St Peter’s is the daughter-church to St John the Baptist, the Parish Church in Symondsbury (north of the A35).
The church was built as a Chapel-at-Ease between 1863 and 1865. It was consecrated at a special service on 25th August 1865. What you see externally is virtually the church as it was first built – an imposing monument to Victorian charity, piety and vision. (In the same year another daughter-church, St. Paul’s, was also consecrated in the Symondsbury Parish, at Broadoak.)
The Rev. Gregory Raymond was rector of Symondsbury for 57 years, from 1806 until his death in February, 1863. A wealthy bachelor, he left a great impression upon the parish which he served for so long. This impression has lasted in stone and mortar, if not in other ways. Raymond enlarged the fine Georgian rectory in Symondsbury (now opposite the modern rectory in the village). He endowed a school in the village, and a school room at Eype (opposite the New Inn). And he left a sum of £3000 to build a church at Eype.
It was this sum, a huge amount by the standards of the day, which went into the building of the new daughter-church. The work was set in hand by Raymond’s successor as Rector, Henry Rawlinson. He had first come to Symondsbury as curate in 1839. Raymond left the living to his curate, and Rawlinson held it until his death in 1881.
The Parish employed a well-known London architect, Talbot Bury and the work was carried out by builders from nearby Shipton Gorge using local stone, quarried in Symondsbury and Bothenhampton.
Raymond’s legacy provided a substantial building, seating in excess of 300 people. Its size and the sense of space created by the high ceiling are as surprising to the visitor today as they must have been impressive to the first worshippers. The local county newspaper referred to the new church as beautiful and “chaste” when it reported the consecration. Certainly, the church retains something of that assessment – it is a sensitive mix of the simple and the richly beautiful. The stained-glass windows are particularly striking. They are some of the finest examples in the country of stained-glass by the ecclesiastical glaziers Heaton, Butler and Bayne. There is also a charming window by the Pre-Raphaelite painter and stained-glass designer Henry Holiday. Not to be missed are the windows of the four Gospels, to be seen at eye height in the space which became, after re-ordering, the Ladies’ and Gents’ toilets:
Many of the features of the church were gifts. Parishioners presented the lectern. This is two-sided with extending candle-holders on either side: Old Testament on one side; New on the other. The reader simply revolves the lectern to bring the right book to hand.
The reredos (the painted plaster-work behind the altar), now sadly decaying, must have been wonderful when first painted. The windows behind the altar and to its side depict scenes from the life of St Peter and from the Gospels. The main window shows the parable of the Good Samaritan (with Jesus as the hero); the Good Shepherd and the Feeding of the Five Thousand, with St Andrew about to introduce to Jesus the young lad holding his fishes.
The chancel contains a wall tablet commemorating Henry Rawlinson and his wife. They are buried in the churchyard and their grave can be found outside the ‘east’ window.
The church used to possess a fine set of communion vessels presented in 1865 by a wealthy local farmer, John Pitfield, who farmed 600 acres at Higher Eype. Unfortunately, these vessels were stolen in more recent years. The Pitfields had long lived in the parish. Symondsbury Church and its churchyard contain several family memorials.
The altar was a gift to the church from the then Diocesan Bishop. The modern altar frontals and altar linen were lovingly worked and presented by parishioners a few decades ago.
The church has never been licensed for weddings but services of baptism and burial are, of course, held. The original registers, begun in 1865, were archived in 2007 in the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester, but copies are held locally and available to view on application to the Chapel Warden.
The churchyard is large with space for many more burials. Over the years, in common with many country churchyards, this has become one of the few areas of natural, untreated grassland – a haven for wild flowers, insects, and small animals. In the spring it is a spectacular carpet of primroses which has been encouraged by the care of the regular grass cutter.
The village of Eype was larger in 1865 than it is today. Even so, the church is far larger than can have been justified by the local population. Its size indicates a typical Victorian confidence, but also an unawareness of the changing population shifts into towns during the industrial revolution. It also suggests that the parish determined on spending the entire legacy on a ‘grand design’. And perhaps there was a hope that the people of nearby West Bay would worship at Eype.
With the gradual move away from a largely religious society to the secular world of the 21st century, the congregation declined until services were only being attended by some twelve parishioners and St. Peter’s was in terminal decline. Despite the generous support of Mrs. Nadia Muton, who, with her husband, is buried in the churchyard, the fabric of the building needed serious attention, presenting the then Incumbent of Symondsbury, The Rev. Dr. Ray Shorthouse, with the dilemma of how to keep the building open and the church alive.
He and his fellow Trustees on the Walbridge Trust, a £500,000 bequest left for the benefit of the people of Symondsbury Parish, decided that in addition to improving the local sports and social facilities they would use part of the bequest to convert St. Peter’s into an venue suitable, not only for its continued use as a consecrated building, but also as a setting for self-funding arts events for the benefit and use of the whole community. The extensive works started in 2002 with the removal of the pews, the partitioning of the north transept and many other improvements including the installation of a modern heating system and a staging area for performances. The renovation works totalled more than £250,000 and were completed in the summer of 2003 in time for the first Arts Festival for the Eype Centre for the Arts.
As a visionary, the Rev. Shorthouse hoped that the re-introduction of an art element into the religious life of the church would help to reunite the now secular parishioners with their spiritual roots. He retired from Symondsbury the following year and appointed Mark Culme-Seymour as Director of the Centre, responsible for organising events and building the Art Centre into an important organisation for the benefit of the whole community and in the hope of generating income to contribute to the running costs of St. Peter’s and keep the chapel open.
Janet Allen, the current Chapel Warden, was appointed in 2017, to take over Mark’s role and continue the excellent work that he began.