The Knight and the Otter, Boynton Church

Wiltshire is named after Wilton, once the county town;

Wilton is named after the River Wylye which meanders from my home town of Warminster to the 13th-century cathedral city of Salisbury.

In NT terms from Cley Hill to Mompesson House but…

this blog tells of a rare encounter; so forgiveness please as I stray from National Trust boundaries.

I am on holiday after all.

The faster route is the main valley road, following the the edge of Salisbury Plain. The slower, more beautiful route lies close to the other side, a sleepy, tranquil drifting lane against the high chalk ridge dividing Wylye from Nadder.

A string of ancient settlements, parishes and manors follow the river to Wilton; each with thatched flint and limestone cottages and little mansion houses. Bishopstrow, Sutton Veny, Tytherington, Corton, Boynton….it’s good to glide along these lanes on a bicycle..and do it often to catch the seasons passing. The bluebells are all but gone now.. the bright green leaves are reaching their peak, the copper beech trees are maturing to a deeper red, the red campion are giving way to a landscape of buttercup yellow, white ox eye daisies and corn parsley….

So many generations have farmed here and seen these changes year by year. A harder life with lower yields, terraces of contoured strip lynchets stand out in shadow on the steeper slopes, helping to extend the arable onto more marginal land.

Last week, a chilly overcast day turned into warm sunshine so Jan and I went for an afternoon cup of tea at Boynton …but the cafe was closed.

We could go to the church instead. I’d been a couple of times before.. in the autumn, but this was during the historic churches ride. The parishioners signed our sponsorship cards and fed us cakes and lemonade as we cycled to the next one. Not much time to get your head round the history of each place.

The Church of the Blessed Mary is hidden down a lane beside the High Street; we parked under a tree and opened the churchyard gate..the door was open. A peaceful place, just the sound of birdsong and the children playing in the nearby garden. Inside it was mainly 13th century, across the nave was a chapel with the bright light from a large circular window drawing us to the life sized sculpture of a knight. His shield revealed the coat of arms of the Giffards, an ancient family, whose ancestors accompanied William I when he brought his army from Normandy in 1066.

Boynton had long been a Giffard manor and the chapel was their family chantry. The adjacent building had housed the chantry priests who were provided with an income to say daily prayers for the family.

Rich and pious medieval families would build chantries sometimes in churches and sometimes as separate foundations like Stoke Sub Hamdon in Somerset and Wilkswood Farm in Purbeck.

The stone knight was well preserved; quite often sculptures were defaced during the religious turmoils of the 16th and 17th centuries but not this one. Though it had once been brightly painted. Traces of gold, red and white paint survive. An oyster shell, the artist’s palette, was found during the 1950s renovation still with splashes of colour within it.

What was that at his feet? An unusual sleek animal with a long broad curving tail.

The 1960s guide book identified the animal as an otter ..and the knight as Sir Alexander Giffard. Otters were once a feature of the River Wylye. Was this a symbol of Sir Alexander’s riverside manor? Otters were driven from the Wylye valley for many years.. but more recently there have been rumours.

The guide book’s preferred explanation for the stone otter was more symbolic. The otter-like escape of Sir Alexander that saved his life! He was a crusader and in 1250 fought beside the Earl of Salisbury in the battle of Mansourah in Egypt. When all was lost, he evaded capture by slipping into the nearby river and swimming away….

He died in 1262 and soon afterwards the chantry was created. His tomb has remained through the generations, lying in this quiet place, dressed for battle, with a sword at his hip and an otter at his feet. I suppose back in the day otters were quite common.

Two days later Jan said we should go to Langford Lakes.. a little beyond Boynton. It’s a nature reserve between the Langford villages. Archaeologist does nature..armed with bird and wild flower books we stepped out onto the first lakeside jetty.

A brown thing dipped beneath the water. I pointed to the spot expecting a duck to surface but something very unexpected popped up. It was a large sleek otter, brown teddy bear face and rounded ears. I don’t think he’d arrived from Egypt.

Sunset over the Wylye Valley

Sunset over the Wylye Valley

He gave us a look and glided away.

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