The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the Footsteps of Treves – Marshwood Vale and the West Border

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick back from the west.

Written by Sir Frederick Treves, Highways and Byways in Dorset was published in 1906. Treves cycled over 2000 miles through his native county researching his book. Here, curiously, he starts this chapter at Hunters’ Lodge, just outside of the county boundary, in Devon: ‘The country about Lyme is beautiful and very varied. It is a land of hills and vales, of wooded hollows and heather-covered heights, of deep lanes buried in green and of luxuriant slopes of pasture. From any western height, such as that by Hunters’ Lodge, is an incomparable view over the counties of Devon and Somerset on the one side and of the sea coast, as far as Hardy’s tower and the Isle of Portland, on the other. Hunters’ Lodge is a solitary thatched inn on the summit of the Roman road….’


The Hunters’ Lodge inn, no longer thatched, sits on a much more bustling highway nowadays, and could hardly be called solitary. The incomparable view is now incomparable glimpses, owing to there being so many more buildings now. Treves resumes: ‘To the north of the coast road is the Marshwood Vale, a somewhat sullen hollow, shunned by man, for there is hardly a habitation in it. It is, as the name implies, marshy and full of trees. Crowe speaks of it as ‘cold, vapourish, and miry,’…. Tall hedges shut in the roads, so that the place has ever the aspect of being un-traversed by man.’

Today the Marshwood Vale remains sparsely populated; gaps between villages seem to be larger than elsewhere. When we drove through here we met very few other travellers down the deep winding lanes. The landscape is breathtaking and, when viewed from the ridge above, it can still appear un-traversed by man. William Crowe, while rector at Stoke Abbot, wrote the poem ‘Lewesdon Hill’ in 1788. He does say that Marshwood Vale is, ‘in wintry days Cold, vapourish, miry, wet,’ he also calls it ‘The pleasant vale of Marshwood, pleasant now, Since that the Spring has deck’d anew the meads’. Crowe’s poem was admired by William Wordsworth who lived nearby at the foot of Pilsdon Pen for two years at the end of the 18th century. In 1797, Wordsworth was joined by Coleridge and the two of them climbed the hills discussing the merits of the poem; they later claimed that it had a significant influence on them both.


Treves now moves on to the village itself; ‘The village of Marshwood is on a ridge on the northern wall of the Vale. Its church, when seen from the valley, stands up against the sky line. The place is scattered and poor….’

Marshwood village no longer seems so spread-out; bungalows fill many of the gaps that caused Treves to call the place ‘scattered’. The church of Marshwood sits on the edge of the ridge mentioned by Treves and can claim some incomparable views over the Vale. The capital of the Vale of Marshwood is Whitchurch Canonicorum, or Canon’s Whitchurch, so named because the great tithes were divided between the canons of Salisbury and Wells. The village consists of a few scattered thatched houses. The church, however, is magnificent – a cruciform building of singular beauty and of exceptional interest.

Whitchurch or Whitechurch Canonicorum has grown since Treves was here, fortunately most of this expansion seems to have been sympathetically carried out. Churches were always a favourite of Treves and he must have relished the opportunity to visit this remarkable example. He notes; ‘It is dedicated to Saint Candida, or Saint Wita, as her name was in Saxon. Her shrine stands in the north transept, and there is little doubt but that the church was originally called St. Wita’s Church. The fifteenth century tower is a landmark for many miles around.’

The church of St Candida and the Holy Cross, known as ‘The Cathedral of the Vale’ needed to have a tower which acted as a landmark – for hundreds of years pilgrims travelled many miles to visit the shrine in the church, it rating only second in importance to Canterbury Cathedral and in medieval times the highway from Bridport to Axminster passed through the village, such was the importance of the church.

‘High up on its walls is carved on stone an archaic ship and an axe, which inscription has led to the belief that some merchant whose ways were upon the sea built the great tower. On the south wall, too, is to be seen in stone a quaint two-handled vessel, which is believed by many to represent the Holy Grail. In the south porch is a Norman doorway with four consecration crosses. [Here Treves has quoted the ‘excellent pamphlet furnished to visitors to the church’]: “These crosses it is supposed were first marked in holy oil by the Bishop or Bishops who were present at the consecration of the church or some part of it, and were immediately afterwards chiselled in their present form to commemorate the event.”’

As well as the ship and axe, there is another carving higher up the tower featuring an axe and an adze (a woodworking tool) and there are other carvings of a similar nature on the other side of the tower. The present booklet on sale in the church suggests that these carvings could be older than the tower itself and might be from the previous Saxon church. The belief, that some merchant may have built the tower, is likely to be false. As for the consecration crosses on the Norman doorway, it is now believed that these are ‘votive crosses’ carved by those who came here on pilgrimage. ‘Over the church is an old sacring bell hut, in which hung the bell that was rung at ‘‘the sacring of the Mass”.’

‘The Sanctus bell turret can be seen high up on the eastern gable of the nave. This is something of a rarity, as nearly all of these were destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers in the 17th century. Treves now enters the church: ‘Within the church are many curious and beautiful arches, some belonging to the Late Norman period and some to the Early English. There are elaborately decorated tombs to Knights of Catherstone, but no stone marks the resting place of Sir George Sommers, the famous admiral, who died here. Over the monument to Sir John Jeffrey, who died in 1611, is a close helmet of the late sixteenth century.’

Sir George Somers, founder of the colony of Bermuda is buried (minus his heart which is still in Bermuda, states the legend) beneath the vestry floor, a brass plaque dated 1908 commemorates him. The late 16th-century helmet above Sir John Jeffrey’s magnificent tomb is still in situ, securely chained. In this [the north] transept stands the shrine or tomb of that Saint Candida to whom the church was dedicated. It takes the form of an altar-like erection of stone, in which are three oval openings. Into these, handkerchiefs and other articles were placed in the hope that, through their medium, healing might be conveyed to those who were too sick to be brought to the church. In 1900, owing to a settlement in the foundations of the transept, the shrine became displaced, and in the process of its repair the interior was exposed. Within was found a leaden casket containing the remains of a small woman apparently about forty years of age. The lid was thus inscribed: ‘HIC-REQUESCT-RLIQE-SCE-WITE.’

The shrine of St Candida, now over 700 years old, is remarkable. Only one other such shrine still exists in an English church – that of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey – all others were destroyed during the reformation. The 13th-century base, with openings into which the sick could place the afflicted part of their body, supports a 14th-century Purbeck marble coffin containing the relics mentioned by Treves.

The churchyard contains two people who have been laid to rest here in the last few years: the victim of the so-called ‘Umbrella Murder’ – Bulgarian dissident writer, Georgi Markov – was buried here in September 1978, and the ashes of political broadcaster and commentator, Sir Robin Day, who lived in the village, were interred near the south door of the church in August 2000.

Acknowledgement goes to the superb booklet on sale in the church.