St Mary's Church, Tarrant Crawford, Dorset

Tarrant Crawford, Blandford Forum, Dorset, DT11 9HU
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Ghostly painted tales in a rural church

In a gentle valley above the River Tarrant this simple and evocative church, which dates back to the twelfth century, is all that remains of a wealthy Cistercian nunnery - thirteenth-century Tarrant Abbey - to which it may have been a lay chapel.

Today, the long, elegant interior has oak furnishings and a beautiful sixteenth-century wagon roof. There are also several thirteenth and fourteenth-century coffin lids set in the floor, probably of abbesses and nuns. Best of all, however, are the ghostly fourteenth-century paintings, made to instruct and inspire the parishioners. These cover most of the walls of the nave, catching your eye as soon as you walk into the church.

Though somewhat degraded, they still give a vivid impression of warmth and colour. It is unusual for such an early set of paintings to survive, albeit damaged. The earliest, in the chancel, is from the thirteenth century and consists of a simple masonry pattern with a flower stencil. There are also fourteenth-century depictions of St Margaret of Antioch, said to have been swallowed by a dragon, and three animated skeletons, who warn three princes of the emptiness of earthly rank and wealth. The paintings on the north wall are more fragmentary, but you can identify St Michael weighing souls, and St Christopher carrying the Christ Child.