the south aisle was used as a grain store leading finally to it being declared redundant in 1971. Strenuous restoration efforts were made by the Friends of St. Peter's and by 1977 it was rededicated, making it the first church in the country to become a full-time parish church after being redundant. So this wonderful building still stands next to the Town Hall in the High Street and is certainly not obviously crumbling any more!
At one time Shaftesbury had eleven churches servicing the pilgrims, but St Peter's is now the only medieval example remaining (its first recorded incumbent was John Scip 1305) and it appears to be in excellent condition. The entrance is through the tower, which is the earliest part of the building. Aligned with the High Street outside there is a narrow north aisle, which terminates in a Lady chapel, while the south aisle, widened by the Victorians, clings perilously to the top of Gold Hill and probably accounts for the generous buttressing of the tower. Above both these aisles springs a C15 clerestory that allows light to flood into the nave below a beautiful paneled oak-beamed roof. The nave with its C15 arches either side leads to no chancel as such yet the simple 1631 altar placed in front of the illuminated C18 panels on the east wall creates a delightful focus. The pews have been removed in favour of modern chairs and there is a generous and impressive organ. The font is C14 (Perpendicular)
This is a very interesting church, which is well worth visiting.
The Trust gratefully acknowledges images and text by Robin Adeney ©