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Chettle House

Photograph by Grahame Austin of Kitchenham Photography

The village of Chettle, five miles north-west of Blandford Forum, is dominated, metaphorically rather than physically, by Chettle House, for it is hardly visible from the narrow lanes which surround it. This aerial view looks almost due west, and the east aspect is, despite the imposing double staircase to the main door, the back of the building.

Chettle House dates from about 1710, according to Hutchins, although Pevsner and others prefer a later date. It was built for George Chafin, whose father Thomas had fought for King James II at Sedgemoor against the Duke of Monmouth’s forces after they had landed at Lyme Regis in 1685 in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the monarchy. The Chafin family had been wardens of Cranborne Chase since 1681 and were indisputably one of the great families of Dorset. It was probably their friendship with their near neighbours, the Pitts, which inspired George to commission a new family home. Kingston Maurward had been built for the Pitts in 1717, and if the Pitts were having a new home then the Chafins had to have a new one as well, to replace the Elizabethan manor house.

The architect of Kingston Maurward was Thomas Archer, and George Chafin was sufficiently impressed by his work for the Pitts that he engaged him for the Chettle project. Kingston Maurward was still a brick house then – it was not encased in Portland stone until 1794, after George III had made his derogatory comments (‘Brick, Mr Pitt, brick?’). Hence Archer’s Chettle is also brick, the building work probably having been carried out by the firm of Thomas Bastard from nearby Blandford.

It was a winning combination: Nikolaus Pevsner calls it ‘the plum among Dorset houses of the early 18th century, and even nationally outstanding as a specimen of English Baroque’, and even Frederick Treves, who never hesitated to call a spade a spade, describes it as ‘dignified’. The red brick has dressings of Chilmark stone, but the building’s most striking feature is its lack of corners: all the ends are rounded off. The rounding of the four main corners is echoed by similar rounding of the main entrance on the west side: our aerial view brings this out even more forcefully than any photograph from ground level. The overall structure is also made plain – a seven-bay block, plus the rounded end bays, of two very tall storeys, rising in the three-bay centre for a further attic storey.

George Chafin’s eldest son, also called George in the confusing tradition of those times, gambled the entire estate away on his 21st birthday in 1738, although the family clung on until the last of the Chafins died in 1818. The estate was acquired by the Castleman family in 1847, whose descendants, the Bourkes, still own it. To this day, they run the entire village and all the land around it in a 21st-century version of feudalism. The landlords choose (and evict) their tenants, making sure that everyone who lives there has a good reason to be there: priority for a house in the village goes to anyone who works in Chettle’s timberyard, farms, village shop or hotel (the Castleman), and after that priority goes to anyone whose parents or grandparents lived in Chettle. The ‘second home’ problem simply does not exist in this village, and tenants and landlords work together to make sure the village functions properly. It is a unique partnership.

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