St Peter’s – A church with a long history
St Peter’s is the oldest church in Shaftesbury where there were eleven churches in mediaeval times. It was built at the top of Gold Hill as a pilgrim church outside the walls of the Benedictine Abbey. John Schip is the first known incumbent (1305). However, there is evidence of an earlier building on this site, in the form of ancient foundations under the nave floor.
It is evident that the town experienced great poverty in the 14th and 15th centuries. The French war and then the Black Death of 1348-1357, which deprived the town of masons and depleted the population, were major disasters. In consequence, the completion of the church was prolonged and much of the building is of the decorated and perpendicular style.
Of the present structure, the lower part of the tower is the oldest; the nave and its arcades are of the 14th century, the Clerestory was added in the 15th/16th centuries. The panelled oak roofs of the nave and the North Aisle are also of the same date. In early times the walls were brightly coloured but painted over in Oliver Cromwell’s time. When restoration took place the North Parapet could not be retained due to the poor state of the stone.
In the late 19th century the nearby Holy Trinity Church was used as the parish church. and St Peters was used only for occasional services and fell into serious disrepair. During the Second World War the South aisle was even used as a grain store. However, in 1955 determined efforts were made to save this ancient building with help from the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, The Friends of Friendless Churches and The Dorset Historic Churches Trust. Never the less in 1971 the church was declared redundant. During the 1970sThe Friends of St Peter’s with generous support from the Redundant Churches Fund restored the building and in 1974 the order was signed to reverse the redundancy. A Service of Rededication was held on 30th September 1977at which time St Peter’s became the parish church of Shaftesbury and Holy Trinity was sold. It is the First Church in the country to become a full time parish church after becoming redundant. For this to happen the authority of the Crown was required.
Between 2000 and 2007 a considerable amount of restoration and improvement has been carried out at a cost of nearly £200,000:
- Improving the path to Gold Hill past the west door provided disabled access.
- A new sound system and lighting system installed
- A complete new roof installed
- Complete redecoration carried out.
- Dreary grey carpet tiles covering a largely concrete floor were replaced by wood flooring (red carpet in the Chancel and Choir)
- A cream curtain behind a new specially commissioned wooden cross, hung as the focal point for worship behind the altar table.
- The organ has been restored and improved.
Leaflets outlining the history of the church in greater detail are available for visitors.