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Dorset’s rivers

The River Frome from Dorchester to Poole Harbour. John Chaffey continues his journey down the Frome

The Mill Stream,The River Frome
The riverside walk alongside
the Mill Stream in Dorchester

From Dorchester to Poole Harbour the Frome flows in a wide open valley, flanked at first by rolling chalk downland, but downstream mostly by forests and heathland developed on the underlying sands, clays and gravels of later geological age. This is classic Hardy country, with the Frome valley setting the scene for the Valley of the Great Dairies in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and also featuring prominently in The Return of The Native and other novels.

Although the water meadows so characteristic of the Vale of the Great Dairies do appear upstream of Dorchester, it is in the section of the Frome valley between the county town and Wareham that these green pastures and their drainage ditches make their principal impact on the valley landscape. Throughout this stretch of the valley the river has a great tendency to flood, so almost all of the villages and hamlets have been sited on the dry gravel terraces on either side of the flood plain. Long stretches of the valley bottom are almost lonely in their solitude. Roads linking the villages run along the terraces on either side, and only occasionally across the flood plain to cross the Frome on ancient bridges, part brick and part stone, such as Frome Bridge downstream from Woodsford and Holme Bridge between Wool and Wareham. Below Wareham, the Saxon town that dominates the river from its dry site to the north, the water meadows cease and the Frome glides away eastwards, between thick, almost impenetrable reed beds, before emptying its waters into the vast expanses of Poole Harbour.

At Hurst Bridges,The River Frome
At Hurst Bridges

Almost all of the early settlements in the Dorchester area seem to have avoided the damp and easily inundated flood plains of the Frome to the north and its tributary, the South Winterborne, on the southern side. The Romans relied on water brought along the Frome valley from Steppes Bottom near Frampton by aqueduct to Durnovaria, but the town itself was built safely above flood level. Today the main branch of the Frome flows through the water meadows on the northern side of its flood plain. However, the Mill Stream, which is still an important part of the Dorchester scene, appears to have been diverted from the main course of the Frome in Saxon times. Pleasant riverside walks now run alongside the Mill Stream as far as High East Street and a boardwalk gives access to the Riverside Nature Reserve. The Mill Stream continues through Fordington until it joins the main course of the Frome after the latter has flowed under Grey’s Bridge, built in 1748 to carry a new road eastwards out of Dorchester.

Domesday records that there were twelve mills in the Dorchester area. In medieval times three corn mills seem to have existed – West Mills, Friary Mill and Fordington Mill. The last has a long history: a fulling mill (for cleaning wool) was added in 1349, but was re-built in the 16th and 17th centuries and rebuilt again by the 1840s as two corn mills. In 1891-2 it was converted into a steam roller mill. After its closure it was much altered and today it is occupied by flats. Half a mile downstream from Fordington Mill, Loud’s Mill was built in the 1590s as a fulling mill and was later a cloth mill. Today only one wall survives as part of a warehouse of Bredy Agricentre.

Old water meadows near Wool,The River Frome
Old water meadows near Wool

New Mead, just downstream from Grey’s Bridge, marks the beginning of the long stretch of water meadows that extend more or less unbroken as far as Wareham. As a functioning system of flood plain husbandry, water meadows no longer operate today as they did in the past. ‘Drowners’, as the water meadow operatives were called, carefully regulated the flow of water, the flooding and the draining. Water on the pastures was responsible for frost-proofing the meadows and bringing nutrients to the soil, both of which enabled grass to begin growing much earlier in the year and provided livestock with feed that had previously been missing until much later. Although ‘drowners’ were still employed on one farm near Dorchester as late as the 1940s, all of the channels are now relict features which still possess an attractive ecology and do much to enhance the valley scene.

Stinsford, Lower Bockhampton and West Stafford are the first of the Frome villages downstream from Dorchester. Today, Stinsford lies somewhat in the shadow of Kingston Maurward College, but its attractive church, where Thomas Hardy’s heart is buried with his first wife, looks serenely out across water meadows that stretch away to the far side of the valley. A pleasant walk runs along streamside paths to Lower Bockhampton, where thatched cottages line the road down to the Frome’s damp flood plain. Beyond, the riverside lane passes elegant Stafford House and leads to the south bank village of West Stafford. Now fortunately by-passed, West Stafford, full of thatched cottages, has an air of rural peace and solitude, focusing principally on its lovely 17th century church. Thomas Hardy knew all of this river landscape particularly well from his boyhood days at Higher Bockhampton and these villages feature importantly in his novels

Holme Bridge,The River Frome
Holme Bridge

Downstream from West Stafford, the Frome flows between reed-fringed banks, with the ubiquitous Himalayan balsam adding its own pink tinge to the riverside scene. Hardy used this section of the river for some of his most sinister and macabre events. Sturt’s Weir, near Woodsford Farm, is Hardy’s Shadwater Weir in The Return of the Native, in whose Great Pool Eustacia Yeobright and Damon Wildeve meet their desperate watery end. Even on a bright summer’s day, this deep pool still has an air of chilly melancholy about it.

On the southern side of the valley, well-cultivated gravel terraces fringe the flood plain between Woodsford and Moreton and a similar riparian scene prevails on the northern side from Tincleton to Waddock Cross. Linking the two sets of terraces is the road that crosses the Frome on the double spans of Hurst Bridges. From here all roads lead to Moreton (‘marshland farm’), one of the most renowned of the Frome villages. Here is the widest and probably shallowest of the fords that cross the Frome, complete with modern footbridge, a cheery rendezvous for paddling children in high summer. Adults will seek out the Georgian gothic parish church, with its engraved windows by Lawrence Whistler, and the grave of T.E. Lawrence nearby.

The Valley of the Great Dairies leads downstream towards Wool, with Winfrith Business Park and Bovington Camp casting an air of distant modernity over the long sequence of abandoned water meadows that line the widening Frome. Wellbridge Manor (now Woolbridge Manor), where Tess and Angel spent their honeymoon, dominates the Frome water meadows from beyond the fine 16th-century arches of Woolbridge itself. Built of brick and stone, 17th-century Woolbridge Manor is one of the finest country houses of the valley. Wool itself, housing commuters to Dorchester and Poole, spreads amorphously across the gravel terraces on the south side of the river.

The Frome now enters on the final stage of its journey from Evershot to Poole Harbour. It swings in graceful meanders through the flood-prone water meadows, past the remains of Bindon Abbey, now well cared for, and through the territory of Hardy’s The Withered Arm. Holme Bridge, carrying the road to Lulworth, is one of the Frome’s most splendid bridges. It dates from the 15th century, although additional arches have been added over the centuries, with new brick parapets added after tank training damage during World War One.

Wareham is the Frome’s second town after Dorchester. Originally a Saxon walled town built on the land between the Frome and the Piddle to the north, Wareham offers its face to the Frome far more than it does to the Piddle. Some of Wareham’s finest buildings look down on the Frome, particularly Castle Close, built on the original site of Wareham Castle. Wareham’s true focus on the Frome is at the Quay, which Treves describes as ‘a wide and capacious square, which was crowded and bustling when Wareham did trade with the world’. Today riverside pubs and restaurants offer refreshment in the shadow of the parish church of Lady St Mary. Downstream the elegant Priory Hotel stands in its own beautifully lawned grounds leading down to the river. Beyond, the Frome flows between reedy banks and past anchored yachts until Poole Harbour is in sight. Swinging meanders carry it past Ridge and Swineham Point, where its course slips past Gigger’s Island into Wareham Channel and the open waters of the Harbour.

Near Swineham Point,The River Frome
Near Swineham Point, where the Frome
flows into Poole Harbour

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