Pilsdon Manor and Community
Alan Illingworth visits a West Dorset house with an interesting history but an invaluable modern role in helping casualties of today’s society
Published in April ’12
Two events of the early 17th century had consequences which came together three hundred years later to create Pilsdon Manor as it is today. First, Nicholas Ferrar and his family left London in 1625 for Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, where their extended family grew into a community of some forty souls, committed to the Church of England as the middle way between Catholicism and extreme Protestantism, and determined to forswear worldliness, devoting themselves instead to God’s service. At about the same time, the manor of Pilsdon was sold to Hugh Wyndham, and it was he who built the present house. His family held it for less than a century and it passed through a succession of owners and tenants until 1958, when Rev. Percy Smith and his wife, Gaynor, bought it and founded the Pilsdon Community on the lines established by Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding.
The house’s outstanding feature is its south front, whose large windows make the interior wonderfully light. From the outside, though, it is rather severe and unornamented, with rather mean little attic windows set into a dominating slate roof. At the back, facing the large stable yard, the house was extended, probably also in the 17th century. Why, so soon after it was built, remains a mystery because the addition did not greatly enlarge the house, but turned the north side into a rather unhappy mish-mash. Pevsner’s description of the house as ‘unusually fine’ is yet another eccentric judgement in his Buildings of England: Dorset.
The outstanding event in the house’s history also came soon after it was built. Fleeing after the battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles II (as he became) spent the night at Broadwindsor but then turned north and took refuge with Colonel Wyndham, Sir Hugh Wyndham’s nephew, at Trent. The pursuing Parliamentary forces became convinced that he was at Pilsdon. The most vivid description of what happened next is in Frederick Treves’s Highways and Byways of Dorset: ‘They burst in upon the astonished family with some heat, and commenced their blundering proceedings by declaring that one of the young ladies of the house was Charles Stuart in disguise. When this error in diagnosis had been corrected, they placed the old baronet, his lady, his daughters, his man-servants and his maid-servants in the hall under guard, while they set to work to search every cupboard and loft in the house….The indignant maids watched the soldiers ride sulkily away, while the young ladies mourned over the dainty gowns and laces which had been tumbled out of any wardrobe that could shelter Charles Stuart.’
The church alongside the manor house dates from the 15th century, although the font is Norman. Its most notable features are the great single-span arch in the chancel and the tiny spire perched on top of a stone bell-cote.
When Percy and Gaynor Smith came to Pilsdon in 1958, they were inspired by the experience of the Ferrar family at Little Gidding to create a community that would offer shelter to those who might be buckling under the pressures of the everyday world. That is still the purpose of the community fifty years on – and in its library are copies of portraits of Nicholas Ferrar’s parents as a reminder of the link to Little Gidding.
The core of the community is its community members, led by the warden, Rev. Adam Dickens. Members, who receive a small weekly allowance, offer hospitality to between fifteen and twenty ‘guests’ who want and need to step back from their everyday world for a variety of reasons, among them drug dependence, bereavement, alcoholism, fragile mental health, homelessness. Some stay for a month or two but some may be at Pilsdon for years if it provides them with, in Adam Dickens’s words, ‘a more creative way to live’. In addition, ‘wayfarers’ – men of the road, in more old-fashioned language – are welcomed and stay for a weekend free of charge, as long as they take advantage of this hospitality no more than once every six weeks and are not under the influence of illicit drugs or alcohol on arrival.
For the guests, the community is as much about giving as about taking, and they are all expected to play a part in its life. They may have skills like building, gardening or animal husbandry, but there is also plenty of unskilled work that can be learnt: ‘Anyone can peel spuds or do some hoovering,’ says administrator, Alan Frost.
The other important element in the community is the group of volunteers: some residential but in the main local people who support what the community is trying to achieve and who come in to help. Their contribution is not only practical, because they bring something of the outside world into the community and help to prevent it becoming too enclosed and insular.
There is never any question of the community’s roots as a Christian establishment being forgotten, and there are four services a day, three of them in the church, but attendance is voluntary. Indeed, Pilsdon welcomes people of all faiths and none; as Adam Dickens puts it, ‘We are Anglican in foundation, ecumenical in expression.’ He himself came to Pilsdon almost eight years ago from ministering to a parish in Portsmouth. He explains: ‘In an inner-city parish you see people who are struggling and need nurturing, so I wanted to be in a place committed to such as these. The community is also engaged with issues of environmental sustainability and I was keen to be part of this experiment, too.’
Guests come to Pilsdon through a number of routes, often via agencies such as mental health teams. They must fill out an application form and provide two references, ideally from professionals working with them, one of which is usually medical to ensure that Pilsdon can provide the support that is needed. For the safety of all, people with a history of violence, arson or offences against children are not accepted.
Most guests are entitled to claim housing and other benefits and they contribute towards their board and lodging out of that. Then there are donations from supporters – 1200 or so receive the thrice-yearly newsletter – and a grant from the government’s ‘Supporting People’ programme, an amount which is about to be severely reduced due to government cuts. Most importantly, however, the community is as self-sufficient as possible, producing its own food on twelve acres of land on which it keeps a few cows (hand-milked), sheep and pigs. Even major capital projects, such as the recent refurbishment of accommodation on one side of the stable yard, use the skills and labour of the community’s members and guests as much as they can.
Rarely is Pilsdon a lifelong shelter, and guests are gently encouraged to take the next step when it is appropriate to do so, even if it is only to the ‘move-on’ house that the community owns in Dorchester. What may departing guests have gained? They may have acquired skills from their fellow-guests. They will have learnt tolerance from living among people from many different backgrounds and with different problems. They will have gained confidence from being valued as much as anyone for their contributions to the community. They will have acquired social skills, because the whole community eats together twice a day. Through the community they will have received the professional help they need from outside agencies. Through contact with the volunteers and regular trips to Bridport and elsewhere they will have started to face the outside world again. They will have learnt to work with others, and to play – the recreational facilities are well-used and the community runs a cricket team, although ‘It’s rather difficult to get a settled side,’ admits Adam Dickens wryly.
Above all, they will have been provided with a non-judgmental atmosphere and a safe structure for living which gives them the time and space to work through the problems which alienated them in the first place from the everyday world. A description of the community soon after its foundation said that it ‘attempts to offer unconditional friendship to all who come, however defeated and broken and near the end of their tether they may be, and accepts people as they are.’ That is as true today as it was then.
The Pilsdon Community’s website is at www.pilsdon.org.uk. The telephone number is 01308 868308. The community welcomes visitors by arrangement and holds an Open Day once a year.