Clive Hannay draws and Rodney Legg enthuses over Dorset's perfect estate village
Published in June ’10
The Chettle sound is the hoot of the owl. This is unsurprising, as it lies in the foothills of Cranborne Chase. It is the county’s perfect example of an estate village with its family still in residence, just eighty parishioners, and feudal links going back a millennium. The Old English ‘Cietel’ for ‘a deep valley between hills’ has the same roots as ‘kettle’ and is of Anglo-Saxon origin. It evolved into ‘Chetel’ by 1234 and that is how it has been pronounced to this day.
Thomas Archer created Chettle House as an elegant Baroque mansion, in Queen Anne style, for George Chafin in 1710. Archer went on to be employed by both George I and George II, and St John’s Church in Smith Square, Westminster, is his seminal work. He died in 1743. Chettle House remains the almost perfect example of his early work, intact except for the cupola, which was taken off the roof in the 1840s. 18th-century Chettle Lodge is now the Castleman Hotel and Restaurant. Its staircase is a virtual clone of that in Chettle House. Wooden figures used as finials on the newel-posts are from the 16th-century. Oak panelling, dated a century later, has also come from elsewhere.
Apart from its early 16th-century tower, medieval St Mary’s Church was demolished and replaced, in 1849. The Chafin connection is writ large from 1567. The best-known rector was the last of the line, William Chafin (1733-1818), who wrote Anecdotes and History of Cranbourn Chase. He was the last person to see and describe the flocks of great bustard over Salisbury Plain, where they are now being reintroduced from the Russian Steppes.
Railway building seems to have provided the Castleman family from Wimborne the cash for buying Chettle House and parish in 1846. Banker William Castleman and his solicitor son Charles promoted the building of the first railway into Dorset in 1845. The line from Southampton opened through to Dorchester on 1 June 1847 and soon became known as ‘Castleman’s Corkscrew’ for its tortuous route. The Castlemans started restoring the 1710-dated house and were to add the years 1846 and 1912 to make three key dates on the ground-floor windows. Jessie Castleman died in 1936 and her husband Edward Castleman in 1946. They had no children so the estate passed to a nephew and three nieces.
It was Mrs Esther Bourke who took the lead in caring for the house – partly split into flats – and the estate cottages. Esther died in 1967 and the 1060-acre Chettle Estate went to her daughter and two sons. Elder son Patrick Bourke, born in 1937, set about turning the house back into a stately home, with wife Janet personally doing most of the decorating and refurbishment. They hosted cultural events and conferences whilst preparing to hand over to son Peter and daughter Nicola. Meanwhile, Edward Timothy Castleman Bourke and wife Barbara turned Chettle Lodge into the Castleman Hotel and Restaurant. The Castlemans trace their roots to Dorset smuggler Isaac Gulliver who became respectable – if that word can be used for a banker – and is buried in Wimborne Minster.
The connection may explain the acquisition of the estate. Gulliver owned farms, land and taverns on main smuggling routes inland from Dorset droveways to Wiltshire ridgeways. His local properties were in the next parish at Cashmoor and Thorney Down. Mrs Joy Pomfret told me that when she married in 1956 and moved into No. 13 Chettle – Mellor Cottage – it was thatched and had a tiny window through the thick wall in which a light used to be placed for smugglers coming up the valley.
The oddest Chettle tale concerns Peter Wayne from Long Lartin Prison. On parole, he came to Chettle House to attend a concert and deliver a lecture as the national expert on his special subject – the life and work of Thomas Archer. Similar appearances were made to two other Archer houses. Janet Bourke recalled the occasion for me in 1995: ‘He was a born actor; a tremendous strain to be with, so exhaustingly self-opinionated and excited. A prison warder had been provided as his minder, paid for by Channel 4, who were filming it. The sad thing is that he later skipped off, running away it is said when the prison governor himself was accompanying him for an outing, and the last we heard was that he was back inside. Very entertaining and harmless but an inveterate con-man who just couldn’t stop. There was a self destructive side to his personality.’
Another unexpected visitor was Princess Margaret, in 1989, who found Patrick Bourke as ‘the worst-dressed man in Dorset’ with fashion accessories courtesy the Duke of Wellington. These were essential, for years, as the Bourkes began rescuing the gardens, from 1982, reaching the haha on one side and visually incorporating the church as part of the grounds on the other. They show the variety of plants – including local and national rarities – that can be grown despite the limitations of alkaline chalk soil. Introductions from overseas often post-date the building of the house, which offends visiting purists, who expect heritage gardens to be contemporary with the architecture.
Despite closures in many larger places, Chettle still has its own village store – the Chettle Shop – next to a single petrol pump which is also operational. The characterful timber building is a wartime hut from Blandford Camp.
Matching the compactness of the parish, this leisurely two-mile stroll, on clearly marked paths and level ground, brings in the long barrow, house, church, parkland and village. It celebrates the spirit of the place. Park and start from the layby beside the Village Hall (OS reference ST953134 in postcode DT11 8DB). Set off uphill and pass the cottage with a pond and brick-built granary on staddle stones. Follow the road beside St Mary’s Church and proceed to the junction of tracks 100 yards after the entrance to Chettle House. Check signs or its website to see if it is open to the public.
Turn left through the gate and then left in ten yards into the bridleway through the trees. Follow the grassy path beside the lawn of Chettle House, and then the hedgerow, to pass to the left of the long barrow near the end of the field. Continue along the grass strip and then straight ahead through the dense hedgerow in 100 yards. Cross the next arable field to the centre of the belt of trees (beside the red gas pipeline marker) and continue inside the same field to the corner.
Turn right on joining the farm road. Proceed to the skyline hedge on the other side of the wide field. Follow the track around to the right. Pass the barn and stay on the track for a further 100 yards. Then turn right, beside the trees, to the two communications masts. Turn right on joining the track behind them. A section of Eastbury’s former park pale lies under trees to the left. The bridleway then passes between two fields.
Fork right on entering the trees. Pass a hugely wide lime tree – of 30-feet girth – with young growth all around its base. Little Wood and the Park are to the left. The byway kinks to the left and then right to pass a caravan field on the final half-mile back into Chettle. Turn left into a public footpath opposite the churchyard wall. Turn left and then immediately right on reaching the tractor sheds. Join the village street where Castleman Hotel and Restaurant is to the left, but then head the other way, for Chettle Shop and to return to the Village Hall.