Poole
St Martin on the Wall
North Street
Dorset BH20 4AG

 

Picturesque Wareham is home to the oldest church in Dorset. St Martin’s is one of the best preserved Saxon churches in Britain and is a must-see for the visitor.

One Thousand Years of History
Not only is it a unique looking church but its interior is covered in 12th century frescoes. It also houses a priceless effigy of 'Lawrence of Arabia'. There is 1,000 years of history on view in this church.
 
St Martin’s is located in the middle of the town’s north wall and is reputed to be on the site of a Roman temple. It was built in 1030 and is the only Saxon church in Dorset to survive in anything like its original state.
 
Church Interior
What we notice today as we approach the entrance to the building is the unique tall, narrow 16th century tower with saddleback roof. Once inside the church’s Saxon origins are immediately apparent.
 
It has a tall, narrow nave and chancel dating from 1030. There is a tiny window in the north side of the chancel and the magnificent arch is flanked by squints. There is late Saxon wall-arcading in the North West aisle and traces of a Saxon door.
 
The Frescoes
The walls of St Martin's are covered with fragmented frescoes: Frescoes are paintings done with raw ochres applied while the plaster is wet. This technique retained the freshness of the colours.
 
Restoration work has revealed layers of paintings all over the church. These vary from pretty scrolls to floral motifs. Above the chancel arch is a Royal Arms of Queen Anne dated 1713, flanked by black letter scriptural texts of about 1600 which overlay earlier scripts.
 
The oldest paintings are on the north wall of the chancel and date from the 12th century. They tell the story of St Martin to whom the church is dedicated. They depict St Martin on horseback, escorted by attendants, dividing his cloak and giving one half to a naked beggar. It is said that the saint had a dream in which he saw Christ wearing the same portion of the cloak.
 
Painted on top of some of the wall paintings can be seen red stars. These are from the Middle Ages when the great plague swept through Wareham claiming many lives. For each life lost a red star was painted on the walls of the church.
 
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Laurence of Arabia’s Effigy
For many of the thousands of tourists who come to St Martin’s this monument is the only reason for their visit.
 
The white Purbeck stone sculpture of a recumbent T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in Arab costume is indeed magnificent. It was created by his good friend, official war artist and sculptor Eric Kennington. This grand memorial in the north aisle seems totally out of place in such a small, humble church and the story of why it is here is very interesting.
 
T E Lawrence paid a high price for his services to his country during the First World War and spent the rest of his life trying to forget the part he was forced to play in the betrayal of the Arabs to whom he had promised independence. Any mention of him stirred up political unrest so when he died in 1935, old tensions resurfaced.
 
The memorial was originally intended for St Paul's Cathedral in London but they refused it, then Westminster Abbey was offered the effigy. They also refused, and then Salisbury Cathedral was tried with no success. Eventually he found a home at St Martin’s which is particularly fitting considering he had made rural Dorset his home at nearby Clouds Hill and he is buried at Moreton, just over 8 miles (13 kms) away.
 
Lawrence is depicted in the effigy as wearing Arabic dress with a curved dagger in his hand and a whip to his side. His feet rest against a block of Hittite sculpture of two fighting bulls representing his archaeological research and his struggles in the First World War. It is debatable whether Lawrence would have approved of this depiction considering he had spent the rest of his life trying to erase this period of his life from public memory.
 
The church is tiny and intimate, only able to hold a maximum of 40 worshippers. Although it is Grade I listed for its historical significance it still holds regular services and is an ideal place for family weddings, funerals and christenings. Baptisms are performed in the plain octagonal 17th century font.
 
A church with a chimneystack
As you move outside, see if you can find the chimneystack up on the roof. This is all that is left to remind us of the Great Fire of Wareham in 1762. The church was used as a temporary refuge for those who had lost their homes. At this time a fireplace was installed in the north wall of the nave to keep the refugees warm and provide cooking facilities. The fireplace no longer exists but the chimney does.
 
Dorset Historic Churches Trust
Images of this ancient church can be found on The Dorset Historic Churches Trust website  Web:  Dorset Historic Church Trust    External Link
 
Visiting
Admission is free but a donation is always welcome so please be generous. If the church is locked, the key can be obtained from the Church Warden, Mr Merville Gover who can be found in his Gentleman Outfitter’s shop in North Street. Directions are posted on the church door.  
 
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Contact & Further Information
Telephone  +44 (0)1929 550 905
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Website  St Martin on the Wall    External Link
 

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