The best of Dorset in words and pictures

From Shaftesbury towards Stalbridge

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Treves as he heads west in the North

The beginning of chapter III of Highways and Byways in Dorset finds Sir Frederick Treves in the beautiful Blackmore Vale. While evidently impressed with the area, not all the villages find his favour;
 ‘Here lie the towns of Stalbridge and Sturminster Newton. The road to Stalbridge is across a very comely country, wherein are many picturesque villages. East and West Stour are, however, not of this type. At East Stour was the farmhouse in which Henry Fielding the novelist lived…. The house at East Stour was rebuilt in 1835, but the back part of the present building is so evidently old that it may have belonged to the original structure… the farmhouse [is] an old garden wall which must have been standing in Fielding’s time, and which would be familiar to him if he revisited this region of the earth’.
Henry Fielding (1707-1754) is most famous for his novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, made into the film Tom Jones during the 1960’s. He and his brother were also responsible for the formation of the Bow Street Runners; perhaps London’s first police force. The house Fielding lived in – the ‘tolerably respectable farmhouse’ as he called it – was completely demolished in 1835, it appears however, that the original mullioned windows were reused in the rebuild. The present owner, whose family took the farm over in 1919 and changed the name from ‘Fielding’s Farm’ to ‘Church Farm’, kindly showed us around – the old garden wall which would be familiar to Fielding remains.
Having admired the view from the heights of Stour Hill – as impressive now as it was then, Treves moves on to the next village in this chapter: ‘A little way down on the west side of this steep slope [Stour Hill] is the hamlet of Kingston Magna. The name of Kingston Magna – the great town of the King – would rather befit London than this tiny, sequestered place, upon which ever fall the very last rays of the setting sun from across the Blackmore valley.Kingston Magna was an ancient demesne of kings before the Conquest, and figures conspicuously in the Domesday Book. The fact that it commands one of the most beautiful views of the famous vale in some part accounts for the esteem in which it was held.’
It is not apparent why Treves refers to Kington Magna as Kingston Magna.  The prefix Kington has been used for centuries and has not, unlike some Dorset villages, been changed in the last 100 years. Most likely it could have been an editorial change, out of Treves’s hands; whilst he did make some errors in his book he was a native of Dorset and surely would have been aware of the correct spelling.
He continues: ‘The present village straggles down hill like a small mountain stream. In the approach to it one meets with an ancient church, which stands upon a platform or bastion as if it watched over the hamlet below.  Its fine ivy-clad tower is sheltered by yew trees which seem as old as it is itself. Such is the situation of the churchyard on the precipitous incline that if the recumbent dead could but lift their heads a little they could look down the whole fair sweep of the valley.’
Seen from the churchyard the village still ‘straggles downhill’, there are more houses now but the village retains its charm. Treves seems to have been fooled by an excellent church restoration carried out only a few years before he visited; the church is not ancient; all but the 15th-century tower was replaced in the 1860s.
Regrettably, the church cannot now be said to be sheltered by yew trees; a couple of small specimens are to be found, but near the tower stands a large, dead trunk of what must have been a magnificent yew.
The late Rodney Legg, while writing the opening paragraph for his December 2006 Dorset Life ‘villages’ series, stated that ‘The best ecclesiastical view in Dorset, at ground level, is that from All Saints at Kington Magna.’
It is difficult to argue with this as the view is quite sublime. Rodney went on to say that the name Kington was first recorded in 1203.
Travelling downhill Treves arrives at the wonderfully named village of Buckhorn Weston. He remarks that: ‘Those who are curious in ancient things may descend to the floor of the valley, to the church of Buckhorn Weston. They will find on the tower a sun-dial with the date 1577 upon it, while in the church are some of those remarkable paintings on wood which were common in Dorset churches in bygone days.
The panels preserved at Buckhorn Weston are six in number, serving to represent Christ, the Virgin Mary, David, St. Cecilia, and in two examples an angel descending from heaven over some inhabited place.  These pictures were originally on the front of the singers’ gallery, but as that structure is now pulled down, the ancient panels are preserved in the tower.
The date on the sun-dial is difficult to decipher but actually reads 1599. The paintings, beautiful and still where Treves found them, are by Sir James Thornhill FRS (1675–1734), born in Melcombe Regis (Weymouth). Among his famous commissions were the Painted Hall at Greenwich hospital, parts of Blenheim Palace and the Dome of St Paul’s cathedral. Thornhill was Court Painter to George I who knighted him, which was then apparently a first for an artist.
Treves now notes an enigmatic figure: ‘There is also in the church a monument on which is the recumbent figure of a mysterious man. The features of the unknown have been worn away, his tomb is nameless and dateless, while so unfamiliar is his costume that none can declare his status or his occupation. I may say that this unknown of Buckhorn Weston is clad in a ‘‘taberda’’ which reaches half-way down the thighs; over his shoulders falls a ‘‘scapular,’’ while about his waist is a belt, studded with lozenges, from which is suspended a pouch.’
Next to the effigy is a modern description of the ‘mysterious man’; he was apparently Alexander Mobray, of Kirklington in Yorkshire, who died in the village in 1410. His unfamiliar costume may be how he would have appeared had he just removed his armour.
‘On the way hence to Stalbridge,’ resumes Treves, ‘are the two very charming villages of Stour Provost and Fifehead Magdalen. Stour Provost is a typical Dorset village, which has probably remained unchanged for the last hundred years.  There are the quiet street of thatched cottages, the ancient rectory, a still more ancient farmhouse, and a little old church with a low tower and some lancet windows.’
The street of thatched cottages is still very peaceful and, notwithstanding a number of houses changing from thatch to tile over the last 100 years, the ubiquitous tarmac and the odd parked car, one is essentially seeing Stour Provost as Treves did. The ancient rectory and even more ancient farmhouse survive; interestingly Treves makes no mention of Church House, which is certainly ancient, dating from the early 16th century.
In yet another intriguingly named village, Treves notes: ‘Fifehead Magdalen – the place of five hides dedicated to the Magdalen – is a hamlet rather than a village. It is shrouded in green, and some of the cottages with dormer windows in the thatch are evidently very old. Hutchins speaks of this little place – which belonged once to the nephew of William the Conqueror – as “as pleasant a spot as any in the county of Dorset”.’
One definition of the term hamlet is a settlement too small to be a village – one large enough to build a church is a village.  Fifehead Magdalen with its population of 88 (in 2001), despite having a church, is still unquestionably a hamlet due to its diminutive size. Again, there is some modern infill, but this has not been to its detriment and some of the ancient thatched cottages survive. Treves, who almost always mentions the church, omits Fifehead Magadalen’s completely. The church guide could hold the answer – in 1904 (around the time Treves was cycling around this area researching his book) the church was undergoing a restoration.
‘Those who are in search of picturesque villages in this part of the country will find the two just named to their liking…’, declares Treves, not quite making amends for his comments about East and West Stour.

Grateful thanks to the following people for their help in researching this article: Karen at Church Farm, Dawn May of Stour Provost, J G Brunnen, for his excellent History of Stour Provost, and Greg Wells.

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