The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Cerne Abbas

Clive Hannay paints and Rodney Legg describes the village below the Giant

Cerne Abbas

The village of Cerne Abbas has inherited a town-sized history with a major medieval monastery. Cerne apparently derives from a Celtic word for ‘stone’ and Abbas means ‘Father’ – the monastic form of address for its Abbot. Visitors continue to be drawn on a pilgrimage of these ancient streets by that even earlier and dominating absurdity of a full-frontal male nude sculpted into the adjacent hillside. The Cerne Giant is a genuine ancient artefact, either Iron Age or Romano-British, and there is no possibility of ‘His Mightiness’ having been an overnight 17th-century fake, as has been suggested. The size and extent of the figure are minimised by his green background but he comprises an extensive network of trenches that would have required the removal of 7000 cubic feet of turf, soil and chalk. There would also have been the digging and covering of the phantom outline of a cloak draped over Hercules’ outstretched arm, as now revealed – though beneath the ground – by resistivity readings. All the forensics point to a date in the 1st century AD, probably at the hands of Vespasian’s invading Roman legionaries.

As well as the hill figure, the spring surrounded by stonework at St Augustine’s Well must have been a prehistoric sacred site. Between them, beside the site of the Abbey, many of the stout earthworks also look to be pre-medieval. Legend holds that the ‘Silver Well’ first flowed when Christian missionary St Augustine of Canterbury ‘pitched down his staff on the ground’ and cursed doubting pagans that they would henceforth sport tail-like appendages. In the Middle Ages the sparkling water was covered by St Augustine’s Chapel.

The site of the great Abbey Church lies under the pasture across the churchyard wall. Of Anglo-Saxon origins, it was re-formed and re-founded by Ethelmeer, Earl of Cornwall, on Benedictine lines in the 9th century. Later, in 987, the ecclesiastical scholar Aelfric, known as Grammaticus, became the first Benedictine abbot. Eleven of his treatises survived the Viking incursions, including a raid by Canute, who made full recompense after being crowned King of all England in 1017.

Rebuilt in the 12th century, most of the buildings suffered complete demolition after the dissolution of the major religious houses by Henry VIII in 1539. The picturesque exceptions inside the monastic precincts are the porch to the Abbot’s Hall, built by Abbot Thomas Sam in 1508, and the nearby Abbey Guesthouse erected by Abbot John Vanne between 1458 and 1470, which boasts a fine oriel window. The former South Gatehouse, facing Abbey Street, incorporates a Saxon doorway which is Cerne’s earliest architectural fragment. Beyond the Cerne River, at the other end of the village, the Tithe Barn has also survived.

Later buildings throughout the village incorporate ashlar, carvings, fireplaces and other fixtures from the Abbey ruins. One of them, the thatched Royal Oak, is almost unique – in correct usage of that clumsy phrase – as one of a handful of such public houses with a convincing claim to having been on the actual escape route used by Charles II.

After hiding in the oak tree as he fled from defeat at the Battle of Worcester, he detoured deep into Dorset while heading towards continental exile in 1651.

Cerne Abbas

Cerne’s Royal Oak is certainly unique in its Capitol (sic) connections, having been owned by a succession of John Notleys, whose descendant, James Notley, was pivotal in creating Cerne Abbey Manor in what we now know as Washington DC. In 1791 their hill became the ‘New Jerusalem’ of the American nation, with donated land on which Congress and the President now sit. Cannily, although James Notley and his relatives and friends donated such plots to the District of Columbia, they reserved every other building space for private gain.

Until the middle of the 19th century Cerne was still an important town and in 1836, a decade before the first main-line railway entered the county, speculators and engineers projected and designed a line between the Georgian spas of Bath and Weymouth. The Bath and Weymouth Great Western Union Railway was to have crossed Long Street by a viaduct. It was never built and the eventual Bath or Weymouth route took to the Frome valley instead. Between 1851 and 1901 the population was halved, from 1200 to 586, and cottages became hovels. Early 20th-century authors blamed this ‘distress and decay’ on the absence of the railway.

Their argument collapses, however, when you look at the fate of the nearest comparable downland community that did receive the railway. Maiden Newton also suffered a major slump and, like Cerne Abbas, was reduced to a population of 600 by the turn of the century. Both had borne the brunt of the Great Depression in British agriculture.

Cerne, as an ancient monastic and market town, has become a national treasure but it suffered minor losses during the demolishing ‘sixties, before the turn of the tide in the renovating ‘seventies. The situation remains much the same as care homes have come and gone and restored and look-alike architecture spreads beyond Back Lane, Barton Farm and Simsay. Decline is definitely in reverse.

You can see the heart of the village and experience the spirit of the place along a three-mile walk that brings in its key buildings and provides several opportunities for scenic diversions if you have the energy and time for further exploration.

Park and start in the centre of the village, in the wider part of Long Street (OS reference ST66012). Set off westwards from the Royal Oak and Giant Inn to the New Inn and continue along Long Street to the Folly in 300 yards. Here turn left, between Barton Lodge and Barton Farm, and follow a public path through bushes and trees to the left of the drive. The majestic lines of the monastic Tithe Barn are across the lawn to the right. Go through a gate into the pasture in 150 yards. In 200 yards, after crossing the earthworks of a medieval settlement, follow the right-hand fence southwards to triple stiles. Cross this sheep pasture to a line of trees in 150 yards and then continue for a further 100 yards to a farm drive.

Turn left here and follow the track eastwards to a traditional farmyard in 200 yards where continue straight ahead and cross the Cerne River. Begin to climb Black Hill to a crossroads of paths in 200 yards. Take the central option, continuing uphill towards Puddle Lane. The path skirts the lower side of the chalk downland. In 750 yards look out for a field gate to the left and descend to the road in 60 yards.

Turn left and walk down Piddle Lane into the village, to the junction with Long Street in 500 yards. Turn right, east along Alton Lane, and turn left and immediately right beside no.4 Simsay Fields in 150 yards. Pass the date-stone for its Royal opening by the Prince of Wales on 3 October 2002. In 50 yards enter the open space and then turn left in 150 yards. Head north to the fence beside the wood in 300 yards. Earthworks to the left flank the site of the former Abbey Church. Ahead on the sky-line is the Trendle enclosure above the Cerne Giant.

Turn left on reaching the fence and then right, across a stile, into the beech trees in about 100 yards. Bear left and then edge right, to climb above the tree-line, in order to see the feet of the Giant in 250 yards. The route then turns south-westwards, down to the stiles and path signs in 150 yards. Cross into the Abbey site towards the heart of the village rather than going to Kettle Bridge. Enter the churchyard through the arch beneath the inscription
‘This Wall was Erected AD 1838′.

Cerne Abbas

Rather than take the path, cross the grass and graves diagonally leftwards. St Augustine’s Well can be found in the lime clump in 100 yards. From here the outward route is westwards via the main gate in 100 yards. In the grounds you can see the Abbot’s Guest House (oriel window) and the Porch (huge tracery windows) which opens into the otherwise demolished Abbey Church. The former Gatehouse features in the 1963 film of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones with Albert Finney.

On returning to Abbey Street, beside the Town Pond, head towards half-timbered Tudor houses that overhang the pavement. Before reaching them, in just 50 yards, turn right into narrow Andrews’ Lane beside the wall that marks the former Abbey precincts. Turn left along Mill Lane in 75 yards and follow it south, over the waterfall. The path widens into the former industrial area of the village, damaged by fire in 2006, and reaches Duck Street in 250 yards. Here turn left and return to Long Street, opposite the New Inn, in 30 yards.

Dorset Directory