The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset’s rivers — The Stour: Blandford to Wimborne

John Chaffey continues his journey down the Stour

The Stour at Blandford
The cloty Stour at Blandford

For most of the stretch between Blandford Forum and Wimborne, the Stour flows across the Dorset chalklands: it is only below Sturminster Marshall that the river enters the lower country underlain by the sands, clays and gravels of the Tertiary succession. It is possible to stand on the half-completed earthwork of Spetisbury Rings above the village and survey with one sweep of the eyes from north-west to south-east the whole of this stretch of the Stour’s course. To the north-west the roofs and church tower of Blandford appear. South-eastwards the verdant water meadows of the Stour, carrying leafy lines of poplar and alder, stretch away. The wooded summit of Badbury Rings leads the eye towards the lower course of the river and Wimborne, although a summer haze usually obscures a view of the Channel, the Stour’s final destination. To the west the tower of Charborough Park stands clear of its surrounding woods, and on a clear day the Purbeck Hills form the southern horizon.

In this section of the course of the Stour, the river receives two important tributaries, both from the enclosing chalklands. First the Tarrant joins the Stour, just below its last village of Tarrant Crawford, and then the North Winterborne empties its waters into the main river just upstream from Sturminster Marshall. Since both are Chalk streams, their flow tends to be much reduced in summer, when the water table is much lower in the permeable Chalk. Both streams bring little silt and mud into the main river, unlike the darker, more sediment-laden tributaries that join the Stour in the claylands of the Blackmore Vale. This is reflected in the main stream, which now has a clarity that is missing higher up on its course: the appearance of water crowfoot, too, may perhaps be related to the influx of less acid water from the chalklands.

With its main catchment of the clayland streams of Blackmore Vale now gathered in by the main stream, the Stour has a greater tendency to flood. It seems to have a rapid response to heavy rainfall, caused by the high run-off in the Blackmore Vale streams. The channel of the main stream is often unable to cope with this additional tributary discharge, and widespread flooding has resulted. Blandford has been particularly affected by flooding in the past, although most of the town is built well back from the river on a chalk bluff. Nevertheless, Jo Draper’s ‘best complete small Georgian town in England’ has suffered enough and after serious floods in 1966, 1974, and twice in 1979, work was put in hand to solve the flood problem. A prominent flood wall is now in position to protect all of the rear sections of the properties in West Street, the Market Place and East Street, and a floodbank has been built on the southern bank of the river. All of the accumulated water in times of flood is taken by pipe down to the main pumping station on Langton Meadows, which also deals with excess water in the Pimperne Brook. A planning gain from all of this flood protection work has been the extremely pleasant riverside walks that now follow the river from the car park downstream and the new Preetz Bridge giving access to more attractive walks near the remains of the old Somerset & Dorset railway bridge.

The Stour at Spetisbury
The Stour at Spetisbury, where some gardens extend down the steep bluff to the river itself

South-eastwards from Blandford, the Stour continues its course in massive swinging meanders that appear to have discouraged settlement on the north bank, apart from the village of Shapwick and the now much diminished Langton Long Blandford. Langton House, formerly the home of the Farquharsons, was demolished in 1949, leaving only stables, with magnificent clock and cupola, the brew house and lodges. As the main meander swings hugely to the southern bank, it just brushes Charlton Marshall, safe on its river terrace. An ancient bridleway runs via a ford across the meadows on the north bank within the meander to the defensive site of Buzbury Rings high up on a chalk bluff.

Downstream on a distributary is the old Keynston Mill, now much overgrown, with massive wandering branches closing off whole doorways. This water-powered mill ground flour until the relatively recent date of 1925.

The Stour at Crawford Bridge
Crawford Bridge, at the southern end of Spetisbury

On the opposite bank of the Stour is the Old Mill of Spetisbury, now, like so many others, converted for residential use. The village itself stretches in true linear fashion for nearly half a mile along a safe and dry chalk shelf above the river, with more adventurous gardens extending down the steep bluff to the river itself. Cut into the Chalk to the immediate west of the village is the cutting that carried the Somerset & Dorset Railway through this section of the Stour Valley, with the much overgrown platforms of Spetisbury Halt at the western end. In 1857, during the construction of the railway, navvies discovered over a hundred skeletons and Iron Age weapons, ornaments and tools, together with Roman weapons. This suggests a defeat for the local Durotriges, and a possible reason for the incomplete nature of the fort just above at Spetisbury Rings. At the southern end of the village is the magnificent Crawford Bridge, built partly of heathstone, and partly of Purbeck stone. The earliest bridge over the Stour here may date from 1235, but the present structure is 14th or 15th century. The cutwaters from the south side were removed, giving it a very different aspect to the northern side, where they are still intact, with appropriate pedestrian refuges above.

Further downstream, the next village, Shapwick, overlooks a northward swinging meander from a reasonably safe river terrace site, although flood barriers are now in place at the entrance to the churchyard. St Bartholomew’s looks benignly down on a quintessential Stour scene with the curving meander flowing between high banks of reeds. Across the river from the church in the water meadows is the unusual site of a Bronze Age barrow. Close by is the course of the Roman Road that arrived in the Stour valley from the direction of Dorchester and then continued on the northern side towards Badbury Rings along the now tarmacked road.

The Stour at White Mill, near Sturminster Marshall
White Mill, near Sturminster Marshall, dates from 1776

Downstream, White Mill is another beautifully preserved building, now maintained by the National Trust. It is likely that its forerunner on the site was one of eight mills in the Wimborne area recorded in the Domesday Book. Originally a water-powered mill, the present building dates from 1776: from 1866 a steam engine provided power for the two mills that were operating on the site – a grinding mill for grain and a tucking mill for cloth. Much of the equipment survives but is in a fragile enough state to make restoration difficult. After milling had ceased, a bakery still operated on the site, distributing its products throughout the urban areas to the south.

If White Mill has a claim to being one of the finest preserved mills in Dorset, the neighbouring White Mill bridge has even greater claim to distinction. McFetrich describes it as ‘the oldest and most beautiful in the county’. A bridge may have existed on this site as long ago as 1175 – the lower parts are probably 12th-century and the original arches were rebuilt in the 16th century. The bridge, built principally of heathstone and Purbeck stone, possesses eight arches, and has undergone extensive repairs in the 20th century, although the original oak piles still remain in place. It has never been widened, although this may well be the result of its being of a generous width for a medieval bridge in the first place.

Sturminster Marshall is the last terrace village on the south bank of the Stour before Wimborne is reached. Sturminster received the additional name of Marshall from one of its earliest owners, distinguishing it from the Sturminster Newton in Blackmore Vale. The parish church of St Mary stands on a dry terrace bluff overlooking the Stour: the remainder of the village extends back from the river in almost linear fashion, now very much increased in size by commuter and retirement estates. At the southern end of the village, the site of the Somerset & Dorset Bailey Gate station and adjoining milk factory has now been replaced by an industrial estate.

Downstream from Sturminster Marshall the Stour meanders freely across widening water meadows to brush against the terrace on which Cowgrove and Pamphill are built. Eye Mead marks the position of a former island ‘Eye’ in the Stour. Downstream, Julian’s Bridge carries the road into Wimborne from the south-west. Originally built in 1656, it has been widened and repaired using Portland stone from Purbeck, often replacing the original heathstone. Wimborne Minster, still carrying the name of its great church, marks the end of the last truly rural stretch of the Stour. Although rural tranquillity can be found downstream, its course now runs in the shadow of one of the south coast’s great conurbations.

The Stour at Julian's Bridge, which leads into Wimborne
Julian’s Bridge, which leads into Wimborne from the south-west, was originally built in 1656

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