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The oldest inn in Dorset

Blandford’s Crown Hotel may date back as far as the 13th century. Tony Burton-Page tells its story.

An Engraving of about 1780 showing a coach just leaving the Crown (the building on the left of the picture)

Have you noticed how often the guide books focus on churches, town halls, memorials and worthy buildings where famous people once lived? In contrast, the humble pub is mentioned only disparagingly, if at all, and this is strange when one realises what a vital role these establishments played in the health of the general populace. Tea was not always as readily available to the thirsty English as it is now (and initially it was so expensive that the tea-caddy was locked away by the lady of the house) and because water from wells and rivers was very likely to be contaminated, the only safe drinks were ale and beer. If only this were still an excuse….

Blandford has been never been short of hostelries at which these vital commodities were available. Over eighty are known to have existed somewhere in the town – not all at the same time, although after the great fire of 1731 it is known that there were thirty inns flourishing in Blandford. This is a fairly respectable total, perhaps justified by the need to quench the thirst of all the labourers involved in the re-building. Nowadays the total is a rather more moderate ten.

Of these, the oldest by far is the Crown. In fact, it is almost certainly the oldest inn in Dorset. Ben Cox, Dorset historian par excellence, once challenged anyone to find an inn which could be proved to date further back in time than the Crown: that was nearly fifteen years ago and no-one has. Ben found a reference to ‘a tenement or hospice called le Crowne in Blandford’ in a document of 1465. It is probably even older than that, as it may well date from the building of the first Blandford bridge over the River Stour in the 13th century, which gave better access to the town from the west. To this day, it is almost the first place you come to as you cross that bridge.

Photographed in 1905, coachman Mr Lambert was employed by the Crown to meet every train arriving in Blandford

Of course, it has changed since those far-off days, but almost everything in Blandford changed after the 1731 fire. The Bastard brothers, John and William, re-built much of the town in what has been described as ‘the dignified, symmetrical Georgian style’, which gives Blandford its uniquely coherent flavour (although the brothers added their own idiosyncratic asymmetries, as a closer look at the town centre will show). The plan of the town which they made before the fire shows that the Crown was previously built around a four-sided courtyard with galleries overlooking it, but the re-building gave us the Crown very much as we see it today; there is an engraving of 1825 reproduced in one of the hotel’s brochures from the 1930s and only the horse-drawn vehicles have changed.

The Crown came into its own in the coaching era. Blandford was on the main route from London to Exeter and from the 1650s there were far more travellers calling in on the town. The roads were gradually improved, thanks to the revenue from the tolls which were collected from the mid-18th century, and this made coach travel more attractive. In 1760, Robert Porter announced in the Salisbury and Winchester Gazette that his ‘Blandford Flying Machines’ would take the paying customer to London within two days, the fare being £1 5s 0d each way. These coaches (for that was what they were – aviation historians may breathe again) departed from the Crown, of which he was the highly PR-conscious landlord. By 1795, the new landlord, Thomas Wasse, was able to boast that ‘The Mail Coach, Post-Chaise & Diligence Stop Here Every Day’, and in 1820 the Crown published a timetable listing three daily coaches to London, together with twice- or thrice-weekly coaches to Brighton, Portsmouth, Southampton, Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, Falmouth, Weymouth and Poole. And where else would the well-to-do traveller break his journey but at the Crown? It was by now so highly esteemed that a special spare Royal coach was kept there in case of emergency while King George III was making one of his visits to Weymouth.

The dawn of the Railway Age was the twilight of the coaching era, but the Crown turned this to its own advantage by the simple expedient of sending out its own coaches to meet trains at various railway stations all over the county. In 1860, the Dorset Central Railway, later to amalgamate with the Somerset Central Railway and become part of the better-known Somerset & Dorset Railway, opened its station in Blandford Forum (immortalised in Flanders and Swann’s ‘Slow Train’) and from that date and for many years thereafter the Crown advertised that it met all trains arriving at Blandford: a coachman was employed solely for this task and in a photograph taken in 1905, Mr Lambert looks immensely satisfied with his important position in the town’s life.

A late 19th-century handbill detailing the fine array of transport options available

Many famous Dorset names became involved with the Crown. It was owned in the 17th century by the Pitt family, the clan which produced ‘Diamond’ Pitt and the two William Pitts who became Prime Minister. In the next century, John Calcraft of Rempstone bought an interest in it. Subsequently it became the property of the Portman family, the squires of Bryanston, who owned most of the nearby land. In 1918 Lord Portman charitably assisted George Jones, who had lost a leg while out with the Portman Hunt, to take over the Crown. Hall & Woodhouse, the local brewing firm, also helped him out and in 1931 they finally purchased the business from him. Seventy-six years later they are still the owners, although the marketing is done by Best Western, a private consortium.

However important the owners of an inn are, though, it is the landlords who give it its defining character. Unsurprisingly, since they’re not ‘important historical figures’, there are few details of the Crown’s landlords and there are even gaps in the list of 20th-century incumbents. John Gould and Richard Embriss are two early ones who made their mark – literally, because they had coins privately struck for local use as there was a shortage of change in the 1660s, their period in charge. Each landlord had his name marked on the token, which was usually to the value of a halfpenny or a farthing and made of brass. Such tokens were made illegal in 1672, hence the expression, ‘I wouldn’t give a brass farthing’. The Crown today still issues tokens, but they are merely for the car park and won’t buy you a drink, though they might save you a parking fine.

The Crown Hotel today

The present landlord is James Mayo, whose family connections with the Crown stretch back to the early 20th century. His father, Head Waiter from 1930 to 1968, provides a link with the days in the 16th century when contraband was landed at the Crown’s own wharf on the River Stour in the Crown Meadow by Sir Richard Rogers, who was both County Sheriff and a successful smuggler. William Mayo, James’s father, was a talented black marketeer, with an uncanny knack of procuring the unprocurable. The contraband (rationed goods such as cheese, sugar, bacon) had to be concealed when the yard porter sounded one long ring on the bell – the signal that the Ration Inspector was about. The snag was that the only sure place of concealment was under the vast mound of boiler fuel at the back. When the inspector had departed, the coke and anthracite were washed off and the contraband was as good as new.

The Crown has even made a contribution to our artistic heritage. Several years ago, a number of murals were discovered on the walls of the former Billiard Room. The five large, colourful paintings depicted Napoleon’s abortive plan to invade England in 1805 and they were painted by Osbert Lancaster, later famous for cartoons and caricatures. The legend goes that he painted them because he couldn’t pay for his room – a story his wealthy family strongly deny, but no-one has come forward with any other reason for their existence. Alas, they are now covered by wallpaper and they will stay thus until some philanthropic soul provides funds for their restoration.

And what of the future? One can only hope that the projected refurbishment will not injure the charm of the place: its unoppressive, contented grandeur, from the wood panelling in the bars to the blue-and-white tiles (formerly for candles) which adorn the staircase.

A milestone next to the Crown’s garden wall shows the significance of Blandford as a staging-post

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