Where Wrens young and old settled for the quiet life
Sir Christopher Wren was born at East Knoyle, in Wiltshire. We visited the village for a wedding earlier this month, sitting in the church of which his father, Dr Christopher Wren, was rector.
Not that Dr Wren was only Rector of East Knoyle; he rose to become Chaplain in Ordinary to Charles I, Registrar of the Order of the Garter and Dean of Windsor, acquiring the rich living of Haseley in Oxfordshire along the way. But he took his ministry at East Knoyle sufficiently seriously to rebuild the church roof (like his son, he was “well skilled in the mathematicks’’).
He also decorated the chancel with a scheme of plasterwork. No more than a glimpse of rose trellis was visible from our position behind a pillar, and it was barely more comprehensible when we took a closer look after the service.
Dr Wren seems to have had an ingenious mind, which ran to Latin puzzles and a farfrom-obvious iconography; references to prayers rising like incense to heaven suggest that this High Churchman was having a dig at the Puritans. They got their own back by bursting into the church, seizing the doctor and hacking off part of his plasterwork. Later, bits of the chancel ceiling simply fell down. Then a restoration of 1846 replaced the decorated chancel arch.
What is left is a baffling curiosity. Perhaps it intrigued young Christopher sufficiently to set him on the path to St Paul’s.
While the 1846 restoration may have been insensitive, parishioners were luckier in 1891, when the tower was in an alarming condition. Philip Webb, founding Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, was the architect engaged in building the Wyndham house Clouds, outside the village. With the help of Detmar Blow, a Ruskin-inspired architect who was then learning his trade as foreman, he carried out a sympathetic repair at modest cost, his own time being given for nothing.
On leaving the church, we looked in at the village shop, to see if they had a guidebook to the village. They did, in the form of a handsome hardback book. East Knoyle is that sort of place. The shop itself is a community enterprise, run by volunteers. It opened last year on the site of a bus shelter. Sometimes you will find a retired banker behind the counter, but on this occasion we were served by a young local man, who pressed us to sample lemon drizzle cake being sold at the local farmer’s market.
Although only a mile from the A303, the village can seem isolated, particularly if you depend on public transport. The old post office had closed, and the conversion of the filling station to a garage for repairing classic cars meant that locals had nowhere to buy cigarettes. Wren’s Shop is now a model enterprise, selling a select range of products that one can imagine people might actually want.
The reception was held on a glorious farm, on the other side of the “knuckle” of hill from which East Knoyle may take its name. On the way we drove through much of the pleasantly straggling village (sometimes twice).
Silvery local limestone under thatched roofs is the keynote of the older houses. Not many of them are on the market at the time of writing: Woolley and Wallis of Shaftesbury (01722 424524) had a threebedroom stone cottage on the market for £235,000 (not surprisingly it is now under offer). Console yourself with The Paddocks, a stone-built executive home with “far-reaching views” that Strutt and Parker’s Salisbury office (01722 328741) are offering for £435,000. Hambledon etate agency of Shaftesbury (01747 851151) have an inoffensive modern cottage on their books for £245,000.
For something more architectural, Hambledon Estate Agents is seeking offers over £800,000, for Albany House, a handsome village house in the High Street. Before the wedding we had lunch at the Lamb at Hindon: a reason for moving there in itself.
Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of Country Life.