The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset’s rivers — The Stour, Sturminster Newton to Blandford

John Chaffey continues his journey down the Stour, Sturminster Newton to Blandford

The Fiddleford Mill,River Stour
The Fiddleford Mill

In the stretch between Sturminster Newton and Blandford, the Stour reaches full maturity as a river. Graceful meanders cut a sinuous trace across the south-eastern corner of the Blackmore Vale before the Stour first encounters the looming barrier of the chalklands of the Dorset Downs. Here for the first time the river cuts landscape features of some prominence, the magnificent wooded river cliffs under Hod Hill, below Durweston’s Higher Pressham Wood and to the north and east of Bryanston. The Stour still has an air of rural tranquility about it, flowing silently through the claylands of the Kimmeridge Clay between Sturminster Newton and Shillingstone. Even in the shadow of the dominant river cliff below Hod Hill, a current hardly stirs the surface of the river, with beeches and alders trailing trunks and branches in the barely moving water, creating a feeling of benign unity between the river and its wooded banks.

This is perhaps a little misleading, for along its banks frequent gauging posts warn of the river’s propensity to flood, and the view from Hammoon’s bridge reveals the many minor whirlpools of a river carrying all of the drainage of the Blackmore Vale away to the distant English Channel. Settlement of farm, hamlet and village eschews the floodplain of the Stour and seeks refuge on the terraces on either side. Thus the villages of this stretch of the Stour, arranged in pairs, Shillingstone and Child Okeford, Durweston and Stourpaine, sit well back from the risk of flood on the water meadows near the river. It is only where the Stour can provide power, as at Fiddleford, and further downstream at Durweston, that mills are close to the river.

The Stour near Hammoon
The Stour near Hammoon, with Hambledon Hill in the background

At Sturminster Newton the Stour bids farewell to the Oxford Clay pastures of the Blackmore Vale and cuts through the Corallian ridge, with its stiffening bands of Todber Freestone and Sturminster Oolite. The town, in the words of Treves, ‘is “meately” placed, for a gracious river winds round about it, its water-meadows are forever green, while behind it rise the bare heights of the Dorset hills from Hambledon to Bulbarrow’. Sturminster Newton is in the midst of change, with redevelopment in the centre bringing an air of modernity to Treves’s ‘quaint admixture of the would-be-very-new and the needs-be-very-old.’ Sturminster Newton is rich in literary connections: William Barnes, born in nearby Bagber, worked as a solicitor’s clerk in the town until he was seventeen; Thomas Hardy rented Riverside Villas in 1876-1878, and during that time wrote The Return of the Native, dreaming no doubt of far distant Egdon Heath. Here Hardy also wrote Overlooking the River Stour, and immortalised the bird life for all time with

‘Planing up shavings of crystal spray

A moor-hen darted out

From the bank thereabout,

And through the stream-shine ripped his way…’

A Two-years’ Idyll also slipped from his pen, recording some of the happiest times with his wife, Emma, at Riverside Villas.

Downstream from Sturminster Newton, the Stour glides past Piddles Wood, whose steep slopes are cut in Kimmeridge Clay. The wood includes both oak and hazel, the latter pollarded and still cut for hurdles. The cloty Stour now approaches Fiddleford Mill, in many ways the highlight of this section of the Stour. It is one of the earliest manor houses in Dorset, built for William Latimer in the late 14th century. Built of Greensand and Todber Freestone, it has some of the finest wooden roofs in Dorset. Extensions to the building in the 16th and 18th century led to the re-modelling of the original structure, whose windows date now from the 16th century. Seen from the far bank of the river, Fiddleford Mill, its weir and sluices, with the cloty Stour in the foreground, is one of the finest sights on the whole length of the river.

A whole series of elegant curving meanders carries the Stour downstream, first to Manston House built on a tongue of dry river gravel to the bridge which carries the country road from Hammoon to Manston and Fontmell Parva. Just before the bridge on the southern upstream side is a magnificent ox-bow lake, formed by the natural process of river-shortening in the course of the Stour. Adjacent to the bridge is the Hammoon gauging station, which records the flow of the river in this section of the Blackmore Vale – an appropriate location, for it is in the Blackmore Vale that the Stour receives so many of its tributaries that lead to an increased and often flood-threatening flow of the river. The bridge itself is disappointing, all steel and concrete, a harsh contrast with the luxuriant water meadows both upstream and downstream.

Hammoon, ‘enclosure of water meadow belonging to the Mohun family’, lies safely on another spread of river gravel above the floodplain. Treves thought that the 17th-century manor house was ‘the most picturesque of its kind’. Built of grey stone with a fine thatched roof, its elegant 17th-century porch and mullioned bay windows are its outstanding features. Lying central to the hamlet, the 13th- century church, stone-built with tiled roof, displays behind the altar its remarkable Ham stone reredos portraying the Crucifixion. It was retrieved from a builder’s yard and put in place in 1945.

From the bridge north of Hammoon, the view downstream includes for the first time Hambledon Hill, the outer bastion of the chalklands, which the Stour is now approaching. This great outlier of the Chalk, with its southerly extension of Hod Hill, dominates the valley of the Stour for the next few miles.

The Stour Valley near Hod Hill
The Stour Valley near Hod Hill

Between Hambledon Hill and Shillingstone Hill, with its greying, now-disused quarry, which is the dominating height to the south, the Stour continues its meandering course, flirting briefly with a cliff of Kimmeridge Clay at Tan Hill copse before entering the Chalk outcrop at Shillingstone Hill and Hod Hill. Even from a distance, Hambledon’s Iron Age fort with its remarkable ramparts broods sturdily above the valley of the Stour, reminiscent perhaps of the manner in which Maiden Castle overlooks the valley of the South Winterbourne. Earlier settlement features also appear on the long sweeping summit, including a Neolithic camp, long barrow and a Bronze Age barrow.

Both Greensand villages of Child Okeford and Shillingstone, which look towards one another across the tightly meandering Stour, stand guard at the entrance to the chalklands. Hayward Bridge, another disappointment of cast-iron and concrete, links the two settlements across the apparently lazy Stour and its floodplain. Child Okeford lies very much in the shadow of Hambledon Hill, a large village with attractive cottages and church in the centre, ringed by modern commuter estates. Station Road, leading down to Hayward Bridge, is another reminder, together with time-smoothed embankments and demolished Stour bridges, of the nostalgic days of the Somerset and Dorset line and those splendid trains that brought holiday-makers from Bath and the Midlands to Bournemouth. Shillingstone, where the S&D station was actually located, lies on the other side of the river on a dry river terrace. The busy main road from Blandford to Sherborne and Stalbridge threads through the village and denies Shillingstone the rural repose of Child Okeford.

The river at Hod Hill
The river at Hod Hill

The Stour meanders sleekly onwards and cuts into Hod Hill, site of both Iron Age and Roman forts, the latter built neatly within the north-west corner of the earlier defences. The river cliff at Hod Hill is one of the Stour’s finest: it has been cut by the Stour eating into the western slopes of Hod Hill, although erosive activity seems to be relatively slow at the moment.

Beyond Hod Hill the Stour is enfolded by the coppiced and cultivated Chalk downland on either side, although smoothly swinging meanders take it all the way to Blandford. Stourpaine and Durweston, linked indirectly by the awkwardly-sited Durweston Bridge, built of fine Greensand blocks, face one another across the Stour, both located on terrace sites. Durweston had its mill, one of the largest flour-producing sites on the Stour, but it was converted to a private residence in 1969. Two beautifully curved meanders outline the Chalk bluff on which Bryanston School is built, and the two river cliffs lining the river vie with Hod Hill for some of Dorset’s finest river scenery.

In this stretch of the Stour from Sturminster Newton to Blandford, the Stour displays text-book style meanders which stand comparison with the finest examples of other rivers of similar length. It is acknowledged that a meandering trace is a river’s best use of its energy. Here the Stour flows with a freedom that is a delight to the eye, the scene enhanced by riparian meadows and homely villages, safe on their dry terraces, that are amongst Dorset’s most attractive.

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 Durweston Bridge
Durweston Bridge

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