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The Stour: Stourhead to Sturminster Newton

The Stour: Stourhead to Sturminster Newton - John Chaffey takes us on a journey down the first stretch of the River Stour

The Stour, Dorset’s longest river, flows for sixty miles from the ornamental lakes at Stourhead in Wiltshire to the Channel coast at Mudeford, where it empties into the western reaches of the Solent after having been joined by the Hampshire Avon at Christchurch.

It rises high in the wooded Greensand hills of west Wiltshire and, after a short journey through that county, it enters Dorset at the village of Bourton. Here it crosses the great Mere fault, which separates the Greensand from the Jurassic rocks of the Blackmore Vale to the south. In the ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’, the Stour meanders its way across the Kimmeridge Clay to Gillingham, where it turns to cut through the low Corallian ridge near Marnhull. After a short sojourn on the Oxford Clay, in the verdant heart of the Vale, it flows across the Corallian ridge again at Sturminster Newton.

Although the Stour now flows out of the Lake at Stourhead, its original source was probably higher up in the Greensand hills in the dry valley of Six Wells Bottom. At the head of the valley is St Peter’s Pump, a rock structure surmounted by a 1474 market cross brought from Bristol by Henry Hoare II in 1768. The springs marked by St Peter’s Pump are now dry, the result of falling water tables in the area. It was Henry Hoare II (or ‘Henry the Magnificent’, as he was known to his family) who was responsible for the creation of Stourhead Gardens. Hoare dammed the fledgling Stour, creating the Lake, and laid out a walk that takes the visitor around the tree-shaded shores. Stourhead possesses one of Britain’s finest landscaped gardens, in which are set elegant buildings such as the Temple of Flora, the Pantheon and the Temple of Apollo, all built by the architect Henry Flitcroft between 1744 and 1765. In the 19th century two other lakes, Lower Lake and New or Gasper Lake, were created to complete the landscaping of the Stour.

The Stour now trickles away from Stourhead in a deep valley with well-wooded sides, and for a brief stretch separates Wiltshire from Somerset. Shortly after entering Dorset, Bourton Mill, the highest on the Stour, is encountered. This mill has an illustrious history, operating as a foundry and producing water wheels for other mills in the Stour valley as well as agricultural tools. Expansion saw its products being exported abroad, and in World War 1 it even produced munitions. However, it began a long period of change and decline after the war and, although it continued life as a creamery as well as manufacturing other food products, it now lies derelict, daubed with colourful graffiti, a strange industrial anomaly in the now quiet Stour valley.

Still no more than a brook, the Stour flows through the village of Bourton, and under the busy A303. A little further on, the small stone hump-backed Stour Bridge (the first bridge to bear the name of the river) carries a lane linking Bourton to Stroud Common. Beyond lies Silton, with its church ‘on a green knoll in the midst of a solitude’, as Treves describes it. He notes that ‘the village of Silton has vanished off the earth, save for two or three cottages, from a sight of which the church is shielded by a belt of rook-haunted trees.’ Within the church that Treves found so isolated is a grandiose statue and monument to Sir Hugh Wyndham, a renowned circuit judge. Waterloo Lane leads from Silton down to the Stour, where Waterloo Mill survives as a private residence. Standing hugely dominant in the field on the other side of the tiny Stour is the iron water wheel that once helped to power the mill. The next village, Milton-on-Stour, with its church spire a rarity in the Blackmore Vale, lies between the Stour and its tributary, Shreen Water.

Gillingham is the first of the towns that have been built on the banks of the Stour, although it still hardly has the aspect of a fully-fledged river. In its passage through the town, the Stour is crossed by several bridges linking different residential areas before it is joined by Shreen Water close to the centre of the town. John Constable was a close friend of Archdeacon John Fisher, the vicar of Gillingham: while he was staying with the Archdeacon he painted ‘Gillingham Bridge’, which hangs in Tate Britain. The Stour flows away from Gillingham towards the south-west past industrial estates, and here it receives its first major tributary, the River Lodden, between sturdy Madjeston Farm and Eccliffe Mill. The latter is a 19th-century mill, now bereft of its machinery and, like Waterloo Mill at Silton, a private residence.

The combined waters of the Stour and its tributaries, Shreen Water and the Lodden, now begin their serene, meandering passage through the pastoral tranquillity of the Blackmore Vale. The reed-fringed, ‘cloty’ Stour, bedecked with yellow clotes or water lilies, so beloved of William Barnes, does not dominate the lush pastures beyond Gillingham. Flowing slightly below the surrounding meadows, it has an unobtrusive presence that is at one with the rolling rural landscape of the Vale. From the sandstone knoll of Fifehead Magdalen, the view eastwards towards distant Duncliffe Hill is quintessential Blackmore Vale – all green water meadows with the curving lines of reeds marking the almost hidden course of the meandering Stour.

Downstream from Gillingham, the villages of the Stour valley neatly complement one another on the higher dry sites on either side of the water meadows. East Stour, the home of Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, sits on a knoll of Todber Stone, one of the most durable of building stones of the Blackmore Vale, and faces across to West Stour, built on dry Corallian sandstones, and site of the Manor House, dating from approximately 1800. Beyond is Stour Hill, where Treves thought that the Blackmore Vale could ‘be seen to the greatest advantage’. Kington Magna is built on the same dry ridge to the north, although, as Treves puts it, ‘the present village straggles downhill like a mountain stream’ with its lowest houses built on the Oxford Clay.

Further south, Fifehead Magdalen and Stour Provost also match one another on either side of the Stour, linked by footpaths that cross the flood plain, and also by the narrow road that uses Trill Bridge to cross the Stour. Highbridge Mill, on the river between East and West Stour, completes the settlement pattern in this area, and generates its own electricity.

Southwards, the Stour now cuts through the Corallian ridge to re-establish itself on the western side on the Oxford Clay. Marnhull, said by some to be the second largest village in the country, is built on the Corallian ridge, in the angle formed by the course of the Stour to the north and to the west. Marnhull Stone, the best building stone in the Todber Freestone, was used widely not only in Marnhull, but also elsewhere in the Blackmore Vale. Marnhull, ‘Marlott’ in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, is rich in locations which are referred to in the novel, notably the Crown Inn – Hardy’s ‘The Pure Drop’ – and Rolliver’s alehouse, formerly the Lamb Inn and now Old Lamb House. Tess Cottage, once known as Barton Cottage, was perhaps the Durbeyfields’ home.

West of Marnhull, the Stour receives the waters of the River Cale, draining south-eastwards from the country around Wincanton. Two miles downstream, just beyond King’s Mill, now another private residence, the Lydden, drawing on its catchment in the country around Hazelbury Bryan and Buckland Newton, empties its waters into the Stour.

Further downstream is the beautifully situated Cut Mill, with William Barnes’s ‘Pentridge by the River’ situated just above the floodplain on the western bank. The Divelish joins just before Sturminster Newton, bringing its waters down from under the shadow of Woolland Hill and Bulbarrow. The Stour flows now between the curtailed arches that took the Somerset and Dorset railway into Sturminster Newton. Just before the ‘capital of the Vale’, the Stour powers Sturminster Mill, a working museum rich in archaeology, and then it drifts through the arches of Sturminster Town Bridge before it continues its passage through the final part of the Blackmore Vale to the chalk escarpment at Shillingstone.

Most of this first stretch of the Stour’s journey from Stourhead to the sea is through the Blackmore Vale. In Hardy’s own words: ‘Here in the valley, the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale: the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass.’

IMAGES

1. The Lake of Stourhead, from which the Stour flows

2. An abandoned water wheel at Waterloo Mill

3. The river near West Stour

4. King’s Mill, near Stalbridge

5. Town Bridge at Sturminster Newton

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