Clive Hannay paints and Rodney Legg explores the big village on the Piddle
Published in September ’06
‘Puddletown (or Piddletown)’, Kelly’s Directory used to say. It was Piddletown, or variants such as Piddleton, until Major-General Charles William Thompson had his way after the Great War. To a soldier, Piddle had another meaning, apart from that of the river running through the village. Major Thompson lived at Ilsington Lodge, which became Trent Meadows after being sold by the Brymer estate in 1921, and was the first president of the local branch of the British Legion. His former paddock has since been covered with houses and now carries his name – Thompson’s Close.
The parish church of St Mary still has great charm, and when Sir Frederick Treves wrote his Highways and Byways in Dorset in 1906, it was ‘one of the few which has been happy in escaping the hand of the restorer. No church can compare with this in human interest and nowhere can come into closer touch with the Dorset of the past.’ His words ring somewhat duller now, as the chancel was rebuilt and enlarged in 1911, but the remainder of the building escaped the thoroughness of a Victorian ‘restoration’. Medieval and magnificent, dating from the 15th century, St Mary’s incorporates a mass of woodwork. Where in most churches there is a grey open space, the middle of this one is a forest of dark oak. Old-fashioned box pews still segregate the worshippers, who are overlooked by a Hardyesque organ gallery with room or a small orchestra. Instrumentalists provided the music at services until 1845. Suspended from the gallery are four canvas fire buckets, dated 1805, which were provided by the Sun Insurance Company of Bath.
Above, there is an ancient roof of panelled compartments, which is matched by a canopy above the pulpit, although original carvings from 1635 were destroyed during the 1911 refurbishment. The Norman font is a real gem. Beaker-shaped, it is embellished with a trellis of vine leaves and symbolises a communion cup. It appears to have been sealed on instructions from Rome in 1209, before the excommunication of King John. Through an arch is a chantry which contains elegant tombs and effigies of the Martyn family from Athelhampton, dating from 1250. By the 16th century their monuments were still elaborate but contained brass memorials, with the last being to Nicholas Martyn who died in 1595 without having fathered a boy (though he had four daughters).
In the churchyard there is an altar tomb to William Amey, who led a force of Yeoman Volunteers in the Napoleonic Wars. Another headstone is ‘In memory of Peter Stanley, King of the Gypsies, who died 23rd November 1802, aged 70 years.’
Ilsington House, set in 24 acres of parkland at the eastern end of the village, was built in 1690 but almost completely rebuilt in the early 19th century. It is a large, stucco-rendered mansion with balustrades and an iron balcony. It dates from the time when the 7th Earl of Huntingdon owned Puddletown and passed to the Walpole family, the Earls of Orford. Vestigial topiary dates from their time. The Walpoles rented Ilsington House to Major-General Thomas Garth, equerry to Kind George III, who entertained the Royal Family on their way to and from Weymouth. Garth was credited with having made the King’s fifth daughter pregnant. The fact that it is now thought that the culprit was Sophie’s own brother makes the General’s discretion and loyalty even more impressive. Princess Sophia had her son in Weymouth and he was adopted by General Garth, who brought him up at Ilsington. Sophia died, still unmarried, in 1848.
The Brymer family then became squires of Ilsington and continued to own most of Puddletown for the next century. The other significant resident was ‘the Dorset farmer’, Ralph Wightman (1901-71), although the veteran broadcaster often used to point out that he had never actually farmed. He took over from A. G. Street and S. P. B. Mais in 1942 as the voice of ‘Country Matters’ and he delivered 290 consecutive weekly recordings to Americans from the English countryside at war. Ralph Wightman was a genuine son of the Dorset soil, born in Piddletrenthide, where his father was a farmer and his elder brother became the butcher. He settled for the stone-mullioned and thatch-roofed Tudor Cottage (with a date-stone for ‘R.B. 1573′) that faces the distinctive Venetian-style shop-front in the Square at Puddletown. For nearly three decades his soft voice was synonymous with Dorset in the national psyche, as he specialised in what many regarded as sound commonsense to punctuate the politics on ‘Any Questions’. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he never troubled to make the transition to television and remained loyal to the wireless, though he did produce a series of Dorset-related books which capture in print the relaxed style that brought him such popularity on the air-waves.
Henry VIII, through Thomas Cromwell, granted the village the right to an annual fair, which was held on 29 October. It remains a large parish, covering 7185 acres, with its significance being reflected in the outsized vicarage – much of it dating from 1722 – which was described by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments as ‘an unspoilt example of an 18th-century house of medium size’.
The Cat was the former thatched public house on the Northbrook approach to Puddletown. It was burnt down and replaced by the red-brick Blue Vinney but survived in a saying that reinforces Thomas Hardy’s account of the village’s reputation for hard drinking:
Out of Church,
Out of Cat,
The village also had a Royal Oak Inn and the well-known King’s Arms Hotel, which faced the junction at the west end of Puddletown and had extensive stabling for hunting parties. The Prince of Wales, in the High Street, was a road-house which replaced an earlier thatched hostelry that burnt down in 1930. The building incorporated salvaged fittings including ceiling beams and an oak boss carved with a Tudor rose. All have been re-developed.
Architect and author Thomas Hardy was born over the hill in Higher Bockhampton. Puddletown personalities – including Hardy’s relatives from the Sparks and Antell families – provided young Thomas with the rustic originals for characters in Far from the Madding Crowd, his first major novel. Puddletown was thinly disguised as Weatherbury. George Caundle’s thatched garage in the High Street, on the New Street corner, later turned fiction into fact with the Weatherbury Garage. Caundle gave it an added period feel by describing himself as a ‘carrier’ and offered a ‘bunkering service’ as well as Regent-brand petrol.
A quirky wildlife aside is that before the American bittern was known in the United States, the first specimen ever recorded was ‘shot by Mr Cunningham near Piddletown in this county in the autumn of 1804′. It found its way into the collection of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where it was documented as being smaller than and different from the European Bittern. ‘It is a remarkable fact that this American bird should have been first described from a specimen obtained in Dorsetshire a year before it was made known to American naturalists.’ J. C. Mansel-Pleydell recorded in his Birds of Dorsetshire.
A two-mile walk from the Moor at Northbrook (OS ref SY757947) starts off by crossing the River Piddle from the Blandford direction. Follow Mill Street to Styles Lane in 250 yards and then turn left into the Square and Back Street, which join again opposite St Mary’s Church in 100 yards.
After passing the entrance to Ilsington House and turning left from the Green, cross the eastern end of the High Street in 250 yards. Walk up chalky Rodd Hill Lane and then turn right into the housing estate, at Chapel View and Butt Close, in 200 yards. Turn left into Beech Road and then right in 50 yards, along Brymer Road, to Willoughby Close and White Hill in 200 yards.
Turn left, above Coombe Road, and pass St Mary’s Middle School. In 400 yards turn right into the public footpath after the school grounds and follow it northwards for 500 yards. It re-enters the village on the west side of the Kings Mead development on the site of the old King’s Arms. Turn right to the traffic lights in 50 yards, and then left to pass Thompson Close in 100 yards. In 250 yards return to Northmoor.