The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the footsteps of Treves — The Tollers, Wynford Eagle, Rampisham and Evershot

Steve White and Clive Hannay in ‘the midlands of Dorset’

Chapter 18 of Sir Frederick Treves’s book, Highways and Byways in Dorset, is called ‘Toller of the Pigs’. Treves begins the chapter: ‘Toller Porcorum is a convenient centre from whence to visit certain of the midlands of Dorset. There is a station there, although it has dropped the cognomen of Porcorum.’ Toller station was on the Bridport branch and opened on 31 March 1862. Although threatened by the Beeching cuts, the station remained open until 1975 as the narrow lanes were not suitable for buses. There was a single platform with a small wooden ticket office/waiting room. ‘Toller’ derives from the name of the river which, although called Hooke since the 15th century, was originally known as the Toller.

‘Toller Porcorum, Swines’ Toller or Hog Toller, is supposed to derive its title from the circumstance that it was a notable place for the feeding of swine,’ wrote Treves. ‘The village lies in a shallow, well-wooded valley, and is so singularly free from pigs that it would appear to be living down its early reputation. It is, it must be confessed, in itself a place of no interest, but it stands in the midst of an attractive district.’ The ‘attractive district’ retains many small fields with high hedges and therefore continues to be much the same as in Treves’s day. The village, on the other hand, has probably doubled in size.

Having condemned Toller Porcorum as uninteresting, Treves travels to Toller Fratrum: ‘The village of Toller Fratrum, Toller of the Brethren, is much more agreeable [than Toller Porcorum]. It is prettily placed on a ledge delved from the slope of a hill, over against the River Hooke. It belonged at one time to the Brethren of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and at a later period to the Fulfords. The mansion, built by Sir Thomas Fulford, the distinguished Royalist, still stands, and is to this day an admirable specimen of the domestic architecture of the early part of the seventeenth century. It is a house of grey masonry, bronzed by age, with stone-mullioned windows, and pinnacles formed out of monstrous heraldic beasts, overshadowed by chimneys of twisted stone.’ Sir Thomas Fulford’s mansion continues to dominate the hamlet of Toller Fratrum today; it does not seem to have changed and is an impressive building. The most central of the pinnacles has perched upon it a monkey holding a mirror, but the significance of this is a mystery.

Treves continues: ‘A building with a thatched roof near the house is said to be the refectory. On its outer wall, cut in stone, is the appropriate figure of a man eating a loaf.’ Unfortunately the building today is in a ruinous state; windows are broken, while the thatch is collapsing and has various shrubs and weeds growing from it.

‘The small, much-restored church contains a tub-shaped font ornamented with archaic carvings of human heads in an incongruous jumble. Some, who speak with authority, say that the font is Saxon, others that its decoration belongs to a debased Roman period. It is further declared that the sculptor has striven to represent the man-faced Lion of Judah succouring the human race.’ The intriguing font remains the subject of conjecture. It is thought to be late Saxon or early Norman. The carving is very crisp and the subject matter, whatever age it belongs to, is fascinating. Treves also mentions that in the wall above the altar is a ‘rustic tablet’ showing Mary washing the Saviour’s feet. This also survives.

Following Treves’s route through picturesque scenery to Wynford Eagle, it is obvious that this area has remained largely unspoilt. Treves says, ‘A pleasant valley road leads from the Tollers to Wynford Eagle. The place was once held by the barony of Aquila, or the Eagle, in Sussex. The family was Norman, and took its name from Aquila in Normandy….The chief interest of Wynford Eagle rests in the fact that it was the birthplace of Thomas Sydenham, the father of British Medicine’. Known as the English Hippocrates, Thomas Sydenham identified and described, amongst a number of illnesses, Sydenham’s chorea, a movement disorder which is also known as St Vitus Dance.

Treves resumes: ‘The house of the Sydenhams still stands in Wynford Eagle, a beautiful specimen of the seventeenth century manor. It is a house of gables, and on the summit of the central gable is perched a great stone eagle, alert and strong. Under it is writ the date 1630.’ Whilst Treves was correct about the date 1630 carved under the eagle, this is the date of the last major work on the house, The oldest part, built from Ham stone, actually dates from the 1500s, so it is more properly called a 16th-century manor.

‘The church that Sydenham knew has vanished, to be replaced by a modern building of daring ugliness. In the wall of the new edifice is a Norman or pre-Norman tympanum from the ancient church. It shows two fearsome beasts in stone, who are apparently about to fight….Authorities state that these creatures are “wyverns in opposition”. The wyvern is described in dictionaries as a winged dragon with a barbed tail.’ The ‘modern’ church that Treves disparages for its ‘daring ugliness’ was actually built in 1840. The tympanum (a semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance) can be found in the wall where Treves saw it. It is thought that the tympanum may have been the door lintel from the ancient church, which was situated some 500 yards to the south-west of the new building.

Rampisham, claims Treves, is one of the most beautiful villages in Dorset: ‘It stands in a valley of trees through which runs a stream. It is a place of old thatched cottages, with a tiny, creeper-covered inn of great antiquity and singularly low stature, bearing the ferocious title of the “Tigers Head”.’ Unfortunately the Tiger’s Head is no more; a fire destroyed the place very soon after Treves’s visit and in its place is a much larger building dated 1915 which remained as an inn until the early 1990s. The village has actually shrunk since Treves’s time. The population, which stood at 430 in the mid-19th century, is just over 100 at present; every other place visited in this series has grown to some degree in the last 100 years.

Treves makes no mention of the church, which was extensively restored in the middle of the 19th century (he often derided the ‘restoring’ of churches by the Victorians). Rampisham church is exceptional, however, in that the new chancel was designed in 1846 by Augustus Pugin, one of the greatest designers and architects of the time. Pugin worked on the Houses of Parliament and a number of other important buildings. He also designed Rampisham’s rectory and school, now both private dwellings.

Travelling a short distance north-east, Treves comes to Evershot: ‘The nearest town to Rampisham is Evershot, a neat, wholesome, over-grown village, which remains still modest and unassuming, although dignified by a railway station. As in Leland’s days, it is even yet “a right humble towne”.’ Evershot, as can be seen in Clive’s picture, is an attractive village, although no longer ‘dignified’ by a railway station as it closed in October 1966. For such a small village of 181 people, it retains what we would consider today to be ‘old village’ ideals – a post office/shop, a primary school, a bakery, an inn and a hotel. John Leland and Frederick Treves would probably still call it ‘a right humble towne’!

[Many thanks to Lord Wynford and Michael Nisbet for their invaluable help in researching this article.]

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