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Clive Hannay and Rodney Legg draw and describe the village below Winyard’s Gap

Looking two ways, Chedington is a watershed parish, with its run-off reaching both the English Channel (via the River Axe) and the Bristol Channel (via the River Parrett). The wooded viewpoint ridge looks north across most of Somerset from a strategic pass into the Dorset downs. Along here, through Winyard’s Gap, King Charles led his troops in 1644 and ‘rode the great horse very well’, it was noted, to the sound of kettle-drum bandsmen.

In a two-mile stretch of highway, the A356 road from Crewkerne to Maiden Newton climbs from only 200 feet at Chedington to the 800-foot contour on Toller Down. The small 760-acre parish of Chedington had 184 inhabitants in 1841 and 176 inhabitants in 1851. the trend continued at each census, dropping to 118 in 1921, until it reached the all-time low of an adult population of 91 in 1991. It is known for two special buildings: Chedington Court, which now houses an hotel and golf club, and Winyard’s Gap Inn at the foot of the chalky pass.

The latter’s predecessor, the Three Horse Shoes, entered history with the ramifications of the famous gypsy-alibi trial in 1753 which was peppered with Hogarth-like characters. Mary Squires, an ageing gypsy ‘of unbelievable ugliness’, was accused with Mrs Susannah ‘Mother’ Wells of carrying out abduction for prostitution, as brothel matrons. They protested they were scapegoats in a murky case which was complicated by walk-on parts for highwaymen and smugglers. Mary Squires counter-claimed that she was with the smugglers, in Abbotsbury and Chedington, at the time when the prosecution accused her of cavorting with highwaymen.

The jury was influenced by magistrate Henry Fielding (1707-54), who had turned this debauched territory into the first English novel with Tom Jones. He allowed dubious evidence from Elizabeth Canning (1734-73) and an even less credible account from a young lady named Virtue Hall, partially compiled by the solicitor for the prosecution. The case went to the Old Bailey. As a result, Mary Squires was sentenced to death, though this was commuted to transportation. Fielding defended his ‘injured innocence’ with publication of a pamphlet entitled The Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning. This failed to settle the issue, however, as it enabled numerous inconsistencies to be pointed out. Virtue Hall, on being re-examined, had already recanted her evidence.

The newly elected Lord Mayor of London, a notable humanitarian and freeman of the Brewers’ Company named Sir Crisp Gascoyne (1700-61), who was also the capital’s chief magistrate, sensed an injustice. He left the Mansion House for a 300-mile tour to visit public houses from coastal Abbotsbury to inland Somerset. As a result he returned with sufficient evidence to substantiate Mary Squires’s story and secure her a pardon. Susannah Wells, who was also vindicated, was less fortunate as she had already been branded by the public hangman.

Chedington Court was built in 1840 by W. T. Hody in mock-Tudor style in grounds and parkland of 31 acres which included the source of the River Parrett, with that of the Axe being nearby on estate land in Banks’s Coppice. William Trevelyan Cox JP was in residence by 1855 and Rev. George William Cruttandan was the rector. The landowner in 1889 was Captain William Trevelyan Hody JP and Rev. Frederic Septimus Stockdale was rector.

Sir Henry Peto (1840-1938), the son of the Victorian railway magnate, Sir Samuel Morton Peto, baronet and MP, bought Chedington Court and its estate in 1893. He had married a parson’s daughter, Mary Ann Susan Fuller, in 1874. Sir Henry was High Sheriff in 1897 and a Deputy Lieutenant for the county of Dorset, and among the first members of the new Dorset County Council, a position he retained from 1888 till 1913.

Sir Henry and Lady Peto donated a reading and recreation room to the village for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. Herbert Bryans designed a celebratory window for St James’s parish church. Sir Henry Peto then proceeded to restore and rebuild St James’s, with architect George Vialls, in 1898. The old churchyard was incorporated into Sir Henry’s garden. An elementary school, built in 1850, was enlarged in 1900 to cater for 50 children. Miss Edith Wilkins was the Edwardian mistress who was longest remembered in the village.

In 1912, Rev. Thomas Guy Morres arrived at the Rectory, at a time when George Caddy was the local hurdlemaker and little had changed to take account of the new century. William Bartlett doubled as boot-maker and sub-postmaster. Tom Neal and John Draper ran Manor Farm. Despite the cosiness of the location and smallness of the parish, sixteen men served during the Great War, of whom three never returned. They included the heir to the estate, 30-year-old Captain Henry Peto of the 10th Royal Hussars, who fell in the first Battle of Ypres on 17 November 1914. Sapper Walter Samuel Peto of the Royal Engineers was killed while on patrol in Salonika on 26 December 1917.

The memorial on the hilltop above Winyard’s Gap is to the war dead of the 43rd (Wessex) Division of the Territorial Army during the campaign from Normandy to the Baltic in 1944 to 1945. It is a replica in Portland stone of the memorial on Point 112 behind the D-Day beach-heads and is one of a number unveiled on Wessex hilltops in 1952. These were chosen because they look out over the home countryside from which the men of the 43rd had come. Point 112 was the hill south-west of Caen, between Esquay and Eterville, which the 43rd Division – including the 4th Battalion the Dorsetshire Regiment – attacked at 1500 hours on 10 July 1944. They took the hill but were driven out of the nearby village by a strong German counterattack and on 11 July had to hold Point 112 against an onslaught from the 10th SS Panzer Division. Sixteen acres of woodland at Chedington, on either side of the war memorial, were given to the National Trust in 1949.

The village continues to take a pride in both its past and present. Jean Carthew came to Chedington with her partner, Barry Rogers, in 1993. She adopted the traditional red village phone-box, of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s classic 1930s design, and proceeded to enhance it with a carpet, curtain and flowers. ‘I had seen something similar done in Kent and thought it would be nice to make this box as attractive as I could,’ she told a reporter.
Chedington offers a two-mile walk on two distinct levels, from Winyard’s Gap Inn (OS ref ST491061) through a necklace of National Trust woods before descending into the village itself to follow the entire length of its two main streets.

Set off southwards along the lane from Winyard’s Gap to Court Farm in 200 yards, opposite which there is a layby. Climb the steps from here into National Trust land. In 150 yards you come to a viewpoint grass strip beside the war memorial to the 43rd Wessex Division. Proceed southwards, with your back to the memorial, along the spine of the hill with roads down to both the left and right. Bear right at the end of the wood in 200 yards. Keep within the trees along the whole length of the wooded ridge. Descend to the roads at a junction in 300 yards and cross here to a National Trust gate to the left of the thatched cottage on Penny’s Hill.

Also stay inside this section of wood and walk its entirety. In 350 yards progress becomes increasingly difficult, through holly bushes on the spur, so drop down to the road on the left. Follow this lane for 50 yards to the hilltop junction. Turn right and descend into Chedington village. Follow the village street eastwards from Thame, up the slope beside Lower Farm with its veteran ‘Safety First’ Automobile Association sign, showing London at 135½ miles. Lower Farm was the home of Sir Richard Cooper Bt (1934-2006), who chaired the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Lower Thatch and Primrose Cottage are next with the Old Police Cottage looking from on high. The telephone kiosk and village hall are below the School House.

In 500 yards pass Hazel Barton and bear right beside Old St James. The road swings to the left at Woodland View, in 50 yards, into a prolonged curve beside the wall of Chedington Court, facing the stone mullioned windows of Manor Farmhouse. Its 1634 date-stone, above the porch, is named for Thomas Waren [sic]. In 250 yards, between Chedington Court and Stable Lodge, continue straight ahead at the junction. Highfield House and the gates to the Court are followed by Chedington Lodge in 200 yards. In another 500 yards, return to the comfort of Winyard’s Gap Inn.

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