If you’re planning a wedding, get-together or social event in Shaftesbury you’re being offered the chance to take in North Dorset’s finest view during your special day.
The Trustees of the Trinity Centre are keen to arrange access to their tower, so guests can take photographs of the stunning scenery to mark their occasion. Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred climbed the stairs to see what’s on offer for groups and parties.
The 26 metre high Trinity Tower is the Shaftesbury landmark you can see for miles around. According to the British Listed Buildings website, the tower style is early English, even though the structure was built by the Victorians. “The original church was pulled down about 1840 and this was built in 1842. It closed in 1974,” said Chris Corner.
Chris volunteers as a steward when the tower is open. He says that he’s ‘pushing 80’ but going up and down the twisting stairway of 126 stone steps keeps him fit. “In my whole life, I don’t think that I have ever been into a gym,” Chris revealed with some pride.
After falling congregation numbers meant that this church was no longer needed for worship, the Shaftesbury Scout Group took it on. In 1979, the Trinity committee set about transforming the building into a multi-use facility. The charitable trust, which still operates today, was formed in 1980 and the Trinity Centre opened two years later.
There was no National Lottery back then and locals funded all of the works, which cost £130,000. It doesn’t sound a major amount by today’s standards but it was a considerable sum then, especially as the country was experiencing a significant economic depression.
Chris turned off the dark and narrow spiral stairway into a light, airy, high-ceilinged room. A rectangular opening above us revealed how far we still had to climb to the top. At one time this space would have been filled with ropes. “This is halfway. We’ve come up sixty stairs to this room, which was the bell ringers room, and we’ve got another sixty steps to go,” Chris said.
Chris says that there used to be a warning bell to advise the enthusiastic ringers to calm down. “They used to have a little bell that sounded if they’re going a bit too keen and the tower was swaying. It sounded most of the time because they got a bit over exuberant ringing the bells!” Apparently the ringing bells would cause the tower to violently vibrate. “Yes it moved. There was probably a couple of tons of bells swinging about up there,” said Chris.
The room’s walls are covered with the history of this former Victorian church and the original building which occupied this site before that. The older church was first referenced in 1302. And I was pleased that the Trinity trustees had given tower climbers a chance to pretend to be doing research, reading the information whilst trying to get their breath back.
There is an old map of the town, which dates from 1615. It presents Bell Street as St Lawrence Street, the High Street was called The Cornmarket and Gold Hill was spelled Gould Hill. On the opposite wall is the laminated cover of a Trinity Church parish magazine from 1894. Chris has read the original document. “It was quite interesting when they talk about the collection and it was 11 and a half pence for the week. Money went a long way didn’t it? It went a long way when I was a lad,” said Chris.
It was time to continue climbing up to the top of the tower. If you can cope with the steps, it is as accessible as it can be. The Trustees added a solid standing platform in 2012. That work marked the Diamond Jubilee. It opened up this incredible viewpoint because before then, only a few people dared to go to the summit, including Chris.
“You could climb up the steps and come out of the top pinnacle there. You were standing on the roof, which was pyramid-shaped with less than a foot all the way around to walk on. It was slippery lead. There was nothing to stop you sliding off between the castillions,” said Chris. “You wanted it to be very dry and to have a good head for heights and to hang onto the roof before you stepped out.”
Chris climbed to the top on a windy day with his daughter Sophie and he recalls that it was quite unsettling. “You had to climb out then, you couldn’t just walk out.”
Chris has good memories of seeing the new tower-top viewing area with Sophie. “She and I came up and I think we were the first ones officially to sat a foot outside and have a wander around before that was officially opened.” But Chris says there was a rush to get into the history books. “The day it was opened, there was a woman aged 90-odd. She was walking before me and she apologised for being so slow.”
Chris is pleased that people are now being encouraged to book the Trinity Centre for functions and to climb the tower during their celebration or occasion. The viewing platform makes this possible. “They have always advertised it as the highest point in the area, if not the county. It’s silly to say that it is the highest point when nobody could get up there to see. It was quite an achievement and it cost a lot of money for the alterations.”
We continued on the second half of the climb, which didn’t seem so strenuous, probably because my heart had got used to pumping during the first half of the ascent. The 360-degree view from this vantage point, 228 metres above sea level, is superb. Metal markings on the thick walls suggest where to look to spot landmarks, ranging from Alfred’s Tower to Glastonbury Tor and the South Coast ports. “There’s a rough idea of where everybody is. Poole is 23 miles over there,” said Chris, pointing to the metal marker. Corfe Castle was marked as 26 miles away.
Few people on the tower top were talking. They were all mesmerised by the view and were busily taking pictures of the Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset countryside rolling out in front of us. As one woman was dangling her camera quite far over the side in order to get a dramatic shot, I asked Chris whether anyone had dropped a camera. “Nobody has reported it. I don’t think that there would be too much left by the time it got down the bottom,” he said. I’m not so good with heights but the solid walls surround you at chest height so you feel safe. There are no scary exposed drops!
We headed down and Chris’ walkie-talkie crackled into life. One Trinity volunteer holds back tower climbers until the descending party has reached the ground. “They tell me when somebody is coming up because the stairs are very narrow and you can’t pass either way. So if somebody is coming up or someone is coming down, we hold one lot in the halfway room and they pass here – some to go down or some to come up.”
I think that the hardest part of the climb is squeezing through the doorway at the top of the stairs. The narrow, wedge-shaped steps played tricks on my eyes as I walked down – they appeared to move. I had to stop for a moment for my eyes to focus. It’s an odd effect.
Chris explained why the spiral stairs descend in an anticlockwise direction. It stems from the days when people carried swords. “If you’re coming up and you are your right-handed, it is very awkward. When you’re coming down, someone could have a sword in their right hand and could stab me before I’d even thought about it,” said Chris, although you wouldn’t think it would have been an issue in 1840 when the church was built. “I suppose they got used to building it this way round,” Chris said.
Back on the ground I was pleased that I’d taken the chance to see our town and the beautiful Blackmore Vale from a different, elevated perspective and I can see why the chance to take a tower trip as part of a Trinity Centre room booking could prove highly popular. “It’s the best place for pictures. Otherwise you get married in the Town Hall or St Peters and then you’re standing in the street and you’ve got to find somewhere to get the pictures taken. It’s a lovely place up here,” said Chris, although he doesn’t recommend that brides should climb the tower in their wedding dresses. “They might trip over it,” he says.
To find out more about booking the Trinity Centre go to the Trinity Centre Trust website.