The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Askerswell village

Clive Hannay draws and Rodney Legg describes the village on the slopes of Eggardon

Askerwell Village Drawing 1

Askerswell, like Shaftesbury, had a reputation for being a place where it was unwise to linger when it started to snow. It quickly became as inaccessible as Antarctica during the great blizzards of our times. That of March 1937 was recalled during the drifts of 22 December 1962, when dozens of motorists and bus passengers were marooned at what was then the Askers Road House, opened in 1931, where the A35 trunk road climbs onto the Dorset Downs.

On 20 February 1978 the snow was again ‘so deep you could sit on the top of telegraph poles,’ in the words of Sunday Times reporter Brian Jackman. Stranded on the other side of the hill in Powerstock, he climbed the exposed north face of Eggardon to calculate on the spot that the maximum depth of the white stuff was twenty feet between the hill-fort ramparts. The scene was snowbound again in January 1982.

Etymologists tell us that Askerswell, the place name, derives from Osgar’s Well or the Viking version, Asger’s Well. The old countrymen, however, insist it is much simple than that, being Askers’ Well, which in the Dorset dialect means Newts’ Well. Askers is the name of the village stream which arrived in Bridport as a river. Tavistock Abbey owned the manor of Askerswell, which has an extensive arable element. Open strip fields, some still with their lynchet terracing, remained largely unenclosed until 1846.

Askerwell Village Drawing 2

The church of St Michael and All Angels can be assumed to date from at least the 12th century, as the Purbeck stone late-Norman font dates from 1154, but the rest of the building apart from the impressive 15th-century tower was demolished in 1857. Its replacement, the work of London architect Talbot Bury, carries an 1858 date-stone. The Incorporated Society for the Building of Churches donated £76, on the understanding that 134 seats would be provided for ‘poorer parishioners’. An ancient carving set in the base of the tower wall, beside the west door, depicts the Crucifixion. The displaced relic inside the tower is a substantial dedication stone in Purbeck marble from Abbotsbury Abbey. This records a gift from Thomas and Alianore de Luda from Holwell in 1305 and was rescued from a mill-dam by the Rev. E Westmacott in 1924. A partner stone also survives, in the church of St Candida at Whitchurch Canonicorum.

Underground, the sealed vault of the historic Eggardon family lies under the west door. Having gone from riches to rags, their descendants lost the last of a once great estate in 1741 and had to depend on parish relief. Memorials from the old church include inscriptions from above the former Colmer vault, notably to John Colmer, who was rector from 1789 until his death in 1842. Table tombs in the churchyard are to the Jenkins family from 1686 and the Little or Littell family from 1752. Death is represented by a skull and crossbones, and a winged cherub on another gravestone was tasked with carrying the soul to heaven.

Canon Edward Seabrooke Daniell was the rector from 1941, but then the rectory, east of the church, was requisitioned by the military and was used by American forces bound for Omaha Beach on D-Day. Canon Daniell moved to Litton Cheney, although he remained rector until shortly before his death in 1952. His passion was bee-keeping and he was remembered for having collected swarms in the churchyard and having once been ousted from the pulpit by angry bees.

Askerwell Village Drawing 3

On Daniell’s death, the Rev. Oliver Willmott, vicar of Loders and Dottery, also took over Askerswell and ran the three churches until his retirement in 1982. During his time, the great pylons of the National Grid brought high-voltage electricity cross the parish, while mains water, drainage and sewerage also encouraged gentrification and in-filling during the transformation from rustic to potted suburbia.

Weddings in Askerswell were a rare event, noted Willmott in 1965 when Miss Valerie Gillingham from Legg’s Mead married Michael Phillips from Bridport. The previous one had been in 1961. Things used to be very different, as before that there had been 179 marriages since a new register was provided to celebrate Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837.

Askerswell School opened in 1857, as a local initiative, and became an elementary school in 1871. It was enlarged in 1901 to cater for seventy children. It celebrated its centenary, although for much of its time it is said to have been plagued by chronic truancy. Closure came in 1965.

Samuel Fry of Nallers Farm lived to see ninety. He had been milking cows since the age of ten. Three other old-timers also died in the village in just two months in 1980 and had a combined age of 314 years. Sidney Fry typified these countrymen, who could always be relied upon for outsized cucumbers at Harvest Festival time. Mr and Mrs Fry had done their best to offset rural depopulation; as seen in last month’s Dorset Life, Oliver Willmott recorded in his incomparable Parish Notes that they were ‘the largest suppliers of grandchildren to the ancient font at Askerswell’.

Captain and Mrs Aylmer represented the old-style gentry. Edward Arthur Aylmer DSC, RN (ret’d), was a churchwarden and sportsman. For 22 years, until her death in 1968, Mrs Gladwys Phoebe Aylmer organised all levels of village activity from fetes to jumble sales and hosted visits from the Guild of Ringers. Their son, Professor Gerald Edward Aylmer, is an expert on the English Civil War who has presided over the Cromwell Association.

This ‘Best Kept Village’ (small section, 1993, 1999 and 2005) can be explored by a two-mile circuit of paths and lanes. This brings in both the church and the public house, which is at the opposite side of the village on the Eggardon foothills on the probable line of the Roman road from Dorchester to Exeter. Spyway Inn commemorates the area’s contraband associations, which included pine trees planted as a sea-mark by notable smuggler Isaac Gulliver. It used to be known as the Three Horseshoes.

Park and start from the road beside St Michael’s and All Angels parish church (OS ref SY530926). Set off downhill from Church Farm to the sycamore tree at the junction in 200 yards. Turn right here, north down Burrywells to the cross-roads, in 275 yards. Here the attractive cluster of buildings includes Millstream, Fir Tree Cottage and Askers House. Turn left, north-west along Hembury Road, and pass Trevanion and Sherwood Cottage to the thatched idyll of Stonebridge with its matching privy in 200 yards. Pass Washingpool Green, which was opened in July 2001 as a parish contribution to the millennium.

In a further 50 yards between Hazelmead and Green Acres Farm, turn right. Cross the stream in 50 yards and follow the hedgerow northwards across four pastures, over stiles, to the gate onto Spyway Road in 550 yards. Turn right, uphill and eastwards, to Spyway Inn. In 275 yards come to the cross-roads beside Eggardon Rise. Turn right here, southwards down School Road, and pass 1943-built Legg’s Mead to Laurel Cottage and Rose Cottage in 400 yards.

Turn left, eastwards beside the Old School, along the lane to Medway Farm. Follow this for 400 yards, around a couple of bends, to the point where the public tarmac becomes private concrete. Here, opposite a field gate, turn right across a sunken stile below the hedge-bank. Bear right, south-westwards, diagonally down across the field to the gate in 350 yards. Then cross the stream and follow the hedgerow up beside the garage to Parson’s Lane in 80 yards. Cross the road to the driveway beside Montana. Then turn immediately left, up Church Path, which heads south and climbs the slope to return to St Michael’s Church in 200 yards.

ards between Hazelmead and Green Acres Farm, turn right. Cross the stream in 50 yards and follow the hedgerow northwards across four pastures, over stiles, to the gate onto Spyway Road in 550 yards. Turn right, uphill and eastwards, to Spyway Inn. In 275 yards come to the cross-roads beside Eggardon Rise. Turn right here, southwards down School Road, and pass 1943-built Legg’s Mead to Laurel Cottage and Rose Cottage in 400 yards.

Turn left, eastwards beside the Old School, along the lane to Medway Farm. Follow this for 400 yards, around a couple of bends, to the point where the public tarmac becomes private concrete. Here, opposite a field gate, turn right across a sunken stile below the hedge-bank. Bear right, south-westwards, diagonally down across the field to the gate in 350 yards. Then cross the stream and follow the hedgerow up beside the garage to Parson’s Lane in 80 yards. Cross the road to the driveway beside Montana. Then turn immediately left, up Church Path, which heads south and climbs the slope to return to St Michael’s Church in 200 yards.

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