Clive Hannay explores a village that has had two names, two crosses and two railways
Published in March ’12
In the 2001 census 24% of Shillingstone’s population was in ‘semi-routine and routine occupations’ – modern-speak for what used to be called manual work, or social classes D and E. Two centuries earlier it would have been three times that number, for Shillingstone is a typical Dorset village in its move away from a static agricultural community to one from where many of its members commute to work in the surrounding towns. It did have the unusual distinction that one of the crops it grew was moss, boxes of which would be sent to Covent Garden every day until well into the 20th century for packing and decoration.
That moss could not have been transported without the railway, which started a wider process of transformation when it arrived in 1863. It was the much-loved (in retrospect) Somerset & Dorset and today, Shillingstone has the last surviving village station on the route of the ‘Slow & Dirty’ from Bournemouth West to Bath. It was rare for such a small station to have the elaborate canopy that can be seen at Shillingstone; this was because it was the nearest stop to Iwerne Minster House, often visited for the shooting by Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. The station is being restored by the determined enthusiasts of the Shillingstone Railway Project, who hope also to re-lay 1000 metres of track alongside the North Dorset Trailway, which makes use of part of the old trackbed.
The S&D was not the only railway in the village. Sir Tom Salt built one in the grounds of Shillingstone House when he moved there after World War 2. It was a working line to help with his pig-farming enterprise but was also used (hosed down and spruced up, presumably) to give rides at the annual village fête. Shillingstone House, built by the Portmans in 1879, is still the home of the Salt family but the railway, alas, has gone.
Until quite late in the 20th century, Shillingstone was as often called Shilling Okeford, the first part of the name coming from the Norman Eschelling family. None of the place-name authorities satisfactorily explains why it took on an alternative name – after all, Childstone or Fitzpainestone do not appear on any maps of Dorset.
The village suffers from being bisected by the busy A357 Blandford-Sturminster Newton road. On that road stands the village cross, which has an air of antiquity about it. In fact only the base is old, dating from the 15th century. The shaft and top, with its depiction of four Biblical scenes, were restored as recently as 1903, but being of soft sandstone, they have weathered to a deceptively venerable appearance. Next to the cross stood the village maypole until it was felled by a gale in about 1890. This was a rare survival, for in the middle of the 19th century, William Barnes was writing: ‘Shillingstone, clustering around its softly rising knap, may now be the only Dorset village which keeps up the tall token of a merry May Day.’
There are also the remains of a preaching cross in the churchyard of the parish church. The oldest parts of the Church of the Holy Rood are Norman, including the font, but it is thought that an earlier wooden church stood on the site. The pulpit is 17th-century, supposedly given by a London merchant in gratitude for the shelter the village gave him from the Plague. The handsome painting of the roof was done in 1902. There survives an 18th-century instruction to the church’s bellringers ‘not to drink or wear spurs on duty’.
During the first six months of World War 1, there was a prize awarded for the village that sent the highest proportion of its menfolk to join the colours. It was won by a village in Kent, with Shillingstone as runner-up, but the then Rector objected on the grounds that the winner was a village of only six houses and was therefore a hamlet. After due consideration, Shillingstone was indeed named ‘the bravest village in England’ and a letter of praise was received from the King. At this distance it all sounds rather unseemly, and one wonders that the Rector did not have better things to do. Shillingstone’s contribution was recognised after the War by the award of a German field gun and carriage, which stood next to the village war memorial until it was taken away for scrap during World War 2.
Shillingstone can be explored in a walk of a little over two miles that uses the North Dorset Trailway to get a perspective of the village in its landscape. Park and start in the lay-by on the right opposite Bere Marsh Farm, just beyond the old railway bridge, which is reached by turning right towards Child Okeford on the northern edge of the village (OS reference 823120, postcode DT11 0QY). A path just beyond the lay-by leads up to the Trailway, where turn left and walk down to the platform of Shillingstone station. At the end of the platform turn right to cross the rails, then right again and left to walk alongside a field with the church visible on the far side. About two-thirds of the way along this field, turn left to cross it on a path. Go through a kissing gate into the churchyard and bear left to walk to the lych-gate.
Continue down to the road, turn left, past the Cross, and walk along the main road for about 100 yards. Turn right before the village shop, which is opposite Half Penny Thatch, and walk along a short stretch of tarmac before continuing down a grassy path to a stile. Turn left to follow a path (muddy when wet) round one corner of a paddock. At the next gateway, cross a stile on the left and follow an enclosed path straight ahead.
Cross the drive to Shillingstone House, which may be glimpsed on the right, and continue straight ahead. Go through a small gateway and carry straight on to reach a paved area in front of Ivy Cottage. Continue ahead on a paved drive and where it bends to the left, continue straight ahead to a small plank bridge and two stiles in quick succession. Walk through the trees on the brow of the field beyond the second stile, cross a stile and a road and continue ahead to a T-junction.
Here turn right. In about 400 yards, turn left down a gravel path. On the left is some of the less successful modern development in the village and on the right the playing fields and splendid new buildings into which Shillingstone Primary School moved in November 2010. Follow the school’s drive down to the main road, forking right by two most unusual but attractive modern houses; reminiscent of a beehive, each is three-storeyed, with a thatched roof and single chimney. At the main road, turn right, then take the second on the left into Holloway Lane. Just before the railway bridge, turn left on a path that slopes up to the Trailway. Turn left and follow the Trailway back past the station to the slope down to the lay-by where your car is parked.