The best of Dorset in words and pictures


Clive Hannay draws the village at the heart of Cranborne Chase with words by Rodney Legg

Berkshire, Dorset, Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Surrey and Yorkshire each have one. Farnham is a common place-name because in Old English it means ‘fern meadow’. The Domesday Book version of ours, in 1086, was ‘Ferneham’.

Geographically, these chalk uplands in the heart of Cranborne Chase are the source of the Gussage Brook and had extensive Iron Age and Romano-British field systems, with the present-day village being an amalgam of five settlements. These apparently originated as clearings in coppiced hazel woodland. Unlike the parishes all around, Farnham has lost its traces of ancient cultivation, but the artefacts of its archaeology were subsequently brought here en masse.

General Augustus Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) from Rushmore House expanded the local hostelry into the Museum Hotel in the 1880s to provide for visitors to his extensive collections of antiquities and ethnology, which used to be displayed in the former Orphan Gypsy School half a mile up the hill towards Chettle, at Crossways. His parkland pagodas and temples on the other side of the village, around the Larmer Tree, have fared better, as has the amazing Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Farnham collection was dispersed in the 1970s, mostly into private hands, although the local antiquities went to Salisbury Museum.

The buildings of the old museum have become Elham House and Elham Court. Gone is the plinth facing its entrance and the bronze statue of Caesar Augustus, which was a copy of the Roman original in the Vatican Museum. Pitt-Rivers survives in reputation and spirit as the inspiring father and founder of scientific archaeology, who also pioneered the protection of ancient sites when he was the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments. His custodian of antiquities was William Attwood (1812-95), ex-Royal Horse Guards, who had been soldier-servant to Horace, 6th Lord Rivers.

he parish church is the oldest structural survival in the village, with the south and west walls of St Laurence’s dating from the 12th century and the tower and the earliest of the two fonts from about 1500. Wall paintings have also survived and been partially revealed. The north aisle was added in 1835 along with the barrel vaulting of the roof. Re-building took place in 1886.

The old boundary tree, on the county line between Dorset and Wiltshire, was a wych elm, ‘a fragment of the rind of which was standing until it was blown down in the winter of 1894′. As replacement, an oak tree had already been planted in its core. Its name, the Larmer Tree, implies a third species, because the name is Old English for a laurel (‘laur’) on a boundary (‘mere’).

Until the disfranchisement of Cranborne Chase in 1830, an annual Chase Court was held under the old Larmer Tree on the first Monday in September. Participants then adjourned to the comforts of the nearby royal hunting lodge, King John’s House, in Tollard Royal. There was also a public hunt while the court was in session, with a stag being released for the purpose, until Lord Rivers abolished the custom in 1789.
The adjoining tithing of Farnham Tollard was amalgamated into the parish in 1885. Its dead used to be taken over the hill into Tollard Royal along a track known as Burials Drove. Farnham was then largely an estate village with a post office, grocer, blacksmith and a second public house, the Hand-in-Hand. The Old Ash was another bygone inn sign.

These days, local enterprises are typified by Simon Richards from Oxlease Cottage, who rejuvenates and restores old gardens, and Andrew Baverstock of Sheepfold Cottage, who repairs and services mowers and other machinery. Marcus Undery is the local tree surgeon. Mark Stephenson and Vicky Elliot revamped the Museum Hotel, with Mark Treasure as its chef, and John and Pat Benjafield have turned Farnham Farm House into five-star accommodation on a working farm.
Farnham’s most enigmatic one-time resident, in accommodation provided by Captain George Pitt-Rivers shortly before the Second World War, was a diminutive Irishman named William Joyce (1906-46). Galway-born, his nationality could have saved his neck, but for the fact that he had come to England in 1921 and applied for a British passport in 1933. Before he left for Germany in August 1939, he renewed it, and this was taken as a pledge of allegiance to the Crown.

Throughout the conflict, he broadcast to Britain under the call-sign ‘Germany Calling’ and soon earned the nick-name ‘Lord Haw-Haw’. Brought back to face a treason trial in the Old Bailey, his conviction relied upon these passport applications, which made him a subject of the King: he was hanged in Wandsworth Prison on 3 January 1946.

The social side of village life includes car boot sales, coffee mornings and cycle rides, but the great annual occasion is the street fair which takes place each July. A two-mile stroll brings in most of the village and its valley setting.

Park and start from the roadside verge up from the Museum Hotel, beside the road signed to Chettle (OS reference ST 959151).

Set off along the lesser option up from the junction, between the 1989-planted horse chestnut tree and the far from down-market corrugated iron dining room which is known as ‘The Shed’. Walk up the slope to the well house in 100 yards and turn right, to the churchyard in 20 yards. Our onward path turns left, following the flint wall uphill and away from St Laurence’s Church.

In 100 yards we turn right, across a stile into a pasture, and follow the right-hand hedgerow straight ahead to a second stile in another 100 yards. Turn right here and follow this hedge down to the corner of the field in 100 yards and then around to the left, above Dog Cottage and other gardens, to the next corner in 225 yards.

Follow the hedge around to the right to a gate into WG Benjafield and Son’s yard at Pound Farm in 75 yards. Turn right, to exit between the hedge and the gate, in 50 yards.

In 25 yards we come to the picturesque centre of the village street, between Franklyn’s and Eton Cottage, down from former St Catherine’s Chapel. Our route turns right, downhill, to pass the 1857-dated Old School and the frontage of the Museum Inn in 450 yards.

This time we continue straight ahead, towards Minchington, to the junction with Oakley Lane in 325 yards.

Turn right here, beside Minchington Farm, and turn left in 140 yards. Follow the lane into the valley, beneath the poplar trees, and pass Stickley’s Barn in 450 yards. In a further 225 yards there is a sharp bend to the right, besides Crowters, followed by a sharp bend to the left in 100 yards.

Here we turn right, beside Yew Tree Lodge, and follow the Jubilee Trail waymarks straight ahead. The bridleway follows the fence between the trees and the meadow for 325 yards. Then cross the arable field to the transformer poles beside Miller’s Lane in 450 yards.

Cross the road and climb the bank on the other side. Bear right across the arable field to follow a public path below and then to the right of the pylon lines. In 100 yards we come to a hedge and walk beside it to a stile in the corner of the field in another 225 yards.

There are two paths from this point. Ours continues straight ahead between the hedge and paddocks above the Granary and South Farm. In 165 yards we continue straight ahead, above the wooded grounds and tennis court, into the corner of this field in 100 yards where we drop down on to the lane.

Turn right, downhill, to return to the Museum Hotel in 165 yards.

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