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Dorchester’s river

Jeany Poulsen follows the course of the River Frome as it passes through the county town

The River Frome alongside Poundbury Hill, passing beneath the Yeovil to Dorchester railway line

One September evening in 1907 the Reverend Samuel Filleul, vicar of Dorchester’s All Saints’, strolled down to the River Frome for a spot of quiet fishing. It was disappointing at first but as he returned along the bank in the half-light he stopped for one last try. He was rewarded with such a mighty splashing that at first he thought he had accidentally hooked an otter. It was actually a brown trout, for which the clear waters of the chalk-stream Frome were, and still are, justly famous.

Even with the assistance of Mr Pomeroy, the river keeper, a large landing-net proved too small. The splendid trout eventually arrived on the lamp-lit river-bank courtesy of the only suitable, if ignominious, receptacle on hand: a washing-basket, borrowed from some presumably rather surprised women who had been busy with their ironing in a nearby cottage. The fish was promptly sent away to be stuffed and mounted. It weighed 12¾ pounds, and was 29¼ inches (75 cms) long.

‘Frome’ is thought to be a Celtic river name, first recorded in the 9th century, meaning ‘fair’ or ‘fine’. The Dorset Frome rises at Evershot, is fed by Wraxall Brook, River Hooke, Sydling Water and River Cerne, and runs about thirty miles all told, meeting Poole Harbour just below Wareham. It comes into Dorchester from the north-west, weaving through a large system of channels that flush the water-meadows lying between Charminster and Poundbury Hillfort and following round to the east.

The millstream alongside Frome Terrace

This swathe of flood-prone ground has restricted Dorchester’s growth throughout the centuries and still contributes to the sense of the busy town centre being close to its surrounding countryside. The water-meadow system, thought to have been introduced from the continent in the 17th century, works by allowing farmers to temporarily flood fields in late winter. This kept off the frost and provided a good early crop of spring grass, which in turn meant a greater number of stock could be fed.

Poundbury Hill, with its Iron Age fort, rises steeply to the south of the river flood-plain. As well as the relatively simple ramparts of the fort itself, the channel of the aqueduct supplying water to Roman Dorchester is also clearly visible on this side from the A37. Centuries after it ceased to fulfil its original function, Poundbury hillfort has been much used by the people of Dorchester for various gatherings, fairs, elections and so on. In 1886 Ernest Young wrote that it was the annual scene of ‘the revels of the Dorchester Bonfire Boys, who, on the 5th of November, assemble here in their hundreds and, dressed in the most fantastic costumes, indulge in all the enjoyments of the masquerade.’

Just east of the hill road-names in the modern industrial estate recall the water-driven West Mill, no doubt one of the fifteen in Dorchester mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. This corn mill is also mentioned in a survey of 1607 as belonging to a John Churchill, presumably one of the Churchills who built Colliton House, still standing next to the County Library just within the walls of the Roman town.

The millstream and footpath near Hangman’s Cottage

The Frome divides at Dorchester, with a rural north-eastern main course naturally looping across the water-meadows by the tiny settlements of Frome Whitfield and Coker’s Frome, while its twin marks the sharp divide between the north-east town on its hill and the meadows. This urban course was the millstream, likely to have been diverted from the main course in Saxon times. Just below the walls of Colliton Park, Hangman’s Cottage nestles in a peaceful spot where there is a pleasant path next to the wide millstream. The hangman is said to have kept his rope under the cottage’s thatch. In the 19th century, public hangings took place at the prison close by and large crowds would gather to watch from the water-meadows.

By contrast there is another path that leads out to Blue Bridge over the ‘real’ Frome, a good place for the sharp-eyed to spot kingfishers, the nationally rare water-voles, or possibly otter spraint – if not the shy animal itself. There are beds of rich green water crowfoot dotted in summer with white flowers worthy of a Millais painting, but which Mr Pomeroy would have spent many hours clearing to improve the fishing for Dorchester Fishing Club, founded in 1877.

The present prison buildings date from 1884, but the surrounding red-brick walls, clearly visible from the river-path, remain from fine new prison buildings completed in 1795, costing over £16,000 and a model of its day. This was built on the one-time site of Dorchester’s medieval castle, which existed from some time before 1137 until it was sold to the Friars Minor next door in the early 14th century. Castle stone is thought to have been used in the friary buildings, recalled by Friary Hill, which leads up from the millstream into North Square, past the attractive late 19th-century Frome Terrace (of speckled Broadmayne bricks under slate roofs). The Friars took possession of the mill which once stood on the north bank in 1485 and held it until the Dissolution in 1536. It was next to what are now the much-loved, well-tended allotments, and a small nature reserve.

Hangman’s Cottage

Shortly after, the millstream passes below High East Street at the point where it becomes London Road. Until 1746 traffic out of Dorchester went through Fordington but Mrs Laura Pitt, née Grey, of Kingston Maurward, financed the construction of a new causeway and bridge (£1500) across the ‘moor’ almost following the disused Roman route. The small but rather elegant Grey’s Bridge, still in use, crosses the north-eastern Frome and now marks the entry to the town. It is a chilling thought that during World War 2 fear of invasion resulted in Royal Engineers drilling holes in its precious stonework, ready for explosives. No invasion, but in 1942 several high explosive bombs fell on the water-meadows and riverbank, killing ten cows and a horse, slightly injuring several people, and damaging nearby houses in St George’s Road.

The millstream passing under High East Street loops round below the old buildings of Fordington High Street, notably a former pub called Noah’s Ark and the Lott & Walne Foundry, an important manufacturer in Edwardian Dorchester which was still casting metals in the 1960s. It is now converted into flats but its lofty pulley remains intact to tease nervous pedestrians passing beneath.

Ernest Young’s guide to Dorchester (1886), after describing many features of interest, finishes his section on Fordington all too succinctly: ‘the eastern portion is chiefly occupied by the poorer classes.’ The area around Mill Street had become very densely occupied in the earlier 19th century, largely due to unemployed agricultural workers moving into the already tightly-packed cottages and streets in hope of work. Henry Moule, appointed vicar of Fordington in 1829, worked tirelessly (along with his wife Mary) nursing his sick and dying parishioners during the 1849 outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever and cholera, and another cholera outbreak in 1854. He also campaigned for better, affordable housing and, since it was on Duchy of Cornwall land, appealed (unsuccessfully) to Prince Albert for help. Improvements gradually came and by 1907 ‘our’ Reverend Filleul was able to comment (perhaps over-optimistically) that his wonderful fish caught near here ‘was not sewer fed, as our water is all now unpolluted’.

The River Frome passing beneath Grey’s Bridge, just before it rejoins the millstream

A block of flats by the millstream is just recognisable today as a late 18th-century mill, the last of several on the site since Domesday. A little further on, the millstream and the Frome proper unite before reaching Loud’s Mill. First built in the 1590s when it was a fulling-mill, in 1607 ‘Lutsmill’ was another of John Churchill’s possessions. It was re-built in 1825 by William Stanton as an over-large woollen cloth factory, but it could not compete with the textile industry of northern England. It was demolished in the 1980s.

There is a gauging weir on this site which has, in recent years, presented a major barrier to brown trout and salmon attempting to make it upstream to choice spawning-grounds above Dorchester; by 2004 just 750 salmon ‘ran the river’ compared to 4000 in 1988. However, in 2009 MP Oliver Letwin unveiled an expensive state-of-the-art fish pass which helps them upstream. The Reverend Filleul would most surely have approved.

1. Photography by Peter Booton

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