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Dorset’s little rivers — The Cerne

John Chaffey traces mid-Dorset’s attractive little chalk stream

The lake at Minterne

The River Cerne, together with the Piddle to the east and Sydling Water to the west, drains the central block of chalk downland that lies to the north-west of Dorchester. The river, which is about eight miles long, receives one short tributary, the little stream that runs down through Up Cerne and then joins the main river just above Cerne Abbas. The origin of the name of the river is a little uncertain. One suggestion is that the name comes from the Celtic carn ‘ a pile of stones’. Unless this refers to the greensand fragments that are found in the fields in the upper part of the course, or the piles of flints taken from the fields on the chalk lower down, it is a little difficult to see the connection. Another idea is that Cerne may mean ‘winding stream’, which would certainly fit the Cerne as it meanders all the way from Minterne down to its confluence with the Frome.

It rises in the shadow of High Stoy and Dogbury Hill, two of the fine bastions of the great chalk escarpment that runs across Dorset from north-east to south-west. Its source is in a damp hollow in the steep valley-head above Minterne Magna. Although it is mainly a chalk stream, the geology map tells us that the spring that gives rise to the Cerne is on the damp gault clay exposed for a short distance in the valley bottom. The Cerne flows over the upper greensand, outcropping in the valley bottom, all the way to Cerne Abbas, although the valley sides and surrounding hills are unmistakably chalk. Below Cerne Abbas the river flows continuously over chalk to its confluence with the Frome just to the south of Wolfeton House.

The Cerne is a friendly river, for none of its delightful villages shun the stream. Cerne Abbas, Godmanstone and Charminster are all built close to the river’s banks; smaller settlements such as Nether Cerne, Forston and the lost village of Wolfeton are similarly attracted to the clear waters of the river. Mills operated on the Cerne in Cerne Abbas, Godmanstone and Charminster, with reminders of their existence in each of the villages, with names such as Mill House and Mill Lane linking them to a busy past.

The Cerne flows away southwards from its tree-shaded source under the steep slopes of Dogbury Hill. It soon enters Minterne Park, where it forms the centre-piece of the landscaped gardens. Minterne House, home of the Digby family, was built in 1903-6 to replace a Victorian house on the same site. It looks down on the ornamental lake and the gardens from its position on the western side of the valley of the Cerne. The Cerne valley at Minterne was first landscaped in the style of Capability Brown in the 18th century; the river itself flows through the ornamental lake and over the cascades that were created as part of the valley gardens. The gardens include a valuable collection of Himalayan rhododendrons and azaleas, which produce a scene of magnificent colours when the shrubs are in full flower in late May. Yellow, pink, red and orange blossoms rise tier on tier from the little Cerne stream, to the dark greens of the enclosing exotic trees high on the side of the valley. The stream is lined with primulas, astilbes and other water plants which make their own bright and colourful contribution to the valley scene. The change from the sheep-grazed open downland landscape of the river’s source to the intimate enclosed beauty of Minterne Gardens is quite magical.

The Cerne in the ornamental gardens of Minterne

Southwards, the Cerne flows away from Minterne Gardens in its now broadening valley, receiving the little Up Cerne stream after its short course down from Lynch Coppice. Up Cerne itself is a delightful hamlet, with flint and stone cottages scattered alongside the tiny, clear stream, flowing between neatly mown banks. The 17th-century Manor House, part Ham stone and part brick, and 1870s church complete the scene, somewhat hidden by the trees on the southern side of the hamlet. The Manor House, built by Sir Robert Mellor, who died in 1624, looks out serenely on the lower part of the Up Cerne stream’s valley. The valley is now occupied by a series of lakes, diversifying the downland landscape, which opens out towards the junction with the main Cerne stream near Cerne Abbas.

As the Cerne approaches its main village, Cerne Abbas, the scene is inevitably dominated by the 180-feet-high Giant, carved through the turf into bare chalk on the eastern side of the valley. His origins remain obscure: some suggest a figure of Roman times, others opt for a much more recent origin. Today he stands guard over the valley, aloof and slightly threatening. Cerne Abbas itself seems to have changed over the years: Sir Frederick Treves, writing in the early 20th century, describes the village seen from a distance as ‘a cosy settlement tucked away in an ampitheatre of sage-green hills. There are many trees in the town, so that, compared with the poor bare downs that close it in, it looks warm and comfortable, and curled up like a dormouse in a sunny corner.’ No-one would disagree with this view, but Treves goes on to say, ‘It is evident that some trouble has fallen on the Abbey town. It is silent and well-nigh deserted. Sad to tell, Cerne Abbas is dying and has already fallen into a state of hebetude.’

Dappled light on Kettle Bridge at Cerne Abbas

A hundred years on, Cerne has not died: it is a busy and thriving village, with enterprising village stores, tea rooms and public houses all serving inhabitants and visitors alike in an atmosphere of well justified civic pride and endeavour. Cerne’s many attractive buildings benefit from the use of a wide variety of building materials, including the local flint and chalk, as well as the more distantly derived Ham Hill stone and Portland and Purbeck limestone. Both Long Street and Abbey Street possess many buildings of architectural interest and merit. Cerne’s fine parish church, with its magnificent tower, dominates Abbey Sreet. It faces a most interesting row of buildings dating from 1500, with their upper storeys protruding above the ground floor. At the head of Abbey Street are the surviving buildings of Cerne Abbey. The River Cerne hides itself away in the village, although an attractive riverside path passes the position of the old mill and leads to the single-arch Kettle Bridge carrying the side road that gives access to the Giant.

Nether Cerne

The Cerne continues its journey southwards through a verdant valley, with chalk downland sweeping away on either side. Just after it passes through a large, tree-framed lake, it reaches the little cluster of buildings at Nether Cerne, which rivals Up Cerne for its rural peace and tranquillity. Its 13th-century church, described by Treves as ‘of stone and flint with a square tower, placed among trees and gardens by the side of the Cerne River’ was heavily restored in the 19th century but is now redundant. Opposite is the Manor House, attractive in its flint and stone banding, mostly 17th- and 18th-century. Well-manicured lawns reach down to the trickling Cerne, full of water crowfoot with its brilliant white flowers.

A riverside path, one of the real delights of the valley, leads gently downstream to the unassuming little village of Godmanstone. Flint and stone cottages, together with more modern homes, line the busy main road, and the Cerne eases its way through to the old mill. The village is remembered for its inn, the Smith’s Arms, once a smithy and reputedly the smallest pub in England. The little thatched building is now sadly closed, but its red-painted doors still bring a touch of colour to the riverside scene.

The Cerne now flows idly through some of the most attractive water meadows in the whole of its valley and past the few buildings of Forston. Just beyond, Brooklands Farm, home of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, looks down from its site halfway up the valley side.

The Cerne at Godmanstone

The river is approaching the last of its villages, Charminster – simply ‘church on the River Cerne’. The centre of the village, the Square, lies high on its terrace site above the Cerne. West Hill, with its fine flint and stone building that was the original dairy house of Charminster Farm, leads down to the beautifully proportioned church of St Mary’s, with its splendid 16th-century tower. The church was built close alongside the River Cerne, here flowing between enclosed banks before passing under brick arches in a wall on the far side of the road and now restlessly sliding onwards to it final junction with the Frome. Charminster has tended to grow away from the river, expanding both to the east beyond steep East Hill, with its attractive Rose Cottage and brilliantly white East Hill House, and to the west where new development is beyond the Square.

The Cerne began its short course flowing through the grounds of one of Dorset’s finest country houses, Minterne, and finishes in similar fashion, with the grand buildings of Wolfeton House standing just to the east of the final stretch of the river before it enters the Frome. Wolfeton, originally the seat of the Trenchards, is a rambling manor house, parts of which date back to Tudor times. Its dominant features are the remarkable round towers of the gatehouse and the elegant south wing. Wolfeton Manor, now a nursing home, and Wolfeton Farm complete the final group of buildings that look out over the course of the Cerne.

The river that has its source in the great sweep of Dorset downland above Minterne finally slips into the Frome through rather mournful beds of reeds. It is perhaps a disappointing end to a stream that has brought its own sparkle to all of the verdant water meadows along its course. Its busy mills are now silent, but its cheerful villages continue to prosper, while rural peace and solitude continue to bring quiet refreshment to those who visit Minterne Gardens and Nether Cerne.

The Cerne at Godmanstone

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