The Face of Dorset — The Blackmore Vale
John Chaffey on Hardy’s ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’
Published in April ’10
The pastoral expanse of the Blackmore Vale is best appreciated from the commanding heights of the great escarpment that runs to the east and south of the Vale from Melbury Hill to Bubb Down. Pastures dominate the small fields, with arable cultivation a relative rarity, giving the impression of a richly wooded landscape of hedgerow and copse. The Blackmore Vale extends away northwards, limited finally by the distant wooded hills of the Greensand country around Stourhead, with the eastern Mendip Hills outlining the far horizon.
The Blackmore Vale is far from a uniform clay lowland; important changes in the geology create significant north-south low ridges, that provide ideal dry sites for village settlement in an area where damp, often ill-drained pastureland is found in two great swathes that run south-westwards across North Dorset from Gillingham and Buckhorn Weston. These two tracts of lowland are underlain by the Kimmeridge Clay in the east and the Oxford Clay farther to the west. Few villages are found here; it is the ‘Little Dairies’ that dominate. Margaret Marsh and Guy’s Marsh suggest land that would have been difficult to farm; the occurrence of a Marsh Farm near both Ibberton and Stalbridge tells a similar story. The two drier ridges of the Cornbrash in the west and the Corallian in the east concentrate much of the settlement in the central Vale. The Cornbrash, named from its ‘brashy’ soils in which cereals flourish, supports the villages of Stalbridge, Stourton Caundle and Bishop’s Caundle: the Corallian sustains an even richer festoon of villages, Kington Magna, Fifehead Magdalen, Marnhull, Todber, Hinton St Mary, and farther to the south-west, Kingston and Hazelbury Bryan. Another feature that lends its own character to the northern part of the Vale is Duncliffe Hill. This is a wooded outlier of the Greensand escarpment at Shaftesbury and dominates much of the Vale landscape to the west of the hill town on its borders.
In its passage through the Blackmore Vale, the Stour begins to acquire the maturity that is steadily more manifest as the river meanders through the Chalk downland and the lowlands north of Bournemouth in its passage to the sea at Mudeford. For much of its passage across the northern part of the Vale, the Stour merges into its tranquil surroundings without being a dominant influence in the landscape. Between Marnhull and Sturminster Newton its existence is merely marked by a line of enclosing reeds, as it flows in a series of small tight meanders. Downstream from ‘Stur’ its character changes, and the meanders begin to swing more freely as it flows past Fiddleford, Hammoon and Shillingstone. Mills feature frequently on the Stour. In the upper reaches of the Vale, both Waterloo Mill, with its alien water wheel in a nearby field, and Eccliffe Mill are now private residences. The sturdy building of King’s Mill sits splendidly by the river and its bridge, in contrast with the desolation of Cutt Mill, sadly destroyed by fire. Downstream are the Vale’s two finest mills, the restored Sturminster Newton Mill and further downstream, Fiddleford Mill, strong in the shadow of Fiddleford Manor.
The distant view of the Vale from the Chalk escarpment emphasizes its lowland pastoral and wooded character, but is unable to reveal the intimate qualities bestowed on Blackmore by its villages. Almost more than any other part of Dorset, there is a linear regularity in its villages. At the foot of the Chalk escarpment is the line of villages that are located on the dry sites afforded by the Greensand bench. These extend from Cann and Compton Abbas south of Shaftesbury southwards and then westwards through Shillingstone to Buckland Newton and Batcombe, beneath the heights of its almost overwhelming hill. In the centre of the Vale are the two limestone ridges of the Corallian and Cornbrash with their lines of villages. It is only in the west, beyond the Caundles that the village pattern becomes more diffuse.
Many of the villages use the distinctive building stones from the Greensand itself. Cann, essentially a straggle of buildings along the main road south from Shaftesbury, takes pride in its mill on the little River Sturkel. Compton Abbas is more nucleated and has particularly attractive thatched cottages. To the south, Fontmell Magma, surprisingly built mainly on the Gault Clay, is noted for the Crown Brewery, with its fine brick buildings, which closed in 1904. Sutton Waldron sits on a spur of Greensand, with St Bartholomew’s church built on a knoll overlooking the village. Beyond the Victorian mansion of Clayesmore School to the south are Iwerne Minster and Iwerne Courtney, locally known as Shroton, after Sherriff’s Town, both built on the banks of the little River Iwerne, which flows into the Stour at Stourpaine.
Three villages cluster around the point where the Stour makes its exit from the Blackmore Vale. These are the three Okefords: Okeford Fitzpaine, Child Okeford and Shilling Okeford, although Shilling Okeford is now referred to universally as Shillingstone.
Shillingstone is denied the rural tranquillity of the other two as a result of the main road running through it. All three carry the names of families or knights that formerly lived there. Fitzpaine is obvious enough, the Eschellings lived near Shillingstone – the mutation is fairly clear – while Child Okeford carries the name of a ‘Child’ or a knight that once resided there. Ibberton and Woolland lie remote under the Chalk escarpment, with the latter’s church, in its lofty, isolated position having far-reaching views over the Vale.
Buckland Newton and Batcombe are the two last Greensand villages in the west, although the former has now spread on to both the Gault Clay and the Kimmeridge Clay. Marnhull, the ‘Marlott’ of Thomas Hardy, by virtue of its size inevitably dominates the Corallian villages in the centre of the Vale. Surprisingly, Treves found it ‘a disappointing village prim, and stiff.’ Perhaps many would disagree with that view today. Marnhull benefits enormously from the very attractive creamy white limestone, the Todber Freestone that is still quarried locally, and is used to distinction particularly in St Gregory’s Church and the Crown Inn, Hardy’s ‘The Pure Drop Inn’, which still has a ‘Pure Drop’ bar. Tiny St Andrew’s church in nearby Todber was re-built by the Marchioness of Westminster in the mid 19th century using Todber Freestone, after it had lain in ruins for some time. Northwards, Fifehead Magdalen is a lovely village standing on a Corallian limestone knoll, with its church looking across the Stour to Stour Provost. Further to the north is Kington Magna, whose church has a magnificent site overlooking an old medieval fishpond and quintessential Blackmore Vale in the Cale valley to the west. Treves thought that ‘it commanded one of the most beautiful views in the Vale’. Some miles to the south of the Stour, Hazelbury Bryan recalls hazel woods, common enough in the Vale, and the Bryene family, with links to Brienne in Normandy. Today it sprawls with modern commuter estates, and links with Kingston, Wonston and Droop, thus losing something of its focus.
Stalbridge is the largest of the Cornbrash villages, with commanding views, particularly from the church of St Mary, across the Cale valley to the east. Stalbridge buildings use Forest Marble instead of the local Cornbrash, which is too rubbly. Stalbridge High Street has been described as ‘an architectural delight’, with its distinctive 15th-century market cross. Stalbridge today boasts such a range of shops and services that many would say it qualifies as a small town. South-westwards lie the Caundles, all situated to the north of the Caundle Brook, and using a variety of local stone for buildings.
Sturminster Newton is the traditional capital of the Blackmore Vale, once again lying on the Corallian ridge where it overlooks the Stour. Sturminster Newton has a fine range of architectural styles, although most buildings date from after the disastrous fire of 1729, but some such as the White Hart at the southern end of the Market Place still survive. Its calf market grew steadily until 1970, when it was said to be the largest in Europe, but decline set in and it finally closed in 1997. Redevelopment is changing much of the centre of ‘Stur’, but it still retains the character of the cultural hub of the Blackmore Vale. Artistic fame came to Gillingham with the painting of the Town Bridge by John Constable, while he was staying with his friend, the vicar, Archdeacon John Fisher. Gillingham today is the natural service focus of the north of the Blackmore Vale: the growth of modern industry is witnessed by the burgeoning estates that surround the town and commuters can reach London by virtue of the much improved rail connection.
The ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’ shows both continuity and change since Hardy’s time. Much of its pastoral landscape remains undisturbed, but the agricultural labour force is a shadow if its former self, villages spawn new estates around their medieval cores and the towns are learning to cope with redevelopment and functional change.