Clive Hannay illustrates and Rodney Legg explores from a cul-de-sac setting under the western hills
Published in June ’09
The best-known Bettiscombe resident remains unidentified. Variously attributed to the Bronze Age and the slave trade, the so-called ‘Screaming Skull’ of Bettiscombe Manor may still hold a surprise. John Symonds Udal, a High Court judge whose hobby was collecting folklore, first told the world about it in 1872: ‘At a farmhouse in Dorsetshire at the present time, is carefully preserved a human skull, which has been there for a period long antecedent to the present tenancy. The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year. It is strangely suggestive of the power of this superstition that through many changes of tenancy and furniture the skull still holds its accustomed place “unmoved and unremoved”!’
Years later, and far away from the high hills where Dorset meets Devon, Udal was Chief Justice of the Leeward Islands. In February 1903 he passed through a sugar plantation on Nevis and was told it was called ‘Pinney’s’ for owners of a century before. He then visited Fig Tree Church and found a memorial slab to John Pinney, born 3 May 1686, the son and heir of ‘Azariah Pynney of Nevis’, who has his memorial at Bettiscombe.
Udal discovered that Azariah Pinney had joined the Duke of Monmouth’s rebels in 1685, been taken prisoner at the Battle of Sedgemoor and condemned by Judge Jeffreys in the Bloody Assize. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Bridport but given a reprieve on payment of a £65 ransom. Instead he was handed over as a slave to Jerome Nipho for shipment to the West Indies.
One of the more fortunate of the exiles, Pinney eventually became a successful businessman, employing his own slaves, and his son became Chief Justice of Nevis. John Pretor Pinney disposed of their plantations with the emancipation of the slaves and returned to England in 1783, apparently with an old male slave named Bettiscombe who was thought to be the trusty retainer whose skull was preserved in the manor house.
Forensic analysis in 1963 showed, however, that the head was much younger: aged 25 to 30, female and of European rather than Negroid origin. Alternative theories came to the fore. She was either a young lady who had been hidden in the house as a fugitive or hostage, or a skull found in one of the numerous prehistoric burial mounds that pimple the western hills, kept as a memento mori.
Bettiscombe had a puritan tradition in that its Civil War rector, James Strong, wrote Joanereidos in 1645. Sub-titled ‘Feminine Valour’, it told the story of the women of Lyme Regis who broke the town’s eight-week Royalist siege.
Bettiscombe Manor, of Tudor origin, was extended by Nathaniel Pinney in 1694. Functional and plain outside, it retains a wealth of interior timber fittings, notably a fine staircase of about 1725, with balusters, newels and gracefully curving handrails. This and other dignified but unpretentious work bears comparison with Shaker furniture in New England. John Pretor Pinney moved on to build the Georgian House on Brandon Hill in Bristol. Meanwhile the family rented out their Dorset properties, notably Racedown House to poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. for a couple of years. The last member of the family in residence at Bettiscombe Manor was Michael Pinney (1909-2001), who sold Pilsdon Pen – Dorset’s highest point – to the National Trust in 1979.
Down in the Marshwood Vale, two farms – Lower House Farm and Water House Farm – date from the 17th century. With 650 acres along the spring-line, Bettiscombe is a small parish with a suitably pint-sized village to match. It was a community of 63 souls in 1881 and is still much the same, but half the population lives half a mile away in the hamlet of Marshalsea beside the B3165 on either side of Marshwood Garage.
St Stephen’s Church, re-built in 1862, has a couple of old windows and unplastered inside walls which are not as the architect intended. He was John Hicks of Dorchester, for whom young Thomas Hardy had been working since 1856. This standard piece of Perpendicular Gothic could well be Hardy’s work, particularly as it was effectively new-build ‘on the ancient site and adjacent portions of the churchyard’. Stained glass windows are to Victorian rector Rev. James Woodward Scott and family.
Mrs Penelope Hobhouse, who created the garden at Hadspen House, Somerset, and re-vamped the Phyllis Reiss layout at Tintinhull for the National Trust, moved to Bettiscombe in 1993. ‘I will actually strike out on my own,’ she said, ‘with more sombre greens, blues and golden foliage beds, less self-conscious colour manicuring, in a garden in which I have only to please myself.’
What makes Bettiscombe so appealing is the combination of the gardened and the wild in a south-facing setting below Sliding Hill, which owes its name and shape to an historic landslip. The hills call with a four-mile walk but be prepared for a stiff climb at the start and soft going across the clays of the Marshwood Vale at the end.
Park and start behind the timber village hall above Church Cottage and to the side of St Stephen’s Church (OS reference SY399999 in postcode DT6 5NT). Set off along the gravel road to the Manor House. Keep its brick walls to your right and then follow the hedge to the top end of the field. Enter bracken-clad Sliding Hill, with the hedge now to the left, and with a reputed standing stone (probably natural) to your right. Enter the following pasture and follow the terrace beside the right-hand fence.
Turn right on reaching the road, a mile into the walk, and pass the entrance to Attisham Farm. Walk on the right side, towards oncoming traffic and Pilsdon Pen, to the cottages of Templeman’s Ash in half a mile. A spot-height benchmark is at 658 feet above sea level. Turn right up the gravel track opposite no. 1 (the left-hand cottage) and then bear left into a narrow, double-hedged bridleway. From the end of this, in half a mile, continue straight ahead. Initially there is a hedge to the left, and then follow the spur of the hill downhill towards the biggest valley farm. Drop down to Pilsdon Lane in half a mile. Turn right and go round a couple of corners. Pass the farm and continue to the junction opposite Mabey’s Farm in half a mile. Make a short diversion to the left to see Pilsdon and its parish church, beside Pilsdon Manor. This is home to the Pilsdon Community, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2008.
Return to the triangular road junction and take both left-hand options into Batts Lane. Follow it for half a mile. Having gone up and over a rise, and sharply right at a corner, go over another rise to oak trees at the next corner. Turn right into a short farm track and follow the parish boundary bank and hedge. Turn left at the gate in 200 yards and now head straight across the field to the gate to the right of the cattle-trough. Having entered this next field, follow its left-hand hedge downhill (keeping another field between this and the wood) to a little stream at the bottom. Cross it near the lower corner, half a mile after leaving the road, into a big arable field. Head uphill to the left side of Lower House Farm in 500 yards. Either turn left along the drive to join the road into Bettiscombe, or take a public path across the field. This heads directly for the tower of St Stephen’s between the former school and the Old Rectory.