Clive Hannay draws and Rodney Legg describes one of our tiniest villages
Published in June ’11
A chalkland parish with only a couple of dozen inhabitants is a Dorset rarity. So too are field churches – those reached by path across pastures – and this is one that has gone through the threat and trauma of redundancy, but survived intact. Whitcombe’s grey limestone building is a gem, with pieces of two Anglo-Saxon cross-shafts and wall paintings, including a 15th-century St Christopher.
The village lies beside the main road from Dorchester to Broadmayne, although the parish is a 750-acre strip that continues for a couple of miles towards the chalk escarpment above Weymouth Bay. Widecombe was its ancient name, when King Aethelstan gave the manor to Milton Abbey. It was served by a stipendiary priest until 1539, when the stipend was fixed at £13, a year after the Dissolution of the monasteries.
For prehistory, look further south to the Ridgeway and the barrow-studded uplands from Came Wood towards Broadmayne. Straddling the parish boundary are the Neolithic Whitcombe – a long barrow communal burial mound in the wood – and ten Bronze-Age round barrows strung out along the hilltops. Most prominent, at 470 feet above sea level, is Culliford Tree beech-clump, also known as the ‘Music Barrow’, for sweet sounds at midday. I have to report that on this score it was a disappointment. Least noticeable is a rare pond barrow, which is a depression rather than a mound, and presumably linked Beaker Culture warriors with the underworld.
There is a Whitcombe man in the public domain – he is a carving of a horse-and-rider, brandishing a spear – in the Dorset County Museum. It was found beside the remains of a Romano-British building, on Whitcombe Hill, that was discovered in 1963 and excavated between 1965 and 1967. The 27-inch-wide relief carving depicts a bearded rider with a belted tunic and flowing coat and a baldrick for a sword that is not shown. The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments considered that he might be a military man, perhaps carved for a gravestone, but concluded that he might represent a 3rd-century shrine dedication to: ‘…a Thraco-Danubian hero-god regarded as a protector of hunters and a saviour in the struggle against the forces of evil.’
Contemporary Celtic fields spread further south across the former Eweleaze. Some lynchets were six feet high, preserved at the edge of later quarries, but most traces were put under the plough after enclosure in the late 18th century when this was called ‘New Ground’ on a Lulworth estate map. Another layer of archaeology is spread around the church. The mediaeval lost village of Whitcombe comprises house platforms and closes. Until the 18th century there were still a few surviving cottages or hovels in the fourteen-acre field.
Whitcombe Farm retains a 17th-century barn but was largely rebuilt in the 19th century in surroundings that have been re-gentrified into a mini-village in recent times. In the church, pre-Conquest stone blocks, which are set in a recess opposite the door, carry interlaced 10th-century decoration. The west half of the nave dates from the 12th century, the chancel was added in the 15th century and the tower erected early in the 16th century. Its bells, carrying the initials of John Wallis, were cast in 1610 and inscribed ‘Hope Well’ and ‘Love God’. The communion table dates from 1637 and has matching rails inscribed as ‘The Giueft of A. M. Wedo – D. S. E. H.’ The stand for a paten records that it was given by ‘Mrs Lora Pitt, widow, to Whitcomb Church in Dorsetshire’.
The local gentry lived over the hill at Came House. Winterborne Came and Whitcombe shared a rector, most notably Dorset’s parson-poet William Barnes. When he announced his candidature for Holy Orders, at the age of 45 in January 1847, the father of a pupil at his Dorchester school, Colonel Seymour Dawson Damer of Came House, offered him the living at Whitcombe. The parish then comprised a farm, twelve cottages, and fifty souls. Bishop Denison fast-tracked Barnes so that he could be ordained deacon the following month. In March he walked out of Dorchester to preach his first sermon. Farmer Arthur Cooper, the parish clerk, was an officious yokel – ‘My Archbishop of York,’ Barnes called him, in an allusion to the age-old schism between Canterbury and York. He quoted the man as repeatedly saying: ‘You’ve got to take notice of I. I be the second man in the church I be.’
In January 1862, Colonel Damer wrote to say that his cousin was resigning the living at Winterborne Came; he could now offer the poet and schoolmaster a proper parish, with the cosy thatched Rectory on the Dorchester road to go with it: ‘which,’ he said, ‘I do with the most heartfelt pleasure in the world, hoping you will live long to enjoy it.’
That he did, until his death there, in 1886. During that time he remained the ‘officiating minister’ at Whitcombe. Barnes’s daughter, Mrs Lucy Baxter, provides this vignette: ‘Whitcombe, whose people received their former curate with joy as their rector, lies above a mile from Came along the high road. There is a long hill leading to it, between the cliffs of a deep cutting, where the fiercest winds and the hottest sun share the times of the year between them. Up this long hill the parson and his daughters would toil through rain or snow or sunshine every week, greeted when they appeared on the summit with the triple harmony of the village church bells. In summer, a roof of blue overhung the deep cleft of ruddy soil, whose banks were covered with wild flowers – pinks, crow’s-bill, golden pennyroyal, and tender silver-weed – and the poet wrote sermons in them all.’
Though William Barnes is buried at Came, it was the little church at Whitcombe that was restored in his name. A plaque records: ‘To the Glory of God and to the memory of William Barnes, the preservation of this church was carried out AD 1912.’
To see Whitcombe and its setting, there is a gentle
walk of less than two miles, along grassy paths and
chalky tracks and avoiding the road, which can be a dangerous one along which to walk.
Park and start from the lay-by opposite Whitcombe Church – without blocking the gate – on the A352 between Dorchester and Warmwell Cross roundabout (Ordnance Survey map reference SY 716 883 in postcode DT2 8NY).
Set off along the road from the church, uphill towards Dorchester, but only for 100 yards. Then turn right, through gates between the field and a triangle of newly-planted trees. Bear right in the next two fields. Pass between the chicken sheds and the back gardens of the village. Continue straight ahead, into the next field, and follow the hedgerow. Go through the gate and turn left up the corridor between a hedge and post-and-rail fencing.
This leads to a cross-roads of tracks in 250 yards. Turn right, down the stony track, which is an unpaved public road, into the dip and then up to the main road.
Cross into the lane on the other side and approach Whitcombe Stables. Having proceeded to the end of the first field, turn sharp right through the first gate, to enter that field. Cross the pasture diagonally, to a break in the hedge just to the left of the opposite corner, towards the village. Go through gates and proceed straight ahead along the grassy strip.
Turn right between the fenced compounds to a gate on to the road opposite the post-box at the entrance to the village. Turn left along the narrow pavement, wide enough for just one at a time, to return to the lay-by.