ByCharles G Harper
London Adam & Charles
Soho Square W
This is a modest, gossipy and allusive sketch of adelightful part of England, designed rather toarouse the interest and the curiosity of those notalready acquainted with what I will call the“Middle West” than to fully satisfy it. If inthis connection you choose to regard the authorof these pages as a commercial traveller in theinterest of Wessex, displaying samples of thepicturesque wares the West of England can offerthe tourist, it will entirely fit the humour inwhich they were penned. To aid the medium ofwords is added a feast of colour in the accompanyingselected views, which show the lovely goldenrusset interior of Sherborne Abbey, the mistyrich blue haze of Blackmore Vale, the architecturalmajesty of Wells, and much else thatawaits the traveller in Dorset and Somerset.
C. G. H.
|I.||Wareham—Bere Regis—The Heaths||5|
|III.||Woolbridge House-Culworth Cove—Owermoigne—Weymouth||16|
|IV.||“Under the Greenwood Tree”—Dorchester—Maiden Castle—Bridport—West Bay||24|
|V.||Cerne Abbas—The Vale of Blackmore—Sherborne—Shaftesbury||34|
|VI.||Yatton—Cheddar Cheese and Cheddar Cliffs—Wells—Glastonbury—The Isle of Athelney—Dunster||43|
|VII.||Norton St. Philip—Bath—Corsham—Castle Combe||54|
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
|1.||Sherborne Abbey Church||Frontispiece|
|5.||Near Maiden Castle, Dorchester||27|
|7.||Blackmore Vale from Shaftesbury||32|
|8.||The Bridport Arms||43|
|9.||The Almshouses, Corsham, Wiltshire||46|
|10.||The Market-Place, Wells||49|
|11.||Dunster Castle and Yarn Market||56|
|12.||Castle Combe, North Wiltshire||59|
WAREHAM—BERE REGIS—THE HEATHS
The Wessex of which I shall treat in thesegossiping pages is that Wessex of romance andof the great dairy-farms, which has been littletouched by the influence of railways. Hampshireand Wiltshire—Winchester and Salisbury—havebecome too closely in touch with London to standso fully upon the ancient ways as does Dorset,with the greater part of its north-western neighbour,Somerset. But in these rural territoriesthe countryman still talks the old broad Do’setand Zummerzet speech, in which the letter“o” in every possible circumstance becomes“a,” as you will perceive in that old rhymebeginning:
A proper spiteful twoad was he.
And thus he zung as he did zet,
“My sting is as zharp as a bagginet.”
And they think, too, the olden thoughts.
Nothing can give one a greater sense of thedifference between the exploited modernizedcoast-line and the real old Wessex than the journeyfrom up-to-date Bournemouth to Poole, thatolden nest of smugglers, and thence across to theuntamed heaths and to Wareham. In this way,then, we will begin our exploration of Wessex.
Wareham is a little town which has been leftto drowse peacefully in its old days. Nothinghas happened in Wareham since its almost completedestruction by fire (1762), an event whichhere as distinctly marks an era as does the GreatFire of London in the City. It not only rubricatesthe local table of events with a glowingfinger, but the rebuilding necessary after it hasset a specious stamp of modernity upon the place,to which its long and troubled history and itstwo ancient churches give an emphatic denial.Mr. Hardy styles Wareham “Anglebury,” and itis a name which well befits a town whose story isso greatly concerned with the settlement of the7Anglo-Saxons in Dorset and the fortunes of theolder kingdom of Wessex. The original foundersof Wareham, who were probably antecedent to theAnglo-Saxons, were very properly afraid of overseasrovers, who might sail into Poole Harbour andattack them, and they raised around the placethose huge ditches and embankments whichremain to this day to astonish the stranger, andare known as the “walls of Wareham.” Coveredwith grass, the summit of them forms an interestingramble. But these defences never did conferupon Wareham the desired security. Its earlystory is one of continual capture, and it had beenburnt so often that the inhabitants had at lastfeared to rebuild it and live there again; and itwas a deserted place William the Conqueror found.He caused a castle to be built, but that fortress inits long career again and again invited siege andplunder, until it was at last destroyed in thetroubles between Charles I. and his Parliament.The last pitiful scene was in 1685, when threerebels in the Monmouth rising were hanged onthe famous walls, at a corner still known as“Bloody Bank.” The chief architectural interestis centred upon the ancient church of St. Martin,a curiously-proportioned building, standing8piquantly beside the road outside the town, tothe north, on a little bank or terrace. Theantiquary perceives by a mere glance at its stiltednarrow and lofty proportions that it is Saxon, andthe interior discloses a lofty nave of stern unornamentalappearance, with characteristic Saxonchancel arch, the whole closely resembling theinterior of the Saxon church of Bradford-on-Avon.The Church of St. Mary, at the other extremityof the town, possesses a hexagonal leaden font,one of the twenty-seven leaden fonts in England.
Six miles north-west of Wareham we come toBere Regis, a place very notable in the Hardyliterature, for it is the “Kingsbere” of Tess of theD’Urbervilles, and the “Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill”of Far from the Madding Crowd. Before ever itacquired the kingly prefix or suffix, it was merely“Bere,” a word which explained its situationamid underwoods and copses. I have all the willin the world to describe Bere Regis as “picturesque”;but it is not that. It is an old rathergrim and grey village that has had troubles—notromantic troubles, please to understand, buteconomic ones. It has a “past”—neither scandalousnor noble, but just the past of a place thathas seen better days and has suffered—suffered,9truly, in the peculiarly Dorset way, from fire.How many times the dry thatch of the cottageshas gone up in flame and smoke I know not;only I know—and all may see—that experiencehas not made the villagers wise, for it is a longstreet of thatched cottages yet; and here andthere is the ruin of one more recently burntin like manner. The scattered heaps remainuntouched, for it is not worth the while to rebuildin Bere Regis. That is why the heavily-thatchedroofs, with little bedroom windows peering outlike weary-lidded eyes, look to me grim and sad.The church is fine, and owes much of its beautyto the ancient Turberville family, something tothe Abbey of Tarent, and most of all to CardinalMorton, a native of this parish. He is said tohave given the noble—indeed, the extraordinarilynoble—elaborately carved, painted and gildedroof of the nave, which by itself would make theartistic reputation of a church. It is really not aWest of England roof at all, but distinctly of theEast Anglian type, and there are legends thatexplain the bringing of it here. However thatmay be, it is a bold and striking object; thehammer-beams carved into the huge shapes ofBishops, Cardinals, and pilgrims, with immense10round faces carved on the bosses, which lookdown upon you with fat, complacent smiles.Add to this the fact that the figures are paintedwith flesh-tints and the costumes vividly coloured,and it will be guessed that this is a remarkablework. Here are interesting carved fifteenth-centurybench-ends, and on two of the TransitionalNorman pillars extraordinary sculptures ofheads—one tugging open its mouth, the otherwith hand to forehead. They are popularlysaid to be “Toothache” and “Headache,” butwere probably intended to symbolize the divinegifts of speech and sight. Battered old Purbeckmarble tombs of the bygone Turbervilles are seenhere.
Bere Regis is a fine point whence to exploreinto what Mr. Thomas Hardy styles “EgdonHeath.” By that name the wild stretch ofmoorlands marked on the maps as “Bere Heath,”“Hyde Heath,” “Decoy Heath,” etc., is understood,chiefly between Wareham on the eastand Dorchester on the west, and roughly boundedon the south by the River Frome. It is notmerely a wild, but also a very beautiful, region,on whose borders the novelist himself, the creatorof so many alluring rustics, and the true begetter11of the Hardy Country, was born, at Upper Bockhampton,1840. Nature reigns, unchallenged,on these swarthy moors of brown and purple.He tells us, truly, how this country figures inDomesday. “Its condition is recorded thereinas that of heathy, furzy, briary wilderness—‘Bruaria.’”Leland, writing in the reign ofHenry VII., describes this tract as “overgrownwith heth and mosse”; and as it was in theeleventh and in the sixteenth centuries, so itremains in the twentieth. In these untamedscenes the sombre novel of The Return of theNative is set.
From Wareham we cross the Frome by anancient bridge, and enter the Isle of Purbeck.The road runs a straight four miles to Corfe,across a heath in which the activities of clay-cutterswill be observed. Soon Corfe Castleappears ahead, the mighty upstanding ruins ofancient keep and surrounding walls rising froman abrupt hill curiously situated in a gap of agreat range of heights. The stony little townof Corfe comes only after we have swung roundby the curving road under the castle hill, andit is well it should be so; for thus, with butthe frowning steeps, crested by the militaryarchitecture of the medieval times, for company,we obtain the true romantic touch which thelittle domestic details of the townlet itselfwould destroy.
It is a romance of cruelty and blood, for whichthe great castle of Corfe stands. It arose in the13great fortress-building era that followed theestablishment of the Conqueror’s rule, upon asite