Clive Hannay and Rodney Legg in one of the county’s most rustic backwaters
Published in September ’10
Giving its name to Dorset’s far-flung vale, the village of Marshwood sits astride its inland ridge, between Birdsmoorgate and Lambert’s Castle. The name has proved more enduring than the place, which has shrunk to a parish church, public house and school away from its main community, now around Marshalsea hamlet. This lies astride the turnpike a mile away towards Crewkerne. There they look the other way into the tumbling countryside of the Axe valley, which is shared between Somerset and Devon.
Marshalsea Estate was provided with a 120-seat Congregational Chapel in 1832. Cottages line the road for half a mile. Local landmarks include the ageing remnants of distinctive pine clumps. Called the Devil’s Jumps, these are said to have been planted for the Victorian lord of the manor, John Bullen Tatchell Tatchell-Bullen (sic), when he was a boy.
Marshwood parish dips down towards the coast, into Dorset’s western bowl, where the distant church tower is the ‘Cathedral of the Vale’ at Whitchurch Canonicorum. Not until the second half of the 20th century did piped water and mains electricity come on tap. Many farmsteads languished in a state of virtual dereliction from the end of the Great War through to the advent of the Milk Marketing Board. Arable fields were hard work on land described not just as ‘clay’, but ‘strong clay’. As a result, the Marshwood Vale remains largely pastoral to this day. It is becoming increasingly noticeable that fields with cows have not all given way to multiple equestrian paddocks, as on the other side of Dorset.
In the heart of this rustic backwater, horse ploughing remained commonplace into the 1960s, and haystacks were thatched ricks rather than being under plastic sheets held down by old tractor tyres. The Shave Cross Inn, standing beside a junction of narrow lanes, has provided refreshment to workers in the Vale since the reign of Edward III, as well as shelter for pilgrims and monastic visitors (who could get their tonsures shaved there). 700 years on, it is a pub with award-winning restaurant and accommodation.
Prime Farm used to house the Court Leet, which descended from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hundred’ meetings of tribal elders that used to sort out community affairs and reconcile grievances. The other stamp of long-lost authority was Marshwood Castle. It was a motte-and-bailey built by William de Mandeville on being created Baron of Marshwood by King John in 1205. He also held the ‘Honour and Manor of Marshwood’. Family names that followed were Tilly, Fitzpaine, Montacute, Maltravers – the regicide implicated in the murder of Edward II – Mortimer, Percy, Courtenay, Hervey, Poulett and Bullen. Baronial occupation ceased with sequestration for backing King Charles in the Civil War.
Tradition has it that stones in one of the barn walls at Lodgehouse Farm came from the castle’s walls. Banks of the Norman bailey encircle two acres with just about all the present-day buildings. There are also a couple of ponds, together with indications that the stream was diverted to supply this moat. John Hutchins recorded the surviving masonry of a rectangular basement storey to the keep with walls ten feet thick. Hutchins also noted that ‘foundations of the ancient Chapel of Marshwood’ were discovered nearby. In 1892, Rev. R. Grosvenor Bartelot mapped a cobbled trackway heading east and then traced it into the vale, making for the coast road near Chideock. ‘Marshwood is one of Dorset’s vanished medieval castles and one of the most forgotten,’ Bartelot told a meeting of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society on 21 March 1944.
Associated features in the landscape included a large medieval deer park known as Cricklade Park, plus a series of pottery kilns. In one of life’s odd coincidences, I have been given an original vellum lease, dated 29 June 1810, between Nicholas Baker of Newton Bushell, Devon, and Eliza Lidden Palmer of Uffculme, renting ‘a parcel or reputed parcel of Cricklade Park containing in the whole by estimation four score and nineteen acres more or less’.
The pale of Cricklade Park – its ditch and palisade – seems to have circled Mutton Street, Park Farm, Lower Park Farm, Prime Farm, Valehouse Farm, Prime Coppices, Northay Farm, Gummershay Farm and Nash Farm. Ancient woodland at Prime Coppices, a genuine regenerating Anglo-Saxon survival, proves its age with a floor of dog’s mercury and botanical rarities from orchids to oxlips.
Adjoining Cricklade to the east, for a couple of centuries at least, was a second deer park. Known as Marshwood Park, it was laid out around the castle itself at Lodgehouse Farm, heading off in an ellipse towards the wonderfully named Cutty Stubbs. Apart from the remains of Marshwood Castle, the core area covered by both these parks apparently remained empty of buildings and barns until mass enclosures spread across the vale in the 18th-century.
It would be exhausting to attempt to walk round all permutations of this widely-dispersed history. This three-mile circuit does at least penetrate that older landscape and almost reaches its adjoining National Trust hillside. En route you can visit both public buildings of the present parish: the church and inn. The latter hosts the annual ‘World Stinging Nettle Eating Competition’.
Park and start in the layby beside Marshwood Church of England Primary School on the B3165 midway between Lyme Regis and Crewkerne (OS map reference SY383997 in postcode DT6 5QA). Set off into the lane and pass St Mary’s Church. This dates from 1841 and was rebuilt in 1884. It is somewhat bland rather than Betjemanesque. Follow the lane up and over the rise and then downhill, for half a mile. Turn left through the gate on the corner and follow the hedge straight ahead along the top of the field, down to two stiles to the left of the corner. Descend to the left-hand side of Manshay Farm in half mile. Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill are the twin peaks.
Cross the stile and pass between outbuildings. Turn right up the drive. Cross the stile just after the gate on the corner. Head uphill and go through the gate between the barns. Walk downhill, towards Lambert’s Castle, to the cattle grid and rustic cottage at Higher Sminhay. Turn left along Mutton Street to the corner. Turn right here along the bridleway to Baber’s Farm. Cross the bridge and turn right. Follow the hedge to a traditional hunting gate into a wood. Cross the ford and climb delightful Nash Lane, uphill to the gate beside the buildings, in half a mile.
Turn immediately right to the second gate under the big old oak tree. Follow the hedgerow northwards with the main slope of Lambert’s Castle up to the left. Also follow the hedge and power cables across the next field. Continue along the side of the third field and then pass between the two bungalows. Leave the fields at a gate opposite the thatched Bottle Inn. The onward route is to the right, down the road for half a mile, to return to Marshwood. Take care to ensure you walk towards oncoming traffic.