Clive Hannay and Rodney Legg in the shadow of the White Horse
Published in March ’06
Dorset has just one equestrian hill-figure. Osmington clusters beneath its famous White Horse on the coast road east of Weymouth. Unlike some of the chalk-cut Wiltshire specimens and the primitive prototype at Uffington in the Berkshire Downs, which has been dated by pollen samples to 900 BC in the Late Bronze Age, our horse is of no antiquity.
He was designed to celebrate King George III, who adopted Dorset and turned Weymouth into a fashionable spa. Where the design fails in the propaganda stakes is that it shows the King riding away from the town. This classic artistic error is said to have caused the principal designer to kill himself.
Historians have confused the issue by claiming the figure as the Duke of Wellington or attributing it to a descendant of Sir John Arrow Kempe, who was emphatic that his grandfather had cut it in about 1820 ‘after the King’s death as a memorial’. In fact it dates from a decade earlier. Thomas Oldfield Bartlett from Swanage noted in his diary on 24 August 1808 that on the hillside ‘is an image cut out presenting King George the 3rd on horseback’ which ‘takes up an acre of ground’. Just five days earlier, Weymouth bookseller John Wood had sent the antiquary, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, the drawing of a flanged bronze axe ‘discovered in cutting out an equestrian figure of the King in the side of Osmington Hill’.
While disentangling this folklore from fakelore, I was told another story from Victorian times that a tiger escaped from a menagerie in Weymouth and killed a sheep on Osmington Hill before being recaptured.
Ancient Osmington begins with a chancel arch from about 1200 in St Osmond’s parish church which gives the village its name. There is a north arcade of a century later and a 15th-century tower. Though elaborately mason-made, the rustic lettering on the contemporary Warham family monument has a wonderful medieval parable on ‘Man’s Life':
‘Man is a glass
Life is as water that’s
Weakly walled about.
Sin brings in death.
Death breaks the glass.
So runs the water out.
There is a cryptic comment carved on the edge of the backing stone: ‘Here is not the man who in life with every man had law and strife.’
Picturesque ruined walls of the Warham family’s Tudor mansion form the northern boundary of the churchyard. Steps drop down to a moulded stone doorway and there are now flower beds and lawns across the site of their manor house in the garden beyond. The occupants included William Warham, who moved on to become Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry VII. He was in that position at the time of the King’s death and therefore had the distinction – or dishonour in Catholic terms – of crowning the King’s successor, Henry VIII, in 1509.
Charity Farm was another early building. Its latter-day appearance and name arise from Sir Samuel Mico’s charity estate, managed by the Corporation of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis for the poor of the town. Remarkably, in 1665, they bought and incorporated a medieval house, which has now been restored in its own right as the Longhouse. Other buildings in the attractive group-renovation are Forge Barn, Charity Cottage and Charity Farmhouse. The lines of the Longhouse show that its original walls wobbled out of square on an irregular flat-plan. Furthermore, the human habitation was at one end and the animals lived at the other. Between them was an internal passage beneath rough-hewn raised cruck roof trusses. The next generation of Osmington buildings include East Farm, with a 1697 date-stone above the front door.
Osmington provided the setting for the six-week honeymoon of landscape painter John Constable (1776-1837). He married Maria Elizabeth Bicknell in St Martins-in-the-Fields, London, on 2 October 1816. Their service was conducted by their friend, Rev. John Fisher (1787-1832). He was the vicar of Osmington and Prebendary of Salisbury Cathedral and the Fishers invited the Constables to return with them for a coastal holiday in the Vicarage at Osmington. It was a gloomy autumn and the atmosphere is captured in ‘Weymouth Bay’, alternatively labelled ‘Osmington Shore, near Weymouth’, a canvas painted at Osmington Mills in a view westwards to Redcliff Point. It now hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
It says something about instant appraisals by reviewers that this key work of one of Britain’s greatest painters was rejected by the New Monthly Magazine: ‘Not a very happy performance, but a sketch of barren sand without interest, and very unlike the artist’s other pleasing works of home scenery.’ For Constable, however, the Osmington shore was a desolation and a tragedy. The Fishers had lost a cousin, Captain John Wordsworth, when the Earl of Abergavenny sank with 200 men on board. The poet Wordsworth shared the grief and had penned the loss that Constable painted: ‘The seas in anger, and that dismal shore.’
As with so many English villages, several of the larger buildings hint at their past purposes, from the 1835-dated school to black-painted Old Coastguards and red-brick New Coastguards, on either side of Mills Road. Modern infilling incorporates much stone and thatch, including a bus-shelter which incorporates a memorial to Lieutenant David Parry-Jones of the 1st Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, who was killed in the Battle of Normandy on 3 August 1944.
A three-mile walk provides a circuit of the village and its coastline, starting from Lych Gate Cottage in Church Lane (OS ref SY724830). Set off northwards, between Buttress Cottage and Hillside Cottage, to the junction beside Wessex Cottage in 75 yards. Turn right here and follow the Village Street, passing Monks’ Way and the Old Chapel, to the Main Road in 350 yards. Turn left, along the pavement away from the Sunray, and then turn right in 100 yards. Cross the road to the entrance to the left of East Farm Cottages and follow the stone wall straight ahead. Continue uphill, southwards, to the ridge above East Farm in 350 yards. Here there is a view of Portland Harbour.
Bear left, following the left-hand fence, to a gate in 200 yards. Now follow the right-hand hedge, south-eastwards, towards White Nothe in the distance. Take the left-hand of the two gaps in 200 yards. Follow the right-hand hedge for the length of this field and exit over the stile in the bottom corner in 350 yards. From here, in 150 yards, the camping park access brings you down to Mills Road.
Turn right, towards the sea, for 250 yards. On reaching Osmington Mills hamlet, bear left along the lesser road. Cross the stream in 250 yards and proceed uphill for a further 250 yards. Turn right, down through a chalet camp, south-westwards towards Portland and the Smugglers’ Inn, where join the coastal path in 350 yards. Turn right, following the cliff path signs, beside the public house and up through Osmington Mills hamlet. In 400 yards, at the corner, turn left up the shrubby footpath and turn left in 50 yards. This path between the hedge and the fence joins the cliff path beside Goggin’s Barrow in 300 yards.
Turn right, north-westwards through blackthorn scrub, inland of Black Head. In 900 yards, on approaching Osmington Bay holiday camp, cross a stile in the hedge and join its access road. Turn right, uphill and inland, following the tarred road to Shortlake Farm and Osmington village in 600 yards. Cross the Main Road to the stile behind the notice board above the Briary. Enter the field in 100 yards and then turn right in a further 100 yards. This path bring you into St Osmund’s churchyard to return to Lych Gate Cottage in 100 yards.