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In the footsteps of Treves – Hilton and Bingham’s Melcombe

Steve White and Clive Hannay find that reassuringly little has changed since Sir Frederick Treves visited this remote part of Dorset

The seventh chapter of Sir Frederick Treves’s book, Highways and Byways in Dorset, sees him cycling from Milton Abbey to Hilton. After disposing of Milton Abbas and Abbey in six and a half pages, he continues: ‘From Milton Abbey it is well to go on to Bingham’s Melcombe, because the road thither is most delightful. It mounts up to the hills through the Abbey park and through the out-of-the-world hamlet of Hilton, in whose handsome church are twelve ancient paintings on wood, probably of the fifteenth century, removed from Milton Abbey in 1786.’

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Hilton church continues to display the twelve paintings on the inside walls of the tower – they are certainly from the late 15th century. Depicting ten of the original Apostles, plus St Paul and St Mathias (Judas Iscariot and St Bartholomew are missing), they were originally painted in tempera (a pre-oil painting, egg-based paint). The paintings were part of a large screen in Milton Abbey until 1774, when they were taken down, restored and moved to Hilton. Restored again in 1961, they are remarkable.

Hilton has grown surprisingly little over the ensuing 106 years since Treves cycled through it. He then undertook the difficult task of pedalling uphill on what would have been a chalk road to his next stopping-point, writing: ‘Bingham’s Melcombe lies in a sheltered cove on the southern side of the hills, where it would seem to have sought refuge from the turmoil of the world. It stands far away from any highway, and is ten miles distant from any town or railway station. The little place consists merely of a church, a manor house, and sundry farm buildings.’

Maybe the isolation from the ‘turmoil of the world’ has been its salvation, as Bingham’s Melcombe stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the modern world. The buildings are exactly – in number and appearance – as they were when Treves saw them, and doubtless had been for hundreds of years before; it is as if time has forgotten Bingham’s Melcombe. Of the church, Treves noted: ‘The ancient church, of stone and flint, slumbers by the side of a soothing brook within a circle of trees, which from a distance wholly hide it and its squat tower. Within are many monuments to the Bingham family, as well as the manorial pew, which still retains its old oak seats.’

The beautiful and serenely situated ancient church, like the settlement of Bingham’s Melcombe itself, appears to have hardly noticed the passage of a century. In 1999, however, there was some additional interior work carried out in the Bingham family chapel – new pews were fitted as well as a new screen and altar and the old oak seats commented upon by Treves appear to have been moved to another part of the church.

‘The house is an exquisite and most picturesque example of the manor house of bygone days,’ romanticises Treves. ‘It is probably the oldest house of its kind in Dorset. For more than six centuries it has belonged to one family, the Binghams. The house would appear to have been built in the reign of Edward I. It has been modified and added to, but the building that is now to be seen is practically the manor house as it was in the time of Edward VI. Bingham’s Melcombe, indeed, bridges over the long gap between Edward VI and Edward VII.’

When Treves visited the house in around 1904, it belonged to Reginald Bosworth Smith, who had always admired Bingham’s Melcombe manor, purchasing it in 1895 from the Bingham family. Bosworth Smith, born in 1839 in West Stafford, moved into the house in 1901 after 37 years as a schoolmaster at Harrow. He spent the last seven years of his life in the manor, becoming a vice-president of the Dorset Field Club. The Bosworth Smith family owned the manor until 1948.

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Treves continued to enthuse: ‘The house is small and low, and of two stories [sic]. The avenue which leads to it is guarded by stone eagles, the Bingham crest. The little mansion is of grey stone, warmed by many centuries of sun. In front of it is the gate-house, a sturdy stronghold, with walls which are nine feet thick in places, which are backed by massive buttresses and pierced by heavily-barred doors. Behind are the courtyard and the chief wing of the habitation. This little flagged square is as quiet as a convent cloister, a place of mullioned casements and quaint gables, where pigeons strut on the stone terrace or perch on the pinnacles above the great oriel window.’

A pair of stone eagles continues to guard the entrance to the avenue, although one of them has sustained a broken wing, while the courtyard with the buildings surrounding it is precisely as Treves described. The current owner, when showing us around the house, pointed out the beautiful oriel window – this, the newest part of the courtyard, being a mere 500 years old!

Sir Frederick included a description by Bosworth Smith in Highways and Byways, a very expressive sentence of which was: ‘Along the terrace, above the steps and the wall, are large bushes of hydrangea, which, laden as they are with bloom during the three full months of the later summer, blend their delicate pink with the greys and browns, the yellows and russets of the surrounding masonry.’ Pink hydrangeas still complete the scene – as can be seen from Clive’s painting which, when compared with Joseph Pennell’s sketch from Highways and Byways, shows the view to be all but identical.

Treves noted: ‘In the old-world garden around the house are an ancient bowling green, a great yew hedge, fourteen feet high and eighteen feet deep, dating from the time of Henry VIII; a “lovers’ seat,” a “lovers’ walk,” a water-wheel and fish-ponds, a “ladies’ garden” for summer flowers, and a circular dovecot [sic] of stone.’

One of the gardeners informed us that the yew hedge adjacent to the bowling green is now around twenty feet high. It is astonishing to think that this is now 500 years old. The surroundings, like the house, have not changed; the dovecote, water-wheel and everything else noted 104 years ago are still to be found. By modern standards this part of Dorset is as remote as Treves considered it to be, which helps to explain why today we see almost exactly what Treves did over a century ago.

[Our thanks go to the owner of Bingham’s Melcombe manor for allowing us access to this wonderful property, and to the churches of Hilton and Bingham’s Melcombe for their excellent information leaflets.]

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