The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Purse Caundle

Clive Hannay illustrates Rodney Legg's description of a tiny village with a big past

Off the London road, midway between Sherborne and Shaftesbury, the Manor House at Purse Caundle is a perfect pocket of history. Knobbly walls of rough, greyish-brown stone, mostly date from the 15th century, although there are additions from a couple of generations later. As a site, however, it goes back to the Domesday Book when Alured farmed one and a half virgates of land and was a tenant of Athelney Abbey.


The Caundle name, traditionally pronounced ‘Candle’, derives from the local stream, which is a tributary of the River Yeo, and gives its name to several parishes. There may originally have been two manors at Purse Caundle, with one having been used as a royal hunting lodge around the time when the early Plantagenet kings visited Blackmore Forest.

A local legend dates from 1269, in the time of Henry III, when John Aleyn lived here and had to ‘keep and lodge the King’s sick and injured hounds at the King’s costs when the Lord King hunts game in ‘Blakemore’. The Manor House ghost story was that hounds can be heard baying on the bowling green, on midsummer’s night and on Christmas Eve.

The land passed to the Long family when Richard Lang bought 575 acres for 100 marks of silver in 1429. The Longs built the great hall, which retains its roof from that period, although the panelling dates from the 17th century. The Longs also built the small chamber, with a barrel-roof, along with the great chamber, which has a solar roof and an oriel bay-window that looks out over the road. In the winter parlour, another 15th-century room, I was shown a portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales (first son of James I and elder brother of Charles I). Part of the coat-of-arms of the Long family survives on a window in the dining recess of the great hall. William Long endowed a chantry chapel on the north side of the parish church in 1524.

Much of the manorial hall survives, and it must look as it did in the reign of Henry VIII. The roof is held in place by original tie-beams, collar beams, king-posts and arched-braces. The position of the tie-beams, below the wall-piece, indicates a precautionary addition after the arched-braces caused the walls to bulge. The door in the north-west wall is original and bears traces of medieval red paint; fireplaces were added a century or so after it.

The parish church, incidentally, has a coffer-sized oak alms-chest from the 1550s, as ordered by boy-King Edward VI’s council for all the churches in England. It has triple locks for security, so that the churchwardens and the rector had to be present when it was opened.


The Purse Caundle estate passed to a cousin of the Longs in 1528. Richard Hanham and son William added the dining recess. Before this, the household had eaten on a dais at the north end of the hall. William Hanham’s initials are over a doorway beside the main fireplace. Subsequent Hanhams also added to the building, in fact making the last substantial changes, until they suffered sequestration to Cromwell’s commissioners as punishment for loyalty to Charles I.

A Bible in a heavy Germanic Gothic typeface was in use at Purse Caundle from the Hanhams’ time until 4 October 1883. Then it was given away. The book eventually came into the possession of Mrs Harrison Wayne of South Warnborough, near Basingstoke, who presented it back to the church. It is now in a glass case in the chantry chapel.

The notable local royalist was ‘Christian soldier’ Peter Mews. Born in 1619, he fought at Naseby, and then fled to Holland. The exile returned in disguise several times and permanently after the Restoration. He was first appointed Bishop of Bath and Wells and then Bishop of Winchester. Mews fought again at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685 – also for the King’s cause – but despite various battle wounds lived to die in bed at the age of 91.

Dr Nathaniel Highmore (1613-85), the rector’s son, worked with blood researcher William Harvey. Highmore also pushed forwards the frontiers of medicine in 1651, with a treatise on the structure of the human body, entitled Corporis Humani. He writes of a ‘alexipharmaca dispositio vitalium’ which enabled a student, when he was at Oxford, to eat spiders with impunity. He relates how the cavity in the superior maxillary, an air pocket in the cheekbone – since known as the ‘antrum of Highmore’ – was brought to his attention by a lady patient in Sherborne, whose abscess he had drained by removing her left canine. He also describes the dissecting of an ostrich. Dr Highmore is buried in a vault under the south side of the chancel of St Peter’s Church.


Highmore also passed on gardening wisdom to eminent chemist, Robert Boyle, in Stalbridge Park. In the doctor’s opinion, the finest fertiliser for growing flowers is earth removed from beneath pieces of timber that have lain there until rotten to the core. ‘Manuring,’ he called it.

The earliest table-tombs in the churchyard were for John Hulet (1612) and John Sock (1624). Another 17th-century resident was Thomas Purdue, whose name is inscribed on one of the three bells in the church tower, dated 1667. The flaking lettering of an epitaph to a member of the Cole family, who died in 1669, punned his name with coal and implied that the fire might not be extinguished:

‘Do not doubt the Cole’s not out

Tho’ it in ashes lies

The little spark, now in the dark

Will like the Phoenix rise.’

The oak bier in the church porch is inscribed to churchwarden Richard Whiffen in 1733. By this time the manor had passed to the Hoskyns family. Then came the Huddlestons, from the 1750s, to Henry Huddleston, at the end of the 19th century.

County historian John Hutchins recorded the story of a stone 15th-century newel staircase in the manor. It stood to the right of the fireplace in the great hall but was taken out in the 16th century when a well, which was next to it, was covered over. The reason for the removal was that a spirit, apparently friendly, arose from the well when the ladies of the house went upstairs to bed. The presence was described as a ‘fairy’.

Set in an alcove above the village seat is a Hamstone inscription from the Great War: ‘Remember these who died for right, 1914-1919.’ They were Private Sidney Ashford (10th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment), Lance-Corporal William Way (1st Dorset Yeomanry), Sergeant Henry Oliver (1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment) and Private Charles Oliver (2nd Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment). Henry Oliver was killed at Wytschaete, on the Western Front, when the Germans triggered a huge underground explosion then advanced at sunset on 14 March 1915. Charles Oliver was among the 2nd Battalion’s 200 losses on 22 November 1915 when the Turks blunted an attempted advance towards Baghdad, beside the Tigris, in sight of ‘the great Arch of Ctesiphon’, in Mesopotamia.

A delightful two-mile walk brings in just about all the historic buildings in the heart of the village, crosses its pastures – and a single arable field – and then drops down into attractive mixed woodland and one strays briefly across the county boundary; the tree-covered slope is in the Somerset parish of Milborne Port.

There was a public house en route – the Traveller’s Rest – but that was delicensed after the death of John Ousley, who was landlord through both world wars. Trade could never have been that substantial, as the parish population gradually dropped, from 183 in 1841 to 148 in 1931, and remains similar today.

The Walk

Park and start beside St Peter’s Church at Purse Caundle (Ordnance Survey map reference ST 696 176 in postcode DT9 5DY).

Set off from the church gate, beside the memorial seat, and pass the entrance to Church Farm. Turn right at the junction and pass between Purse Caundle House (formerly the Traveller’s Rest) and Brook House. Pass Caundle Barn, Court Farm House, Wall Lane, Hornswell and Manor Villas.

Leave the road at the next corner, straight ahead into the drive to Manor Farm, but then bear left to pass under the left side of the horse chestnut tree beside the garden. Go through the second gate and turn left, with your back to the tree, and go through the right-hand of the two gateways at the end of the fence.

Follow a farm track uphill, beside the hedge, and then continue straight ahead up and over the summit of the arable field. Enter Hanover Wood. Bear left beside the remains of a stone stile, down beside hazel stands to the right and mixed trees to the left, to the woodland drive.

Turn right along it. Follow the track straight ahead for half a mile. Bear right, around a bend, into a yew grove. Here we leave the bridleway and head uphill, beside the right-hand yew tree, and ascend the slope to a hunting gate at the top.

Turn right, diagonally across this field, towards the village. Cross a stile to the left of the gates and then cross the cow-path to another stile to the left the left-hand gate beneath the horse chestnut. Walk down through the pasture with the hedge to your right. Pass an old quarry bank, cross the stream, and go through the left hand of the gates. Keep the pond immediately to your right and cattle barns up a slope to the left. Having skirted to the left of the first yard the public path then follows the left side of the main farmyard and joins the road to the left of the sheds of B & G Down tree surgeons.

Turn right and pass between the frontages of the Manor House and the Old Rectory as you return to the centre of the village.