The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Chantry, Bridport

John Newth visits one of Dorset’s most intriguing buildings

The Chantry, restored by the Vivat Trust

As you drive down Bridport’s South Street, it is easy to miss a small building standing back from the pavement behind a low wall on the west side of the street. If you do notice it, you are likely to do a double-take because, despite its setting of uninspiring modern development, it is obviously very old. In fact, it is the oldest secular building in Bridport and one of the oldest in Dorset.

The Chantry was built not long after Bridport received its Town Charter in 1253. ‘Shouldered’ lintels over some of the doors, including a garderobe on the first floor, date it to the late 13th century. It was built by the town for some public purpose but what? Its total internal floor area is only some 19 feet by 22 feet, so it was not primarily a residence. Its traditional name, ‘Dungeness’, might suggest a prison or a defence work, but the latter at least is unlikely since it was built on its own, some fifty yards outside the town walls, and there was a large window on the ground floor.

Looking from the sitting room towards the dining area, with the 16th-century fireplace on the left

There is a semi-circular stone sconce on the south wall which may have been the support for a torch or fire-basket, leading some historians to suggest that the building served partly as a lighthouse or seamark. It is true that medieval lighthouses were formed in just such a way, not purpose-built. However, the Chantry is two miles from the sea and, even without the modern building which now lies between it and the shore, the West Bay cliffs would have limited its usefulness as a seamark.

The most likely explanation is that boats would come up the River Brit, which ran close behind the Chantry, to unload at a quay by the town walls. Harbour tolls would have been payable and the Chantry was built as a toll-house. This fits with the date soon after the Charter, as the new Corporation would have wanted to exploit such a useful source of income as soon as possible. The torch on the south wall may have been to provide illumination and to remind ships’ crews to stop and pay their dues.

The massive fireplace which accommodates most of a modern kitchen

It this was indeed the building’s original function, it did not last long because as early as 1362, the town bailiffs leased the Chantry to Robert Bemynstre, a local lawyer and MP. He needed accommodation for a priest called Richard Stratton, whom he employed to sing masses for the souls of his family – and, more altruistically, the burgesses of Bridport and their successors. No doubt this encouraged the town to look favourably on Bemynstre’s request for a lease.

John Hutchins referred to the Chantry as ‘an ancient building said to be the prior’s house, most probably for one of the chantry priests in the church’. He was half-right: the chapel dedicated to St Katherine an the Virgin Mary in the nearby parish church of St Mary was not completed until 1387, so for twenty-five years Richard Stratton sang his masses in the Chantry itself. The Chantry was also associated with, and sometimes wrongly assumed to be, the chapel of St Leonard, which is in the parish church as well.

Various intriguing documents survive from this era. There are inventories dated 1390 and 1474, while in 1376 Richard Stratton agreed with the town bailiffs for an extension at the back of the building, no trace of which survives. Perhaps the most interesting is a 1369 agreement between Stratton and his patron, Robert Bemynstre, to share the profits and outgoings of a columbarium, that is a pigeon-loft or dovecote.

The main bedroom on the first floor.  In the arched recess to the left stood the altar at which masses were said.

The chantries were dissolved not by Henry VIII but by his son, Edward VI, in 1547. The Chantry reverted to the Corporation and became a residence, being leased successively to Thomas Watson and William Adleys, Dr James Westly, then the Chilcott family in the 18th century; fragments of bottles stamped ‘W Chilcott’ have been found on the site. The building was modernised in 1870, but the contemporary Bridport Almanac did not think much of the result: ‘Unfortunately its restoration has divested it of much of the primitive beauty through a modern architect’s attempting to bring it somewhat in character with the 19th-century style.’ Nevertheless, the Chantry was one of the buildings of Bridport sketched by Charles Rennie Mackintosh on his visit to the town in 1895.

The last tenant, a Mr Scaddon, moved out in 1972 and the Chantry stood empty. One imagines that it must have been something of a millstone round the neck of West Dorset District Council, the successors to the Corporation of Bridport, and that they were relieved when in 1986 a 99-year lease was taken on by the Vivat Trust. Initially the Trust had the first and second floors only, but they ground floor was soon added. A major programme of restoration and conservation was immediately put in hand.

The Vivat Trust was founded in 1975 by two young architects who met while studying the theory and practice of conservation under the auspices of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Its purpose is to preserve small but important historic buildings that would otherwise be facing dereliction, making them as self-supporting as possible by converting them to holiday accommodation. Thus the Chantry, for example, has been adapted to sleep five visitors with every possible comfort including a modern kitchen and two bathrooms. The chill of the flagstone floors is offset by night storage heaters and a wood-burning stove, while both the conversion and the decoration have been carried out with meticulous care an impeccable taste. To hire the Chantry costs over £800 a week in the high season, but a midweek stay in the winter is not much more than £300. The Vivat Trust now owns a dozen properties, ranging from an Elizabethan banqueting tower in Shropshire to a gatehouse in Kent.

On the ground floor, one enters through a lobby which leads into the dining area and sitting room which is notable for its 16th-century stone fireplace and geometric and floral wall paintings. The floor is flagstones covered by rugs. Between the sitting room and the kitchen is a 14th-century screen that was probably put in place in the 1600s. To enter the kitchen, therefore, one retraces one’s steps through the dining area and past an old staircase that leads nowhere because it was blanked off in the 19th-century restoration. The main feature of the kitchen is a magnificent large fireplace into which the Trust has been able to fit all the appliances, surfaces and storage areas of a modern kitchen. This room was probably a kitchen from the time the house was built, on the evidence of a large oven found leading off the great fireplace.

One of the bedrooms on the top floor, showing the holes for pigeons or doves

It must have looked awful, but the 19th-century restoration clad the whole of the ground and first floors in pine panelling. Today, the first floor consists of a landing and the main bedroom. The latter is perhaps the most interesting room in the house, containing as it does a 14th-century fireplace and garderobe. Not only that, but a high pointed arch gives access to the area above the porch. This is where stood the altar at which Richard Stratton sang his masses until the chapel in the parish church was complete. There even survives the piscine in which he would have washed the chalice. Here, more than anywhere else, one feels 700 years of history fall away and even the most stolid imagination will have a sense of how the building looked and felt in the early years of its existence.

One of the more astonishing features of the Chantry is on the second, or top, floor: the holes for the pigeons or doves in the columbarium. These were only discovered when the Vivat Trust was restoring the building in the 1980s and were the definitive proof that tied the Chantry to Robert Bemynstre and Richard Stratton via the agreement of 1369. These pigeon-holes are to be seen in one of the two bedrooms on this floor and in the bathroom. It was quite uncommon for such a facility to be incorporated in a building, the pigeon-loft or dovecote being normally a separate structure. However, there is another example of an integrated columbarium in Dorset: at Godlingston Manor near Swanage.
Architectural historians suggest that the front windows would have contained stone tracery and there would have been a statue above the porch. Otherwise, the exterior of the Chantry looks much as it would have done in its early years. The same cannot be said with complete accuracy of the inside but, despite the ravages of the 19th-century restorers and thanks to the more enlightened efforts of the Vivat Trust, its historic atmosphere survives and is a unique and valuable part of Bridport’s heritage.

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