The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Bradford Abbas

Clive Hannay illustrates and Rodney Legg describes the village of golden stone between Sherborne and Yeovil

Land around Bradford Abbas is far too fertile for traces to be left across it of what must have been a busy early history. There were several Roman villas and other buildings on the light soils of the Yeovil sands, with the known sites being in a line from Yeovil Golf Course, across the fields at Coombe, and down in the meadows towards Thornford. The golf course was laid out in 1919 on the former common land of the parish which was the last vestige of the medieval farming system.

East Farm at Coombe was the birthplace of the parsnip as we know it today. Professor James Buckman (1814-84) succeeded in breeding out of the almost useless vegetable known as ‘Fingers and Toes’ its tendency to turn into a mass of forked roots. Buckman was also a leading geologist who followed the railway navvies across the parish in 1859, collecting ammonites and other fossils as the excavations cut through bands of golden stone that give the village its sunny face.

There is a mention of farming at Bradford Abbas from the reign of King Ethelwulf in the 840s but the first definite date in village history comes a century later and resulted in this ‘broad-ford’ place-name gaining its religious adjunct to distinguish it from other Bradfords. Signing charters at Chippenham, on 26 January 933, King Athelstan granted land surrounding the place ‘those who dwell there call Bradan-forda’ to the Bishop of Sherborne. The manor of Bradford Abbas continued to provide ecclesiastical rents for the greater glory of Sherborne Abbey until Henry VIII sold it – with 18,000 acres – to Sir John Horsey of Clifton Maubank in 1539.

Original stonework from a rectangular 12th-century church survives at the altar end of the present Church of St Mary the Virgin. The rest of the building is substantially that of its great extension of 1484, as is the fine perpendicular preaching cross in the churchyard, in octagonal Hamstone. Figures in the tower niches are finely carved but the superlative single piece of stonework is the square Hamstone font with corners carved with John the Baptist and three bishops.

Bradford Abbas was touched by national events with the Battle of Babylon Hill beside the main highway out of Yeovil, early in the English Civil War, on 7 September 1642. King Charles’s fortunes were running reasonably well at that time. The Marquis of Hertford and expelled MP Ralph Hopton sallied forth from Sherborne Castle to claim 140 Parliamentarian dead from the forces holding Yeovil Bridge. Then Roundhead troops advanced unseen up deep-cut Bradford Hollow. Hertford lost about 50 men and returned to the defensive at Sherborne but Hopton’s 200 horsemen and dragoons broke out to head west and galvanise Royalist forces in Cornwall.

A flagstone in the church, set in the chancel floor, commemorates William Harvey of Wyke, who died of wounds received while fighting with King James’s militia during the first shoot-out of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion, at the Bull Hotel, Bridport, on 14 June 1685.

Dating from this period, with stone mullioned windows, thatched Chantry House in North Street is the most attractive secular building in the village.

St Mary’s School was built in 1856 and more than doubled in size in 1966 when its extension was opened by Lord Fisher, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury. On the other side of the age scale, the village has had a reputation for male longevity since Henry Arnold, in the 1880s, was the oldest parish clerk in England. Born at that time, Thomas Coombs and his contemporaries went on to spending their latter days in the Rose and Crown.

A quintet of these octogenarian ‘Bradford lads’ (four with flowing white beards) made headlines in 1935, and then featured on the newsreels. The story was that they had a combined age of 434 years. Dorchester brewers Eldridge Pope claimed that ‘the healthiest village in Dorset’ was down to its Huntsman Ales. Such has been the change in life expectancy that their achievement would now be regarded as normal (though the beards might be newsworthy).

Canon Gordon Wickham expressed disappointment in September 1914 at the slow rate of enlistment among his male flock to the fight the Germans, and exhorted them to consider ‘wherein their duty lies, and act promptly’. Soon the news would be of casualties and carnage as a total of 29 men from the parish lost their lives. The War Memorial names three from the Patch family and a total of nine Smiths.

The village has been unlucky with thatched house fires from Victorian times through to this century. The blaze on 22 June 1891 swept through four cottages after having been started by a spark from a steam engine. Another four cottages were destroyed on 15 September 1938.

The wartime Home Guard and Air Raid Precautions wardens, based in Ruskin House, rushed into action on 30 September 1940 as German bombers came over the village. The bombs, which had been intended for Westlands Aerodrome at Yeovil, were about to be released but the raid did not start until they reached Lenthay Common on the edge of Sherborne, two miles away.

History is also being found. The Rose and Crown has an historic open fireplace with Tudor rose emblems on the Hamstone bressummer which was rediscovered – having been walled up – and restored to use in 1966. Another big fireplace, also covered over, was discovered in Apple Tree Thatch by Keith Watkins when he lived in North Street.

A stroll of a couple of miles brings in thatched idylls, sylvan bridges, pastoral meadows and a green lane. There is, however, also a narrow length of road walking. An opt-out is given in case traffic makes this inadvisable on the day.

Park and start in Church Street (OS reference ST588143 in postcode DT9 6RF). Set off from the Post Office and War Memorial, in Church Street, to the Rose and Crown and St Mary’s Church.

Turn left at the corner between St Mary’s School and the copper beech tree, which has outgrown its railings. This is Mill Lane. Bear right between the impressive Mill House – a 17th- and 18th-century flax mill – and Little Thatch. Turn left on reaching the field gate, down beside the stone wall to the Iron Bridge over the River Yeo.

Bear right across the meadows, to the right of the house and garden, to a kissing gate beyond the central power pole. Turn left along Clifton Road, walking on the verge, and pass Huish Farm to the junction beside Hunters Leap.

Cross 16th-century Smith’s Bridge (Smear’s Bridge to the locals), which has taken a battering from traffic in recent years. The parapet has been knocked off several times between 1972 and 2009. If you need to cut the walk short, turn left through the kissing gate into the next field, to return to Church Street. Or, if the traffic is light, continue uphill and proceed straight ahead at the crossroads, beside Goodlands, to cross the railway bridge in half a mile.

Turn left 150 yards beyond it (before reaching the pylon line) into Fanny Brook’s Lane. This delightful track is a public road which heads westwards into the village. Turn right in Back Lane, opposite its junction with Bakehouse Lane, and take the next left, which is Cross Road. Then turn left and walk the length of North Street. This is the picturesque heart of the village, with its cluster of thatched roofs. These include Chantry House, Yew Tree Cottage, Cross Cottage, Wild Thyme Cottage and Glynn Cottage.

Continue straight ahead from The Cross, between bollards, and under the railway. Bear right beside No. 4, to Little Thatch at the next corner, and then left down Churchwell Street. Pass the Old Schoolhouse to return to Gardener’s Cottage and the Rose and Crown.

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