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In the footsteps of Treves — Poxwell and Osmington

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick to the east of Weymouth

Researching his book, Highways and Byways in Dorset, published in 1906, Sir Frederick Treves cycled over 2000 miles around the county. Page 210 sees him arrive at the ‘trim and decorous hamlet of Poxwell….This place, the Pockswelle of Domesday Book, possesses a delightful manor house, built in 1654 by the then owners, the Hennings. It is an agreeable relief to a singularly stiff modern church by its side.’ Treves’s date of 1654 for the building of Poxwell Manor is inaccurate, as the date 1612 is carved in the porch. Treves may have misread the date 1634 above the gatehouse, which would have been visible from the road in those days.

Poxwell Manor has had mixed fortunes over the four centuries of its existence, at one stage facing dereliction. It seems certain that the manor was being used as a farmhouse when Treves cycled by in around 1904; as Sidney Heath’s 1910 publication, The Heart of Wessex, testifies, ‘It is one of hundreds of old manor houses in Dorset, and elsewhere, that have become degraded in the social scale to the status of a farmhouse.’ Now, providentially, it is firmly back in its intended role; the interior retains many original features and is as imposing as the exterior.

Sir Frederick would doubtless be comforted to hear that the ‘stiff modern church’ has now gone. The church, built in 1868 by the then owner of Poxwell Manor, John Trenchard, lasted barely100 years before being pulled down owing to an unsafe roof. The original church, demolished by Trenchard, was dedicated to St John the Evangelist and is listed as 12th-century but was possibly much older. The bell which had hung in both churches now hangs nearby in Broadmayne church.

Trenchard took the advice of his friend, Rev. Moule of Fordington, and supplied the hamlet with drinking water years ahead of most towns and villages. In 1843 he built for his farm-workers the thatched cottages that line the road. John Trenchard’s family had married into the Hennings and when the manor was sold in 1977, the vendors became the last descendants of the Hennings to live in the manor, ending 365 years of residence.

Clearly enamoured with Poxwell Manor, Treves continues: ‘The house is an ash-grey building with stone-mullioned windows gleaming through ivy, a roof of chocolate-coloured tiles, tall chimneys, great gables, and a hospitable porch with a chamber over it. A bright moss has splashed the old masonry with patches of gold. The manor stands among trees, with for a background a green hill.’ This vivid description, typical of Treves, is as relevant now as it was just over a century ago. The only major changes appear to be the loss of the church, some large trees evident in Pennell’s picture and the addition of one modern house.

Treves moves to the gatehouse: ‘About it is a garden wherein is a gateway with a porter’s lodge over it. This queer little guard-room has a pointed roof of red tiles toned down by yellow lichen and an abundance of ivy. It also boasts a pinnacle on each of its angles, as if it were a casket of stone. The simple wooden wicket which closes the archway and defends the garden is of the most obsequious modesty. The window of the tiny chamber is always opened wide, as if whoever dwelt within loved the air.’ Clive’s painting shows the gatehouse, as did Joseph Pennell’s original drawing from Highways and Byways. This striking structure, predominantly of red brick (unlike the manor itself) has a set of stone steps leading from the garden to the upper floor and is no longer cloaked in ivy as it was when Treves saw it. The wooden wicket has gone and a much grander metal gate guards the way in its stead.

Climbing the hill on the opposite side of the high road, Treves finds Poxwell Cairn Circle: ‘On a high down just beyond the village, and in full view of Portland and Weymouth Bay, is a stone circle made of fifteen rough grey stones. This circle of unknown antiquity has only a diameter of fourteen feet, yet it is protected by a rampart and ditch on the side towards the sea. It is little more than a yokel’s Stonehenge, the effort of a humble village, a work as innocent of pretension as a model of the Great Pyramid built out of pebbles by a boy on a beach.’ Modern research has put paid to Treves’s romantic notions regarding the origins of the ‘stone circle’. Apparently it is but the remains of a round barrow, worn over the thousands of years since its construction to leave just the stones of its base. This area is rich in barrows, many of which tend to be on high points with wonderful views of the sea, just like Treves’s ‘yokel’s Stonehenge’.

Travelling towards Weymouth, Treves comes to Osmington: ‘Osmington, the next place on the coast road, has not yet assumed suburban characteristics. The detached portion by the sea called Osmington Mills is a popular tourist resort, strongly recommended by every char-a-banc driver in Weymouth.’ The reason for the popularity of Osmington Mills in Treves’ time, as well as the clear attraction of the eye-catching scenery, was the Picnic Inn (now known as the Smugglers Inn). The Picnic Inn was famous for its Hot Lobster Teas; the lobsters, mostly caught locally by the landlord of the pub, were kept in pots by the shore and cooked fresh every day. Photographs of the time show a number of horse-drawn carriages (or char-a-bancs) lined up outside the pub. Leaving ‘The Mills’, Treves enters Osmington village itself. He puts the church at the entrance to the village, which is intriguing as it has always been at roughly the village centre.

From Osmington he takes the road west: ‘A little beyond the village there breaks upon the eye what the guide books call “a fine view of the White Horse”. The White Horse is a figure of Titanic proportions carved out of the chalk upon the slope of a grass covered hill. On the horse is a white rider with a cocked hat and unreasonable spurs. It is none other than his Majesty King George III. The monarch is less imposing than the animal, which is very stout and is provided with a tail so wide and straight that it looks like a chalk road descending the hill. According to local records, the horse and his rider were cut about the years 1807-8 to the order of John Ranier, brother of Admiral Ranier, under the supervision of Mr.Wood, a local bookseller; a remarkable achievement, as the figures, 280 feet long and 323 feet high, had to be distorted to give proper eye view, on account of the slope of the hill.’

The White Horse, cut into the hillside in 1808, has probably changed shape to some extent since Treves set eyes upon it, due to successive re-cuts over the past century. The spurs seem too small now to be called ‘unreasonable’ but the tail of the horse even now ‘looks like a chalk road descending the hill.’ Plans are afoot to restore the White Horse to its former glory during 2010, something that’s certainly required and just in time for the 2012 Olympics. Such a restoration will be another ‘remarkable achievement’ of which Treves would surely have approved.

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