The village of Shrewton lies in the valley of the River Till, overshadowed by chalk escarpments, about four miles from Stonehenge. One of my ancestors, Charles Light, was the pastor of the Zion Chapel, a Baptist church there, in the second half of the 19th century. Charles’s younger brother, Henry, was also a Baptist minister, preaching in Chitterne, the next village. His son, another Henry, my father’s grandfather, took their trade – bricklaying – and their religion south to Portsmouth.
Shrewton is halfway between Salisbury and Devizes, on the old road between London and Warminster, a position that made it less dependent on the sheep and corn farming from which most local people derived a living. Tradesmen and artisans set up shop there; carters delivered goods and made purchases en route to the more isolated villages on Salisbury Plain; inns catered for travellers and, more recently, for visitors to Stonehenge. I left my car near the less hospitable accommodation provided by the Blind House, the old parish lock-up, a windowless brick cell the shape of a pepper-pot, into which prisoners were crammed for the night before being moved to Salisbury’s Fisherton Gaol.
I’m an old hand at family history so I knew that there had been Lights in Shrewton, but their faith was a surprise. A few months after my father’s death I chanced on the Portsmouth Nonconformist registers and found his immediate forebears: all roads led to Zion. My father often mentioned that his father had left home because his family were ‘strict Salvationists’, but that didn’t mean much to either of us. He half-hoped they were in the Salvation Army, recalling with admiration the girls in bonnets who’d braved the pubs of his youth selling copies of their magazine. My father never went to church himself, but he was a great believer in what he called ‘the fifth dimension’: a mix of moral philosophy, humility in the face of the unknown, Wellsian science and hedging his bets. I went to Shrewton because I miss him and it was one way of carrying on our talks, but I was also prompted by reading the Victoria County History of Wiltshire, which reveals that on Census Sunday 1851, 350 people, more than half the population of Shrewton, attended Zion Chapel’s services. In this village the Baptists were not a minority sect.
Even without the pictures I’d downloaded from the internet, the chapel would have been unmistakeable. Positioned aslant the road with its entrance facing up the High Street, it dominates one end of the village, about as far from the Anglican church, St Mary’s, as could be. It’s an imposing, undecorated brick structure with the date 1816 over its lintel, quite elegant in its simplicity, its windows symmetrically arranged. Now called Zion House, it has the introverted, shifty look of a public building converted into a private residence. There’s no mention of the Baptists. Perhaps Zion’s memorials are still inside. Guiltily checking I was not being observed I peered through the windows, catching sight of a modern kitchen. Ministers were often buried under the pulpit and I wondered whether Charles Light’s ashes were now beneath the fridge or cooker and whether I should care.