The best of Dorset in words and pictures

‘I’m there every day’

Cerne Abbas is blessed with a number of interesting and historic buildings. John Newth has been to see one of them and to meet its remarkable American owners.

Long Street in the latter years of the 19th century, with the police station on the left; its lamp is just visible against the chequerboard effect of the flint and chalk-block walls

It was in 1858 that the decision was taken to build a new police station in Cerne Abbas, along with a house for the sergeant of police and a courthouse for the petty sessions. The following year saw the construction of the knapped flint and chalk-block building which is now no.10 Long Street and whose name, Old Gaol Cottage, reflects its history.

The front door opens directly into what is now a comfortable lounge but used to be the front office of the police station. Here, for almost a hundred years, lost dogs would be reported, miscreants would be hauled in by the constable for the sergeant’s attention, shotgun licences would be issued and all the other business of law-keeping in a Dorset village of a slower, more orderly world would be carried out.

Behind the lounge, in the kitchen and dining area, is the evidence that this was a less than idyllic age: three barred windows high on the wall indicate where the police station’s three cells were. The windows are small and electric light did not reach Cerne Abbas until 1936, so the cells would have been gloomy places indeed. The doors were solid, with small windows through which food could have been passed. The only furniture was a wooden bed with a wooden pillow on top and a chamber pot below. Small air-holes, still visible from the outside of the building, were the only ventilation.

On one side, in what is now no.8 Long Street, were the sergeant’s quarters. The food for the prisoners was cooked here and at the rear of the property were the stables for the police station, dating back to before the days when the bicycle was the village bobby’s standard mode of transport. On the other side was the courthouse, with a connecting door so that prisoners could be taken there with the minimum of fuss. At the rear of the building was a narrow courtyard, now converted into an attractive container garden. This was the prisoners’ exercise area but also where birchings ordered by the petty sessions would be carried out. In June 1887, for example, two Dorchester lads, Frank Hutchings and John Tooley, were found guilty of stealing a charity box containing about one pound. They were each sentenced to eight strokes of the birch. It would be fascinating to know whether they re-offended, as do two-thirds of today’s young criminals who receive custodial sentences.

David and Jan Kirkpatrick relax in what was once the police station’s front office

Upstairs were the living quarters for the constables on duty. Today they are two elegant bedrooms, one facing over Long Street and one at the rear, overlooking the cottage into which the old stables have been converted and the New Inn beer garden. A bathroom – unthought of in the 1850s, even in a new building such as this – has been added.

Before the new courthouse was built, the petty sessions had been held in the New Inn. In their new home next to the police station they continued on the first Tuesday of the month at 11 am until 1938, when they were integrated into the magistrates’ courts at Dorchester and Sherborne. Like the rest of village life, the way in which law and order Upstairs were the living quarters for the constables on duty. Today they are two elegant bedrooms, one facing over Long Street and one at the rear, overlooking the cottage into which the old stables have been converted and the New Inn were maintained was changing, and the end for Cerne’s police station came in 1954, when it was sold to a Mr R Curtis for £1200.

By June 1999 it had been through several hands and was on the market again. June is the month in which Cerne Abbas opens its gardens, and two of the visitors that year were Americans Jan and David Kirkpatrick, who were on holiday from their home in Birmingham, Alabama. They had discovered Dorset two years before, when David was having a stressful time running a telephone company and Jan was suffering similarly in her manufacturing business. A friend had insisted that they borrow her cottage in Sydling St Nicholas: ‘We turned off the A37 and entered a magic world,’ is how Jan puts it. ‘We stayed a week and during that week felt instantly at home in Dorset. We said to each other when we got back home, “It can’t really have been that good” but we came back two years later and it was.’

The high window is a reminder that what is now a smart modern kitchen was once a dark and dreary cell

David, whose father had been at Mansfield College, Oxford, and founded the Oxford Institute, an inter-denominational theological conference which meets every five years, had visited England with his father at the age of twelve. ‘I looked out of the porthole at the rain falling on Southampton Docks and loved England at once,’ he remembers. Now his and Jan’s love was focussed on Dorset and the sign outside Old Gaol Cottage seemed to them not only to be saying that the cottage was for sale but pointing them in the direction they should take. ‘I took Jan to dinner at the Greyhound in Sydling that evening,’ David recalls ‘and promised her that I would do everything I could to make our dream happen. We were in our fifties but “What would our mothers say?” was still the question we asked ourselves!’

Little did David know how difficult it would be to keep that promise. There were to be nine months of legal and financial complications before contracts were signed. At one stage the expenses had been such that there was no money left for the renovations; the next day, a cheque for exactly what they needed arrived as a gift from a family member who knew nothing of their predicament.

The deal was set to be finalised in March 2000. In January of that year David was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His doctor wanted to operate in March but David insisted on delaying surgery by a month so that he could keep his promise to Jan and come over to exchange contracts. ‘I told the doctor that good as he was, we didn’t know how the surgery would turn out and I wanted to walk up to St Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury, one of my favourite places, for what might be one last time. In fact, it was thinking of this cottage that got me through that illness.’

From the start, the plan was to let the cottage to holiday-makers. ‘Having people here keeps it warm and safe, and it is a joy to share it,’ says Jan. ‘It seems to attract the sort of people who don’t cause any problems to us or our agent, Nicky Willis. We also think it’s important that the cottage doesn’t stand empty but that there are people here who go to the local pubs and shop at the village store.’

This comment reflects the Kirkpatricks’ keen awareness of the debt they owe the village for the pleasure it has given them, a debt which they try hard to repay. They are involved in many of Cerne’s activities, including David helping to re-chalk the Giant a couple of years ago – ‘He got the bit he really didn’t want to get,’ laughs Jan. ‘But we’ve developed some great friendships and they’re so nice to us here.’

One of the bedrooms converted from the constables’ quarters

‘We come several times a year,’ David adds, ‘and we hope to make it more often as we get older. We’ve sold our businesses and have adapted our lives in the US to accommodate our lives in Dorset. We consider this our home.’ Their three grown-up children have all visited, including two family Christmases and each in his or her own way shares their parents’ enthusiasm for the Cerne Abbas cottage.

David Kirkpatrick always carries in his pocket a pebble from Chesil Beach. ‘By holding it, I’m standing on the beach, feeling the wind. When someone asks me, “How often are you in Dorset?” I can honestly reply, “I’m there every day.”’

‘We consider this our home’

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