The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A hidden architectural treasure

Martin and Ken Ayres visit Fiddleford Manor and Mill

A close-up of the hall roof

If a public vote were taken to identify Dorset’s outstanding historic buildings, some such as Corfe Castle, Milton Abbey and Kingston Lacy would be sure to feature. Others, however, might well be overlooked because of their secluded situation or smaller scale. I suspect that among these would be Fiddleford Manor, a building that remains surprisingly little known despite its undoubted architectural merit.

Fiddleford is easily missed as one journeys along the main road between Blandford and Sturminster Newton, even though it is only a short distance from the highway. The mill house stands on the river Stour, just outside Sturminster, and is one of a large number of mills that once lined its banks. Today, the oldest part of the house is in the care of English Heritage and is open to the public free of charge. It has its origins in the 14th century, possibly having been built as a manor house and principal residence for Margaret Latimer and her husband William, sheriff of Somerset and Dorset in 1374 and 1380.

The gallery from the hall

The house is approached down a quiet country lane bordered by luscious green hedgerows, often alive with birdsong. Even on a summer bank holiday weekend the car park is quiet and the house little visited. It is approached across a beautiful lawn, passing under the shade of an age-old walnut tree. Once inside, one enters a passage that opens out to the right, into the great hall. At first glance this is a relatively plain room, with its whitewashed walls and simple 16th-century mullioned windows.

Look up, however, and you discover an outstanding example of an open timber roof, the oak beams and braces carved to create an elaborate pattern of cusped tracery. Some of these timbers have supported this structure for more than seven centuries. When first constructed, the room had only an open fire and the pattern of the beams at the east end of the roof is interrupted for a louvre truss, designed to draw the smoke up out of the hall. This marks the centre of the hall before its shortening in the 17th century, when the fireplace and chimney were constructed in the new east wall.

Still looking up, but turning one’s back to the fireplace, it is possible to appreciate the high quality of the gallery above the passageway. Although heavily restored and set in a modern frame, much of the original 17th-century oak panelling with lozenge decoration has survived. It is a feature such as this that brings to life the aspirations of the house’s wealthy inhabitants, expressing both a pride in craftsmanship and a desire to impress their visitors.

Walking back under the passageway, one is struck by the intricately carved initials on the stone surrounds to the doorways which lead to the two rooms forming the solar undercroft. The initials are those of Thomas and Ann White, tenants of Fiddleford in the 17th century, who undertook an extensive re-modelling of the building. White came from a wealthy family of Poole merchants who were also prominent Catholics. However, despite antagonising Poole’s Protestant clergy, the family survived Elizabeth’s reign and retained the house until at least the late 17th century.

The louvre truss, which allowed smoke to escape from the hall

The rooms in the undercroft are low, cold and dark, in stark contrast to the height and airiness of the hall. These were ideal conditions for the storage of provisions. The south-eastern room has an opening cut into the staircase partition to let in light from a strategically placed window in the exterior wall. It has been suggested that this enabled the room to be used as an office. On a bright day, fascinating swirls of light are cast onto the floor through the bubbled and uneven panes of glass in the windows. Also in this room, secreted away in a storage area, is what appears to be the original front door, no doubt replaced because of the evident signs of wear and tear caused by centuries of letting visitors pass over the threshold of the house.

The upper storey is reached by a rickety wooden staircase which is likely to have been first constructed by the Whites to replace an earlier exterior stairway. Upstairs, the solar was used as the occupants’ sleeping quarters and it is another impressive room. In the east wall is a 16th-century fireplace with herringbone brickwork to its rear, and the north wall contains a 14th-century stone window, although this is now blocked up. On either side of this are recently uncovered wall paintings depicting the Annunciation scene. Today, only part of the Angel Gabriel is visible, but this gives an indication of the decoration that once adorned the walls and is another pointer to the high status of the occupants.

It is the roof, however, that is the solar’s most impressive feature. The arched and cusped beams date from the 14th century and Pevsner, the esteemed architectural historian, described the roof as a ‘triumph’. From the gallery, which lies through a low doorway to the east, a closer look at the timbers above the hall can also be gained. At this elevation we come face to face with medieval craftsmanship and are able to appreciate fully the high-quality carving that produced the beautiful trefoil and quatrefoil patterning that survives to this day. Looking down over the hall, we can also imagine the former richness of life below.

The solar

From the outside, more of the house’s history becomes clear. A short walk along the lane brings one to a yard with an interesting old granary and the mill building itself. The mill was mentioned as early as the 13th century, and in 1566 a rhyme was carved on a stone now built into the wall. This remains on open view and, although the text is increasingly indistinct, it appears to be an exhortation to the miller ‘To please God chiefly that liveth above’.

The footpath leads on over the sluice gates and a swiftly running weir, the sound of rushing water the only noise to break the peace of the surrounding meadows. It is possible to walk to Sturminster Newton either by the banks of the Stour or along the nearby deserted railway line, a reminder that life here has not always been as tranquil as today.
Looking back at the house from across the fields, the scale of the Whites’ 16th-century extension becomes clear. To the north of the solar block is a long range of building, still occupied today as a private residence and holiday accommodation. It contains an elaborate Elizabethan plaster ceiling, sadly not on view to the general public. In the 17th century a west wing was also added, running across what is now the front lawn, but this was demolished in 1956.

In the early 18th century the house passed into the ownership of an ancestor of the Pitt-Rivers family, who by the mid-19th century were Dorset’s largest landowners. From the 1780s, for almost two centuries, only two families held the tenancy. Members of the Newman family were millers for over seventy years until 1855, when the mill was taken over by Job Rose. He weighed more than 31 stone and was immortalised in William Barnes’ poem, ‘John Bloom in London’. Olive Hall provides a detailed account of the Rose family’s time at Fiddleford in her excellent book, Where Elm Trees Grew. At first they were non-resident and employed a working miller, but they had moved into the west wing of the house by 1871. Four generations of the Rose family milled here until the last member retired in 1977. The mill closed soon afterwards.

During this period the buildings slowly went into decline. From the late 19th century the north wing was used as a number of cottages and a storeroom, until the mid-20th century when the Rose family became occupants following the demolition of the west wing. The hall became extremely dilapidated before being placed in the care of the Ministry of Works in the 1960s.

Indeed, it is a disturbing thought that this building could so easily have been lost. Fortunately, thanks to the careful restoration work undertaken by English Heritage, the oldest part of the building has been saved and what Pevsner described as ‘the most spectacular medieval manor house interior in Dorset’ is now open for all to enjoy.

[Fiddleford Manor is open every day (except 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan), 1 April-30 September, 10am-6pm and 1 October-31 March, 10am-4pm.]

The mill from across the Stour

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