The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Near Golden Cap

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Treves as he explores Charmouth and the lost village of Stanton St Gabriel

The church at Stanton St Gabriel

Chapter XVI of Highways and Byways in Dorset finds Sir Frederick Treves climbing the steep hill from Chideock, heading west for the vanished village of Stanton St Gabriel: ‘One and a half miles beyond Chideock a narrow lane turns away to the left towards the sea. The lane is not only narrow, but precipitous in parts, as well as very rough. It leads to the site of the village of Stanton St. Gabriel, a village which was lost and forgotten centuries ago. The unsteady road ends at a farmhouse in a valley open to the sea.’
Muddyford Lane, narrow but now metalled for the first mile, leads to Stanton St Gabriel. Its last half-mile Treves would recognise, essentially a rough undulating track, little used by cars, it still ends at the farmhouse. A short walk eastwards brought Treves within sight of the sea: ‘A footpath making for the beach comes at last – under the shadow of Golden Cap – to a “level mead” between a wood and the blue waters of Charmouth bay. In this lonely spot was the village of Stanton St. Gabriel, which would seem to have crept as far away from the bustle of the world as it could go. All that remains here of the timid settlement is an ancient farmhouse, in a state of musty decay, and a cottage.’
This is one of those places where time appears to have stood still, although there have been changes; the farmhouse ‘in a state of musty decay’ has been brought back to life, thanks to the National Trust. Re-thatched, it was converted into four holiday cottages in 1968. Grade II-listed and 18th-century, it’s an intriguing building. As if to enhance the setting, someone has recently planted a medlar tree here, once common, these would have been found in many Dorset gardens; the fruit, commonly known as ‘Dog’s arse fruit’ owing to their appearance, are advised to be bletted (allowed to rot) before eating. These two facts may at least partly explain the tree’s fall from popularity in recent times.
Aside from the above changes, however, the level mead, the wood (St Gabriel’s Wood) and the cottage close by the farmhouse are still much as Treves saw them. Looking across to Lyme Regis, as Clive’s painting shows, there is a feeling of splendid isolation here on the slope leading to the cliff edge of Golden Cap.
‘Close to the farm and encumbered with its litter are the ruins of the village church,’ notes Treves. ‘Of the tiny sanctuary four grey, ivy covered walls survive, together with a porch, two arched doorways, and certain windows. Within the enclosure is a waste of brambles and thistles. The oppressive silence of the roofless aisle is broken by the cawing of crows and by the splash of the waves on the shore. The east end of the church is the least ruinous. Here is clearly shown the site of the altar, while just in front of the altar is a wild rose bush in blossom. It would seem as if the spirit of the last bride who knelt upon the chancel steps still lived in the blushing petals which the sea wind scatters over the stones.’
The National Trust has attempted to prevent further decay to the church of Stanton St Gabriel although less of the building now remains than Treves mentions. Little exists of the east end of the church. Treves’s romantic notion of a wild rose bush in blossom is no more – the area within the ruined walls is now gravelled. Fortunately, the surrounding area can hardly have changed at all; it remains secluded and peaceful. There is no traffic here and it is still the ‘cawing of crows’ and the ‘splash of waves on the shore’ that one hears.

Pennell’s somewhat alarmingly inclined image of Charmouth

A previous instalment of ‘In the Footsteps of Treves’ (May 2009) told of the King Charles II staying on two occasions in Trent manor; his first stay was from 17 to 21 September 1651, he then made for Charmouth, where Treves picks up the story: ‘Colonel Wyndham at once set to work to find a ship to carry the King across the Channel. He rode to Lyme with this purpose [from Trent], and was there recommended to Stephen Limbry of Charmouth, who owned a coasting vessel of thirty tons, and was prepared to carry certain Royalist gentlemen over to France for the sum of £60. The start was arranged to take place on the night of September 22nd. The Colonel returned to Trent to prepare the King, and at the same time sent his man Peters to Charmouth to engage rooms at the inn, and to say that they were wanted for an eloping couple.’
Treves continues to tell of how Colonel Wyndham waited all night on Charmouth beach for Limbry’s boat, to no avail. Apparently, Limbry’s wife having read a proclamation to the effect that anyone found aiding or concealing Charles Stuart would be put to death, had locked her husband in a room and hidden his trousers. The morning of 23 September saw the course of events turn against the King and his supporters; the innkeeper noticing that one of their horses needed re-shoeing had consulted the local farrier. It was noticed that the horse had recently been re-shod in Worcestershire (where on September 3 Charles had been defeated by Cromwell) and the alarm was raised.
The King rushed back to Trent, narrowly avoiding his pursuers by turning north leaving the Dorchester Road just outside of Bridport. It is fascinating to think that a pivotal moment in our history occurred here in Charmouth – if Charles had been caught, it would almost certainly have led to his death and the monarchy may never have been restored.
Visiting the Charmouth tavern in which Charles stayed for a night, Treves explains: ‘The tavern that saw these scenes was the “Queen’s Armes”. It is no longer an inn, and indeed the front of the house is new, while the building itself has been converted into two small dwellings. The back of the premises is probably not much changed since the King stayed in the house…. This relic of the “Queen’s Armes” stands next above a chapel, opposite to a picturesque inn of some age called the “George”, but which dates from long since Charles Stuart’s time. As the tourist who visits Charmouth insists on beholding the actual inn where the King stopped, the “George” is pointed out to him, to the great comfort of the quiet folk who occupy the genuine hostelry.’
Later, during the 20th century, the building became amongst other things a tea room, before it reverted to being the Queen’s Arms, changing its name once again in 2007, to ‘The Abbots House’. There have been many changes since Treves was here; an extension was added, making the building longer and the rear has also been extensively modified. Treves’s statement – that the back of the premises is probably much as Charles Stuart would have seen it, no longer holds true. Whilst it is certain that Charles II slept here, it is not certain which room he stayed in. The new owners have made some interesting finds while sympathetically renovating the property; they have uncovered some beautiful medieval oak partitioning, which has now been restored.
‘The church, rebuilt in 1836,’ rebukes Treves, ‘is exceptionally ugly. In the churchyard is the tomb of James Warden, “who fell in a duel”, April 28th, 1792. He had a dispute about some game with his neighbour and bosom companion, Mr. Bond. Incisive language followed, with the result that the two old friends met in a field near the Hunter’s Lodge, on the way to Axminster…. The body of Warden was carried back to Charmouth and in due course buried, his wife Eliza inscribing four verses of poetry on his tombstone.’
When Treves condemned the church of Saint Andrew in Charmouth, it was less than seventy years old and, whilst it would be difficult to agree to the term ‘exceptionally ugly’, from an architectural viewpoint this could not be considered one of Dorset’s finest. A fund-raising effort has recently been set up to pay for essential repairs to the tower and the roof of the church; evidently they are in poor condition. The earlier building replaced by the present church in 1836 was apparently more interesting, rebuilt in around 1503, it is recorded to have contained some unusual oak carvings.
The Tomb of duellist Lt. James Warden R.N. sits adjacent to the church door; the four verses of poetry can still be seen but have become indecipherable. Warden won the right to the first shot of the duel, the ball from his pistol passing through his opponent’s hat. Mr Bond, taking his turn, shot Warden through the heart, reputedly fleeing to Barbados afterwards.

We would like to thank the National Trust, owners of the Abbots House and local historians for their invaluable help.

Dorset Directory