The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Old Stone Wall at Stalbridge

Hilary Townsend explores the history behind the Park Wall, which extends for five miles around Stalbridge Park.

The park beyond is only hinted at, hidden as it is by the high stone wall

The old stone wall at Stalbridge has been both a landmark and a puzzle for generations. Why is it there? What is behind it – a great house? Is the Park famous for something? A house, described as ‘a goodlie faire house’ with huge mullioned windows and tall ornate chimneys had been built near the Church by Mervyn, Lord Audley, second Earl of Castlehaven in 1618. The fifth largest house in Dorset, it stood in 50 acres of land.
Mervyn, Lord Audley was executed in 1631 for ‘unnatural practices’ and five years later the Earl of Cork bought the house. He restored and improved it adding, astonishingly, plumbing arrangements and piped water to some of the rooms. An elm-lined carriage drive ended with stout ashlar piers guarded by strange stone heraldic lions. The elms have been replaced and the drive widened but the gate piers and lions are still there.

Preceeding the building of the wall itself: stout ashlar pillars and somewhat strange-looking heraldic lions

Eventually the estate passed to the Earl’s son Robert Boyle. Robert had been stranded abroad during the Civil War but returned in 1644 to find his house in a poor state and his personal safety requiring vigilance – his family had shown Royalist sympathies, indeed Charles I had spent a night there during the War.
Possessed of a brilliant intellect and not wishing to marry, he quietly devoted his life to scientific learning and religious and philosophical writings in his Stalbridge house, carrying out experiments that earned him the title of ‘The Father of English Chemistry’. He discovered how air can be compressed, making the first practical air pump – motorists who drive past Stalbridge Park now might reflect that the air in their tyres results from Boyle’s work there.
Robert Boyle eventually left Stalbridge for London and the work of the newly founded Royal Society. He died in 1691 and early in the 17th century the Lord of the Manor had become one Peter Walter: an energetic, acquisitive former steward who grew rich by lending money and buying up small estates. He is said to be the model for Peter Pounce, the rascally steward in Henry Fielding’s novel Joseph Andrews, published in 1742.
Peter Walter was eventually succeeded by his grandson Edward who decided to extend Stalbridge Park. He applied to Dorset Quarter Sessions to enclose land around his mansion to nearly ten times the existing size, attending the Sessions as a Justice of the Peace – no question of declaring an interest and standing down there. The application, unsurprisingly, was allowed – ‘emparkment’ was by then becoming fashionable.
The new Park would extend to Landshire Lane on the Somerset border, to Barrow Hill in Stalbridge and take in ‘the late Mr. Weston’s farm’ and the small manor house of Calew Weston adjoining it. Edward Walter’s good fortune caused much inconvenience to local people. Lessees were either accommodated elsewhere or paid off, but closing traditional routes across the park to Sherborne and Henstridge affected everyone. It was argued that to do so ‘would not damage the king or travellers because two other highways branch out near the same roads’. No doubt they did, but to use them meant a longer journey.
A scale map of the Park was drawn and the Wall built, five miles of ten feet high dry-laid coursed rubble with rounded capping and a projecting dripstone. It must have looked an impressive sight and there are still good original specimens remaining today, notably opposite 7 and 8 Frith Cottages. The height of the Wall meant people who could not cross the Park could not look at it either.
Edward Walter died in 1780, records in 1781 show the Wall was repaired on four occasions, masons being paid one shilling per day for 68 days’ work. The estate now passed to the Paget family, to Henry William Paget, a cavalry officer, who became the second Earl of Uxbridge. This man, who famously lost a leg at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, was created 1st Marquess of Anglesea shortly afterwards. Sadly the Paget family took little interest in their Stalbridge Estate. King George III and family visited it in 1804 but only ‘to partake of refreshment’. The Marquess decided to pull the old house down. Asset stripped, it might bring in income, while repairing was an expense, so the fine old house was demolished in 1823. The Marquess had been a kindly landowner, many footpaths remained and he subscribed to the Anglesea Cricket Club, the first of its kind, set up in the Park in 1825. A cricket pavilion had been added, the ruins remaining until the 1930s.

Furthest from the town, the vegetation-covered wall almost blends into the park background beyond

Glimpses of the Wall have been preserved in local writings. In the early 1870’s young Charles Meader, a Stalbridge jeweller, described the turnpike gate at the crossroads of Henstridge Road and Landshire Lane: ‘An old man on crutches would hobble out and demand 4 ½d for a horse, a little less for a donkey’.
The tolls did little to improve the road. Edwin Curtis, born in 1906, remembers the popular walk along the Henstridge Road where the dust rose in white clouds when a pony and trap passed and bigger clouds from a rare motorcar. The main heraldic entrance to the Park was opposite the boys’ school and ten year old Edwin and his friends would scale the gate piers and walk along the top of the wall – much preferred to ground level.
The writer Llewellyn Powys, whose grandfather was Rector of Stalbridge, recalls the beautiful elms in the Park (now long gone) and until the 1950s the annual Flower Show was held among the grassy foundations of the old house, with its brass band, huge marquees, fancy dress parades and little girls rolling ecstatically down the green slopes. Stalbridge Park was bought by the Marquess of Westminster in 1853 and was administered by that family until 1918, when Lord Stalbridge sold it.
During the Great War Lord Stalbridge, on patrol in France, had met a sergeant in the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry named Harry Dufosee. Their resulting friendship enabled Mr. Dufosee to train and buy some of Lord Stalbridge’s racehorses. They brought fame when Harry Dufosee was able to buy Stalbridge Park and train that bloodline for National Hunt racing. Stalbridge Park, Stalbridge Colonist and Bantry Bay (entered in the Grand National) were among the most well known.

Some access points into the park have been walled up...

...others merely bounded by picket fences

Local people were proud of the horses and the Dufosee family were very popular. People still gathered firewood at ‘Big Wood’ and it and the adjoining old orchard provided the best primroses for the Sunday School children to decorate the church at Easter. Since then the flower collection and certain footpaths have been suppressed and a ‘Private Keep Out’ notice resides in the carriage drive. However, the remaining footpaths are much used by dog walkers and ramblers.
If you walk round the Wall today from Park Gates you see the church yard encased within it (a graveyard extension has recently been bought from the Park), follow along echoing Church Walk and you come to the playing field complete with cricket pitch, football pitch, sports pavilion and children’s play area. Soon you reach the Jubilee Seat (to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of George V) let into the Wall.
At the bottom of Bazel Bridge Hill two neat parallel stacks of stone stand in front of the Wall as if once ornately carrying water. Underneath are well made arches to facilitate the flow of water and a tunnel under the road. A low wall protects this structure – could it be the remains of an impressive feature from the Calew Weston estate? From Frith and Copse House Farm Cottage many old stones in the wall look as if they were once carved – if only they could speak.
Age and rampant ivy have brought about the collapse of the Wall in places, but the cement-capped replacements are lower, enabling the peasant of average height to see into the well-kept and productive Park. At the busy Henstridge Road turning (the toll-keeper’s house is long gone) a sign says ‘Dorset – Home of the Jurassic Coast’. A curve in the Wall provides a useful lay-by (and lovely views of Stourton Tower and Duncliffe). At the top of the hill another seat (Coronation of George VI 1937) is thoughtfully provided and you return to the 17th-century gates. Robert Boyle must have known those gates but sadly nowhere is there any commemoration of Boyle himself, Stalbridge Park’s most famous son.

Ingress by ivy and falling trees has wreaked severe damage on some parts of the wall