Clive Hannay Rodney and Legg in the hilltop village midway between Wimborne and Cranborne
Published in December ’10
Small but conspicuous, Chalbury is set on the crest of the downs overlooking the turnpike road midway between Wimborne to Cranborne. The cast-iron ‘Wimborne 5, Cranborne 5′ mile-marker is beside Sibyl Cottage. Leafy lanes, concealing the occasional thatched cottage, head towards the chalk hills from the edge of the heath at Hell Corner between Holt and Horton.
Historically, Chalbury belonged to the Wilton Estate, having been granted to William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, at the beginning of the 13th century. All Saints’ Church has been dated by excavation to this time and incorporates the original single-cell plan. Though still simple and again towerless, it once had a west tower. Several older features survive despite an extensive late 18th-century changes. The 14th-century east window was re-fitted and a three-deck pulpit and box pews installed. The larger front pews were reserved for the tenants of Chalbury Farm, Didlington Farm and Uppington Farm. A new font was provided (although the hexagonal 15th-century bowl also survives). The west end was rebuilt to incorporate a gallery, window, skylight and bell-turret.
Georgian skylights went out of fashion in Victorian times, being branded ‘unecclesiastical’ by the Oxford Movement, but this one has survived. Indeed the interior of the church remains a perfect Georgian time-warp. Altar rails were presented in 1976 by Dorset Historic Churches Trust in tribute to its chairman, Sir Owen Morshead, who was the Queen’s librarian
The society wedding there between local gentry took place on 21 January 1717 between Humphry Sturt Esquire of Horton and Miss Diana Napier from Crichel House. Future owners of Chalbury manor were Henry Gerard Sturt, Sir John Cooper and the Earls of Shaftesbury of St Giles’s House. The Harington family provided three generations of rectors. First was Rev. John Harington. Second was Rev. James Eyre Harington (1774-1836). Third was Rev. James Mofat Harington (1802-61) who was in residence for a quarter of a century.
Chalbury as a place name has been identified as ‘Cheol’s burg’ (‘Ceol’s fort’), from a 946-dated charter, though phonetically a ‘Chal’s burg’ for ‘chalk banks’ would be equally plausible. It traditionally boasts a white-painted hilltop church, which has long been a landmark, despite being concealed by trees from the main road in recent times.
In the valley, beside the River Allen, there was also an ancient chapel at Didlington. This was converted into a farmhouse, which in 1868 retained part of a large ecclesiastical window. The font was standing in the garden in 1743 and house platforms in the adjoining meadows showed the site of a medieval hamlet with a mill, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times.
That Chalbury – just 325 feet above sea-level – once enjoyed all-round vision is proved by the choice of the ridge in 1806 for one of George Roebuck’s shuttered semaphore signal stations. This was on the ‘Plymouth Line’ of long-distance Royal Navy communications systems to the Admiralty in Whitehall.
Sturt’s Copse conceals the site of a 19th-century brickworks and there was a large chalkpit below Adder’s Copse. Chalbury Common, now bungalows rather than a pasture, lay across the south-east corner of the parish and had its pound beside the Uppington road. Until a boundary review in 1886, Chalbury parish included the detached and distant manor of Uddens, between Colehill and Ferndown.
Born in Chalbury Rectory, the daughter of Rev. George Henry Billington, Miss Mary Frances Billington (1862-1925) was educated at home. She was destined to become Britain’s leading female journalist. Her big break came with the Echo in the East End of London. She then moved to the new Daily Graphic and in 1897 joined the Daily Telegraph. Having travelled extensively in India’s North-West Frontier, along the Himalayas to Nepal, she wrote books on A Woman in India in 1895 and Women in Journalism in 1903. During the Great War she told the story of the Red Cross and compiled A Roll Call of Serving Women.
In 1898, a news trade journal reported persistent antipathy to women as columnists, editors and reporters. One recalled being told to leave a committee meeting during a discussion on soldiers’ underwear. Mary was an exemplar as the best-known newspaper-woman in Britain. Her only credible competition came from Miss Flora Shaw at The Times and Mrs Crawford on the Daily News. Mary Billington visited Russia and rounded off her contribution to her chosen profession by speaking at the Imperial Press Conference in Canada in 1920. She was the only female delegate invited to Ottawa. Queen Alexandra sent messages and flowers during her last illness in August 1925. Her body was returned to Chalbury for burial. Mary’s brother, Horace Leighton Billington, died at Old Calabar on 2 November 1897 and was the ‘Government botanist on the West Coast of Africa’.
Chalbury parish offers itself to a three-mile circuit along public footpaths and quiet lanes without any serious slopes to contend with, but expect damp patches and occasional rampant vegetation
Park and start from the parking area between the reservoir gates and Chalbury Church (OS map reference 019 069 in postcode BH21 7EY). Set off across the road, down to the left of Hilltop Cottage, and go through the gate beside Oxleaze House. Follow the track beside Oxleaze Coppice. Continue through the left-hand of the two gates beside Duke’s Coppice. Pass Chalbury Farm in half a mile. Proceed to the transformer pole at the end of the hedge with the trees.
Turn right across the stile opposite Chalbury Farm Cottages. Follow the hedgerow, towards Horton Tower, and cross a stile. Continue for 300 yards and then cross double stiles. Turn left and then right to follow the other side of the same fence-line. Turn right across a stile in the far corner in half a mile and pass to the left of the chalkpit. Turn left, uphill beside the hedge, to a transformer pole and roadside houses. Turn left and then right, up the bridleway above Tower House and Hollow End. Bear right through the gates after Horton Heights. Pass Humphry Sturt’s Horton Tower – built as an observatory in 1700 – and continue for 200 yards. Turn right, across the right-hand stile at the transformer pole. Cross the pasture to the stile to the left of the main buildings of mock-Tudor Folly Lodge. Walk the length of Batchelor’s Lane.
Turn right at the road. Pass Oak Cottage and go straight over at Horseshoes cross-roads. Continue up the slope into Uppington and notice the topiary at Ivy Cottage. Pass the junction and the divine Uppington Cottage, which positively asks for Clive Hannay to paint it. Go down the hill after Uppington Close.Turn right just before the drive to Hill House. Turn right at the track, for 20 yards, and then left at the gates beside a shed. Climb between the bracken and the fence, to a stile beyond the paddocks, and follow the hedge around the corner of the field. Turn left across a stile. The path follows the fence with an overgrown hedgerow to the right. Cross arable ground to a gravestone and a stile. Walk down beside All Saints’ Church to return to the road at Chalbury Hill House. Turn left at the bottom of the steps to find your car.