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In the footsteps of Treves — The road to Blandford

Steve White and Clive Hannay look at how the villages of Compton Abbas, Fontmell Magna and Iwerne Minster have changed since Sir Frederick Treves visited them a hundred years ago

Fontmell Magna Maypole

The drawing of the Fontmell Magna maypole by Joseph Pennell for the original edition of Highways and Byways in Dorset

Treves begins the fifth chapter of his book Highways and Byways in Dorset thus: ‘Along this road, about a mile beyond the hill on which stood Melbury Beacon, is the little settlement of Compton Abbas. The modern village, that all can see, is by the roadside, and is bald and bold enough. There is, however, a shy lane which leads to a glen at the very foot of the downs, where, hidden among orchards and trees, the shrunken old hamlet will be found. It is one of the many buried villages of the county.’

Treves’s reference to Melbury Beacon almost certainly refers to the beacon system set up to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada at the end of the 16th century; Melbury Hill, owing to its imposing height, was the site of one of these beacons. The ‘shrunken hamlet’ can still be found and is marked on the maps as East Compton. It would appear that in effect the village moved when the turnpike road from Blandford to Shaftesbury was constructed in the 1820s and left the old part of the village on its own.

Treves continues: ‘By the side of its thatched cottages is the ancient graveyard, where, in a wilderness of rank grass and tombs, fowls have a pleasaunce of their own. Under a yew tree is the stump of the old village cross…’ The ancient graveyard still retains the venerable old village cross, although the original yew tree that Treves saw is no more; in its stead around eight new specimens have been planted.

Still in the ancient graveyard, Treves notes: ‘The church is gone, but its square tower, covered with ivy, still stands… On the very summit of this tower a pear tree is growing, and the genial farmer who lives near by states that although the tree blossoms every spring, it has not increased in size these twenty years.’ The square tower of the original church remains; the pear tree, however, has gone, as has the ivy cladding. Intriguingly, the pear tree was still in situ until only 25 years ago and, judging by photographic evidence, it was no bigger than at the turn of the last century. Its removal was due to the fact that it was causing some damage to the fabric of the tower and that local children were getting into the structure in attempts to climb up and get the fruit. Based on the date of Treves’s visit in around 1904 and the farmer’s statement that the tree had already been there for about twenty years, this pear tree had been growing on top of the old church tower for some hundred years before its removal. A new pear tree was then planted at the base of the tower. I am reliably informed that the family residing in the old farmhouse (most likely the dwelling of the ‘genial farmer’) are descendants of the people living there at the time of Treves’s visit.

The old tower was part of the original church of Compton Abbas, built during the 15th century. The three bells from this church were relocated in the new Victorian church built in 1866-7, which stands about a mile west of the former and was constructed when the village moved to make the most of the new turnpike road.

Travelling south, Treves comes to Fontmell Magna: ‘Following the main road, one soon comes to the beautiful village of Fontmell Magna, which still boasts of a maypole. It lies in a hollow by the side of the Fontmell Brook, and is as pretty a spot as old cottages, old gardens, and old orchards can make it. In the centre of the village is a very ancient tree with seats around it, where the gossips of the place congregate to mumble over flocks and herds, and the affairs of pigs.’ The maypole, needless to say is no more; Rodney Legg stated in the August 1991 edition of Dorset Life (then the Dorset County Magazine) that by the 1960s the maypole looked ‘like a splintered telegraph pole’, while the great stakes that propped it up were also in a ‘terminal state of decay’ and it was therefore taken down.

The ancient tree referred to by Treves was called the ‘Gossips’ Tree’ (or Cross Tree) and was a 250-year-old elm. The tree was still alive up until 1976, when the prolonged drought of that year, coupled with Dutch elm disease, saw its unfortunate demise. A new lime tree was planted in its place and this now stands around thirty feet tall. The area, depicted in Clive Hannay’s painting, is still known as the Gossips’ Tree and there is now a regular publication designed to keep people of the village in touch with events (and perhaps local gossip) called The Gossip Tree.

Visiting the church, Treves observes: ‘The church is one of the handsomest in Dorsetshire. Its line of rectors goes back to one Stephen Prewett, who ministered here in 1303, at which time the living was owned by the Abbess of Shaftesbury. The church has many interesting features… there are pillars crowned by angels, a Norman font, and an old carved screen with upon it the heads of “Water King and Esbell his wif.”’ The carved oak screen is 16th-century and originally would have been situated in the chancel arch; it was probably shortened when moved. The heads of ‘Water King and Esbell his wif’ are still to be found on the screen. The church actually possesses three fonts; the Norman example that Treves mentions, a Victorian font which is currently unused, and a damaged but remarkable Saxon font which was apparently re-discovered on a local farm some time after Treves visited.

Travelling southwards, Treves continues: ‘Farther on the Blandford road is Iwerne Minster, a village of some size, beautifully situated, and possessed of many charming cottages. It must at one time have been very picturesque, but it is in process of being metamorphosed into red brick. The low thatched cottages are gradually vanishing, to be replaced by bold houses of gaudy brick and tiles’. Throughout Highways and Byways in Dorset, Treves makes constant derogatory references to the proliferation of the ‘modern villas’ beloved of the Victorians and the resultant destruction of thatched cottages. The village today certainly still retains a good number of ‘charming cottages'; however, it has gained, through development and expansion during the latter half of the last century, a large number of bungalows and other housing.

Treves, never overlooking a church, goes on: ‘The church of Iwerne Minster is famous in the possession of a stone steeple, a distinction belonging to no other churches in Dorset, except those at Winterborne Steepleton, and Trent. It contains, too, certain Norman and early English remains. The building has – like many others churches in the county – suffered from the ravages of restoration. At the beginning of the last century the spire was taken down and only rebuilt to half its former height.’ Evidently the steeple was shortened by a further sixteen feet in 1933 when a lightning conductor was fitted and therefore now stands at much less than ‘half its former height'; it must have been imposing when originally built. The stained glass windows are particularly notable and, according to the church guide book, some were made by Christopher Whall, a maker of stained glass in the arts and crafts movement, and were probably fitted just after Treves’s visit.

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