A Dorset Life for Me by Roger Guttridge
Illustration by Becky Unwin
Published in June ’12
You won’t have heard of the Fiddleford Census of 1965, and there’s a good reason: I kept the results to myself. Until now. At the time it was just a way of amusing myself as I delivered the Bournemouth Evening Echo to fifty per cent of the households in the elongated hamlet near Sturminster Newton.
If I remember rightly, there were twenty-four houses and fifty-two inhabitants in the one-and-a-half miles between Fiddleford Mill and Angers Lane via the imaginatively-named Back Lane, Front Lane and Main Road. And I knew them all. At one point I was delivering to thirteen of those twenty-four houses each evening. I wonder what the renamed Daily Echo’s owners would give for a similar proportion of householders in its area to subscribe today.
Not that my round always went smoothly. The Blackmore Vale weather could be unforgiving and it wasn’t alone. I remember being shouted at by JC (no, not that one) for delivering too late in the day. Apparently he was missing out on advertisements relevant to his market garden business. I spent the rest of my round preparing my excuses, then cycled back to deliver them. But tales of after-school activities (I was probably on detention again) cut no ice with Mr C and my round dropped to twelve.
These were the days when every village had its general store and most had a pub. In Fiddleford’s case, the Post Office and shop, run by grandparents and great-grandparents since 1896, was nearing the end of its natural life. Its survival thus far was due more to the passing trade offered by the A357 than to the purchasing power of the Fiddleford Fifty-Two. The shop sold everything from paraffin to postal orders, baked beans to ’baccy.
Once a year the Portman Hunt met on the forecourt with my grandmother serving the stirrup cup. It was an exciting time but I doubt that anyone can match my boast that I once rode the Master’s horse. The quarry had gone to ground in the foothills of Piddles Wood, known as Hanging Ground, I think because of the sloping terrain rather than any association with the gallows.
‘Do you ride, boy?’ his master’s voice inquired.
‘Only a push-bike, sir,’ I cheekily replied.
Moments later I was undergoing a crash course on how to mount the handsome beast, how to hold the reins, how to make him walk, stop, turn left, turn right. Lesson over, Mr T set off through the undergrowth to Hanging Ground leaving beast and novice rider to take the scenic route and rejoin him later.
Half-a-century on, I find Piddles Wood much-thinned due to modern management, and soon to be thinner still. Blue arrows painted on conifer trunks indicate that this is Fiddleford’s Death Row, the hapless prisoners condemned for a crime of human making – the displacement of native broadleaved species, whose return is now encouraged. Nearby a trio of roe deer flash their white rumps as they skip towards the site of Keeper’s Cottage. This lonely building – a roofless ruin even in my youth – is now reduced to a pile of rusting metal, rotting timber and broken china. I like to imagine living here a hundred years ago: the dark, silent nights punctuated by the cries of owls and foxes and their dying prey.
From the woodland edge, views across the Blackmore Vale have opened up since then, the only positive consequence of the great natural tragedy that inspired the title of Olive Hall’s history of Fiddleford: Where Elm Trees Grew. Elms towered from every hedgerow hereabouts until Dutch elm disease wiped them out.
At Fiddleford’s north-western edge is the undisputed jewel in its crown, the medieval Manor that formerly doubled as a mill house. The mill itself is a ghost of its working self, devoid of the hissing geese that abused every visitor, of the Muscovy ducks and the hens and crowing cockerel that made their living from the spilled grain, of the sounds of revolving belts and rattling machinery, of the cheery ‘Marnin’’ from the last Fiddleford miller. Rupert Rose, a great-grandson of Job Rose, the model for William Barnes’ ‘Worthy’ Bloom the Miller, was among the last true speakers of the dialect immortalised in Barnes’ poetry, though his accent and vocabulary defeated my urban aunt on a visit from London; ‘I didn’t understand a word,’ she confessed after Rupert had gone. I was happy to translate.
There was no pub in Fiddleford then, the Traveller’s Rest having closed in the late 19th century. The story goes that my great-grandfather, a drinking man who had recently hung up his rifle after an army career, returned in 1894 believing he was about to spend his retirement on the host’s side of the bar, only to find it had lost its licence. He later became sub-postmaster instead and did his drinking at Okeford Fitzpaine, often treating neighbours to a rendering of Onward Christian Soldiers as he staggered home. It was the late Sixties before the Archway House Hotel opened in premises once occupied by Adams’ Brewery. It became the Fiddleford Inn in 1972.