During July, Daniel and I were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the Limpley Stoke valley with the wonderful Alan Richardson, author of Dion Fortune’s biography Priestess. A magical area in its own right, and full of faery presences, I hadn’t twigged at the time that this valley sitting on the Wiltshire border between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon has a small but important connection with Dion Fortune. Trundling gently through the steep and picturesque lanes (“20 is plenty!” is Alan’s motoring mantra) we came upon a tiny pretty church on a hill. This, Alan told us, is where Dion Fortune’s parents were married – and where her grandparents were buried.
St. Mary’s church at Limpley Stoke is remarkably old, the nave having been built in Saxon times (about 1001 AD) and it still has a Saxon arched doorway inside. There was some kind of sacred shrine here before the church, thought to be pre-Christian, and its site is still delineated by a curved wobble in the churchyard boundary wall. The feminine feel of this site would seem to suggest a localised British female deity, like Sulis in Bath, readily transmuted into St. Mary the Virgin.
It was in this idyllic and sacred place that Arthur Firth was wed to his sweetheart Sarah Jane Smith on 19th August 1886. Sarah’s parents John and Jane Smith had moved down from Llandudno to run a hydropathic establishment at what is now the Limpley Stoke Hotel, and it was there that Arthur and Sarah first met. Both families were originally from Yorkshire, although any mention of Bradford in the records refers to Bradford-on-Avon, not the Yorkshire town. Dion Fortune was not born here of course; by the time of her birth in December 1890 her parents had moved on to run the prestigious Craigside Hydro in Llandudno, before settling for a while on the Somerset coast which later inspired The Sea Priestess. But it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether she ever visited this churchyard. The Smith family remained at Limpley Stoke and when Jane Smith died in 1901, when Dion Fortune was 10, she was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard – followed by John in 1906. The grave itself is modest and unremarkable but strangely enough it sits distinctly within the curve of the ancient shrine which stood on the sacred site in pre-Saxon times.
Written by Rebsie Fairholm (featuring photographs by the author)
Reprinted with kind permission from Lyra: The Avalon Group Journal, Issue No.12