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In the footsteps of Treves — The land behind the Chesil Beach

Steve White and Clive Hannay look at how Abbotsbury and the surrounding area have changed since Sir Frederick Treves’s visit more than a hundred years ago

Chapter 15 of Sir Frederick Treves’s book Highways and Byways in Dorset is entitled ‘The Land behind the Chesil Beach.’ Part of this chapter covered the villages of Abbotsbury, Portesham and Puncknowle. ‘The chief place along the coast is Abbotsbury. This is a fat, comfortable, well-to-do village, very pleasantly situated among the downs.’ Treves goes on to tell of the Benedictine Abbey, the Swannery and the skirmish in 1644 between the Royalists and Parliamentarians, which resulted in a good deal of damage being done to some of Abbotsbury’s buildings.

The church of St Nicholas has many interesting and exceptional features, not the least of which is the intriguing story behind the Civil War bullet holes in its pulpit, mentioned by Treves. However, he also chose something less obvious about which to write. ‘One gracious presence in the church should not be overlooked. Among the old stained glass in one of the windows is a woman’s head, reputed to be that of St Catherine. The glass is so old and so faded that the colours have come to be a little more than a sun-tinted grey…. This fair St Catherine was turning the same soft eyes into the church when the musket bullets whistled across the nave in 1644, and her cheeks must have glowed with red when the flames shot up from the abbey house.’

This window is still to be found on the east side of the nave. The flames to which Treves refers were caused when the abbey house was laid siege to and set ablaze by Parliamentarians; an ammunition magazine stored within exploded, destroying the house.

Leaving Abbotsbury on the Weymouth road, Treves visits Portesham: ‘Very near to Abbotsbury – in a hollow among the downs – is the village of Portesham. It is a somewhat dull settlement, although cheered by a clear and rapid rivulet which chatters down the street….In this village Thomas Masterman Hardy, Nelson’s captain, spent the early years of his life. He was born at Kingston Russell – some three and a half miles distant – in 1769. In 1778, when the lad was nine years old, his father and mother moved to Portesham, to a little house which had long been in the possession of the family….At Portesham will also be found the house which was for many years Hardy’s home. It is a small and very plain building of two storeys, with a stone slab roof, a stuccoed front, and modernised windows. In the garden across the road and facing the house is a sun-dial brought from Kingston Russell.’

Portesham House could not be called ‘small'; Treves was clearly used to more grandiose buildings. The sundial is now in the back garden of the house, but it seems that there was a very large garden belonging to the house on the opposite side of the road where the sundial mentioned by Treves was located. In the 1960s this piece of land was sold and the sundial moved.

Travelling the coast road west, Treves visits the village of Puncknowle: ‘A little inland is the picturesque village of Puncknowle, where are many pretty cottages of stone, roofed with tiles or thatch. Here once lived that Colonel Shrapnel who was the inventor of the shell which bears his name.’

Puncknowle remains an attractive village and Treves would recognise it at once, despite the passing of over one hundred years since his visit; there has been little in the way of modern development.

Treves seldom missed an opportunity to visit the local church and Puncknowle was no exception: ‘The church of Puncknowle is curious and interesting. It has a small, low tower, a Norman chancel arch, and a peculiar font, shaped like a kettledrum and decorated by knotted ropes and very archaic heads. The place is full of monuments to many generations of Napiers. One old stone records the death of a Napier in 1597, while over the door are a helmet, two gauntlets and one spur, the helmet being surmounted by a crest of a hand grasping a crescent, the bearing of the Napiers.’ Sadly, the gauntlets and the spur were stolen in 1975 and the helmet no longer carries the Napier crest.

Leaving the church, Treves continues: ‘Hidden in a garden behind the church is one of the daintiest and most beautiful of the manor houses in the county, a marvel of ancient dignity and peace. It is trim, symmetrical, and very old.…This ancient homestead is far away from beaten tracks, but any who follow the coast road should turn aside to see it, so as to learn what an English home was like before the days when the small house mimicked the mansion, and when the flaunting villa was not.’

The manor house still hides in beautiful gardens behind the church. The front wing and porch were built in the middle of the 17th century and the remaining parts are of the 19th century. Treves’s description of the house remains appropriate – it is certainly a beautiful house in a beautiful location.

‘Farther down the valley is Kingston Russell House, the birthplace of Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who was born here on April 5th, 1769….The house, which now stands derelict in a field, is falling into ruins. It was at one time the stately home of the Russells, and on the pediment which surmounts the classical façade the arms of the family are boldly carved. Doors and windows have been taken away and replaced by brickwork, the oak wainscoting has gone to Woburn, ivy is creeping over the fine grey stone and weeds over the wide flight of steps.’

Throughout this series, there have been numerous occasions when buildings or features that Treves mentions have gone or changed irrevocably. It is gratifying to be able to say, therefore, that Kingston Russell House is back to its original grandeur. Soon after Treves’s visit the estate was sold off and the new owners took on the task of reversing the dereliction. The reason for the removal of many artifacts to Woburn, mentioned in Treves’s passage above, is the fact that the Russells of Kingston Russell rose to become the Earls of Bedford and owners of the Woburn estate.

Treves now climbed the side of the Bride valley to reach the hamlet of Chilcombe: ‘High up on the north slope of the Bride valley is Chilcombe. All of the village has vanished except the church and the manor house. They stand together in an utter solitude in the sunny niche of a hill…. The view from the green ledge is singularly beautiful…. The most curious thing in this exquisite sanctuary [Chilcombe church] is the reredos of deep yellow wood, strangely carved with figures to represent the crucifixion, the scourging of Christ, and Christ rising from the dead. It was obtained, they say, from one of the ships of the Spanish Armada, which was cast ashore on the Chesil Beach.’

The manor house was demolished in 1939 after becoming unsafe. The church (dedication unknown) is fascinating and well worth a visit. The reredos has been moved and fixed to the north wall of the nave. The church guide makes reference to the fact that it is thought to have come from a shipwreck but does not mention the Spanish Armada as the origin. Where Treves got this information from is uncertain: he may just have been quoting from local legend or hearsay.

Following in Treves’s footsteps around this part of Dorset illustrates that while some things have altered, others, such as Kingston Russell House, have returned to past glories. This part of Dorset is rightly famous for its outstanding views and as one stands and stares across the Bride Valley toward the sea, it is good to think that this is precisely what Sir Frederick Treves would have seen.

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