The Haunted Ruins of Avenbury
Updated: Jan 7, 2021
I've posted about the old church at Avenbury before, but in the light of finally gaining access to it and the new information I gathered there – I think it's time to rewrite and update.
What could be spookier than an ancient ruined church rising out of the mists, all that remains of a forgotten village lost amid an English woodland? Avenbury was a village nestled around a curve of the river Frome close to Bromyard in Herefordshire. It began as an Anglo Saxon settlement according to records but was probably much older than that. A Saxon church was built here in the late 800s during the short reign of the Mercian king Beorhtwulf and with the coming of the Normans a new tower was added sometime during the 1100s. Avenbury's fortunes fluctuated over the centuries but despite the village being a centre for lime production during the Tudor and Stuart eras it was completely abandoned by the mid 19th century.
As the old dwellings gradually vanished into the landscape the Church of St Mary continued to serve the outlying farms and homes of the area but finally closed it's doors for good in 1931. That's where history ends and the legend begins. Even before the closure the church had a wild history of hauntings and strange events. A man named Nicholas Vaughan burned down a house owned by the Bishop for which he was hanged. His shade was said to haunt the grounds of the church, terrifying locals so much that an exorcism was called for. In the tradition of the time, a priest or parson was brought in to lay the spirit, it was trapped in a silver trimmed box which was then buried at the bottom of the Frome under the bridge to the old village. Workers rebuilding the bridge found a silver trimmed box under the bridge during the 1980s – the box was empty – judge for yourself!
Another story tells of a local woman being refused burial in the graveyard as she was considered to be a witch and a nasty one at that. The church curate compromised and had her laid to rest on the other side of the bend in the Frome, this wasn't good enough for the villagers and she was disinterred and cast into the river! As with Vaughan the arsonist, her ghost began to haunt the area but no attempt was made to exorcise this one. A fuzzy shape seen by people by the water and in the church ruins more recently that glows at night has been attributed to her.
The last vicar of St Mary's reported ghostly goings on himself, hearing the bell ringing and an organ playing after the church had been closed for the night. Many ramblers making their way along the public footpath nearby have heard ghostly music too before they even knew the ruin of a church was there. Since the 1970s the old church has gained a legendary reputation for the paranormal and the occult. Various pagans, Satanists and others have made their way to the ruins to perform rites and rituals and it became a rite of passage for local teens to spend the night there with some hair raising tales being told of this locally. The current owner of the church and the land around confirmed that little has changed in this regard, telling me of hearing the bell herself along with strange trumpet or horn notes being played from within the tower, and odd people attempting to gain night time access on a weekly basis. Strange ornaments have been left at the gate to the property but the most dramatic event she told me about was actually finding a corpse in the river right next to the church!
A young man from Hereford was brutally murdered by some local drug dealers who decided to hide his body on the banks of the river. Heavy rain made the cadaver slide into the water and snag on a branch where it stayed, partially covered in a sheet. The owner of Avenbury thought at first that it was a sheep until she saw the very human leg sticking out of the bundle. Considering the history of this small area of river by the church, it seems a macabre coincidence that the unfortunate man joined the witch and Vaughan's spirit box there. Some seriously dark history has soaked itself into the location over the centuries and this is a reputation that St Mary's Church is unlikely to ever completely shift. To this end, one Bromyard councillor demanded that the church be exorcised once it is made open to the public again!
This brings us to the current state of the little ruin at Avenbury. In contrast to my previous write up, I can report that St Mary's is now in safe hands. Restoration work is underway but is a very gradual process, with little money being made available. Such was the extent of the woods and undergrowth around the structures that it became an arduous task just to keep it in check and the damage to the buildings from a millenia of weather is serious. The 12th century tower has two large splits down it and entrance inside it is strictly forbidden as some of the old bricks and slabs are waiting to fall on somebody. About half of the Anglo Saxon chancel is still standing but what remains is in good condition. It is incredible to think that this building stood during the reign of Alfred the Great, but there are also strong indications that an even earlier place of worship stood there. It's location hooked inside a bend in a river, and the fact the church stood on a rounded, slightly raised area, gives clues to a possible Bronze Age pre-Christian site existing there first.
It's great that the site is now permanently occupied, as during the 80s and 90s some of the fixtures of the church and grounds were looted and stolen. A large slab from the 13th century bearing the life sized effigy of a knight was found lying in the soil, this has now been moved to a church in Bromyard for safekeeping. It was probably over the tomb of Walter of Avenbury, a lord of the area. I shudder to think what else may have once been there but has now been lost, as even bones from graves have been dug up and taken by ghouls over the years, such is the strange draw the place has.
I wish the current custodians of St Mary's, and indeed the lost village of Avenbury, every success in making the site sound, safe, secure and accessible for visitors in the future. I will update the situation as it improves and here's hoping everyone will be able to experience this remarkable place soon. A real hidden treasure, a genuine place of legend as important to our history and heritage as it is to folklore and the paranormal.
The tower from the east
The tower of St Mary's at Avenbury, showing the potentially disastrous crack down it's side
Grave stone of one of the famous Baskerville dynasty, one of many graves almost lost to nature
The Saxon part of the church, I wasn't allowed inside this part unfortunately
The Norman Tower from the west
The "Knight's Stone", a huge slab with a life sized depiction of a Norman or Angevin knight, possibly Sir Walter of Avenbury, taken from Avenbury and placed for safety in a church in Bromyard
The river Frome as it passes around the lost village of Avenbury