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Dorset’s rivers — The River Frome from Evershot to Dorchester

Following his series on ‘Dorset’s Little Rivers’, John Chaffey now traces the first part of the River Frome

St John’s Well in Evershot, the source of the Frome

Dorset’s River Frome is its second longest river, flowing for some 35 miles from Evershot, in the high chalk downland north of Dorchester, to Poole Harbour, which it enters alongside its sister stream, the Piddle. It flows through chalk country from Evershot as far as Lower Bockhampton to the east of Dorchester, where it crosses onto the outcrop of the sands and clays of the Tertiary beds. ‘Frome’ is an old Celtic river name meaning ‘fair’ or ‘fine’ and it certainly merits this accolade for virtually the whole of its course.

In its upper course, between Evershot and Maiden Newton, the Frome is surrounded by rolling chalk hills and does not really boast a flood plain until the latter village is reached. Below Maiden Newton everything changes and the Frome begins to meander across a widening flood plain for the remainder of its course to Wareham and Poole Harbour. It is at Maiden Newton that the first water meadows are encountered on the flood plain and they form an essential part of the riverine scene, all the way to Wareham. Today, none of the water meadows is managed as part of a system that formerly allowed the flood plain to play its full part in the farming practices of the valley, but they remain as a characteristic legacy from the past, immortalised by Thomas Hardy’s many references to them in his novels.

In the Frome valley, near Frome St Quintin

To choose Dorchester as the point where the upper Frome may be conveniently divided from the lower is to recognise how much more fully developed the water meadows are downstream from the town. Furthermore, with the increasing propensity of the river to flood downstream from Dorchester, the villages are located safely on dry terrace sites, whereas upstream villages such as Frampton, Maiden Newton and Cattistock are more truly riparian settlements, much closer to the river.

In the village of Evershot, the spring known as St John’s Well is the source of the Frome. Hidden away off a narrow lane, St John’s Well has been marked by a Millennium project by the village and neatly organised information panels tell the story of the well and its village. The Ilchester estate still draws some 5¾ million gallons of water from the well each year.

The little trickle from the enclosure around the information panels is the infant Frome and it flows unassumingly past gardens and the beer garden of the Acorn Inn. It would be possible to visit the main street of Evershot, with its fine array of 17th and 18th century and later Victorian buildings, without ever seeing the tiny stream that begins its 35-mile journey to Poole Harbour amongst the cottage gardens. Evershot is the Evershead of Thomas Hardy’s novels and Tess of the d’Urbervilles had breakfast in a ‘cottage by the church’, still clearly recognisable today. Sir Frederick Treves found Evershot to be a ‘neat, wholesome overgrown village, which remains still modest and unassuming’, perhaps echoing Leland’s description of a ‘right humble towne’.

From Evershot the little stream that will become the Frome flows away south-eastwards and its first village (to which it gives its name), Frome St Quintin, is set high on the valley side. Frome House, in the centre of the village, was built in 1782 and is probably its finest building, while its little church lies serenely amidst the fields with no obvious approach route. Downstream lies Chantmarle, an impressively beautiful 17th-century manor house. It derives its name from the Chauntermerle family, the name suggesting ‘song of the blackbird’. The manor house dominates the western side of the deepening Frome valley and in recent years functioned as a police training college. It now offers high-class accommodation in addition to housing a Christian resources centre in the buildings that were originally the police training centre. Running through the Frome valley from just south-east of Evershot is the single-track Weymouth to Bristol railway, with its two rattling car units bringing a slightly incongruous air to the tranquil chalkland valley.

A glimpse of the Frome through trees near Chilfrome

Both valley roads run high on its sides, for there is little room for other transport arteries apart from the railway in the valley bottom. The roads converge on Cattistock with its splendid church tower, a landmark among the trees on the valley side. Sir Frederick Treves called Cattistock a ‘cheery townlet, with a very noble church, recently rebuilt.’ It was rebuilt by Sir Gilbert Scott and his son, George Gilbert Scott, in the mid-19th century and survived a fire in the tower in the 1940s, which led to further rebuilding in the 1950s by J S Brockerly. Within the church, the eye of the visitor is drawn to the enormously high font cover that reaches almost to the ceiling.

Cattistock rambles away around the church and in some cottages chalk blocks, known as ‘clunch’, are used as building materials, particularly in the attractive Fox and Hounds. Just outside the village, on the road to Maiden Newton and Chilfrome, is what must be one of the finest cricket grounds in the county, framed by huge chestnut trees and looking across the Frome valley to the neatly patterned hedgerows and fields on the distant valley slopes.

Maiden Newton is very much the focus of the upper Frome valley; it receives its first major tributary, the Hooke, at Tollerford and the widening valley now carries both main road and railway. Maiden Newton’s Old Mill is one of the most attractive buildings in the village – once it used the Frome’s water for power, but now it is a private residence. Treves lamented the demolition of the White Hart, but was at his descriptive best when he wrote about the church, ‘The churchyard is a garden of flowers, a vine climbs over the old church porch, lichen and moss have added rich tints of yellow, brown and green to the drab walls.’

The Frome at Maiden Newton.  The Old Mill in the village once used the Frome’s water power.

Settlement begins to cluster thickly in the valley downstream from Maiden Newton. On the south bank is Frome Vauchurch, ‘estate on the River Frome with a coloured church’, the secluded and perfectly proportioned Cruxton Manor and the site of a Roman villa. Further downstream is Frampton, literally Frome Town. It is really two villages, Northover and Southover, on opposite banks of the river. Originally it belonged to St Stephen of Caen and a priory was established in the village on the south bank. Today, west of the site of the priory, remains of a medieval settlement can still be seen just beyond Southover. Northover is the dominant village: cottages line one side of the street, others on the south side were demolished in the 19th century to improve the view of the owner of Frampton Court (now also demolished).

Frampton’s church is variously described as ‘an oddity’ and ‘a dark, heavy and threatening place of worship’. Its dominant tower, built by Robert Browne of Frampton Court in 1695, has probably been responsible for these comments. It is from Steppes Bottom, a tributary valley just to the south of the Frome, that water was taken by the Romans via an aqueduct to Durnovaria, the old Roman town occupying part of the present site of Dorchester. Traces of the aqueduct can still be seen near Bradford Peverell and the old hill fort of Poundbury.

Downstream from Maiden Newton, the Frome begins to meander across a widening flood plain towards Dorchester and Wareham

Downstream from Frampton, the Frome begins a series of bold meanders, suggesting a river that has come of age. The view from the bridge at Muckleford offers one of the finest prospects of any chalkland river in Dorset. Water meadows begin to make a major contribution to the flood plain scene, particularly near Stratton. Both the villages, Stratton and Bradford Peverell, in this final stretch above Dorchester sit snugly on dry sites well above the flood plain. Stratton is now peacefully by-passed and Bradford Peverell, birthplace of John Hutchins, the renowned county historian, brings the first sight of a church spire in the Frome valley. The Cerne brings in its clear waters at Wolfeton and the Frome, gathering momentum now, cuts its first real river cliff into the side of the original Poundbury fort as Dorchester is approached.

So the quiet unassuming trickle through the cottage gardens of Evershot has become the confident, fully-fledged Frome before Dorchester. The course of the river has taken it through some of Dorset’s most delightful chalklands, which it leaves as it flows on through urban Dorchester and the ever-widening flood plain and water meadows in the broad, open valley that will carry it to distant Wareham.

A view of the Frome from Muckleford Bridge near Stratton

[The second part of John Chaffey’s journey down the River Frome, from Dorchester to Poole Harbour, will follow later in the year.]

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