The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Clive Hannay paints Ansty

Clive Hannay visits a remote village with a brewing heritage

The original meaning of the village name of Ansty (or Anstey) is ‘narrow path’, and it does indeed lie on a road which threads its way through a confused jumble of mid-Dorset hills. The old route ran south to Cheselbourne and on to Dorchester, and north over Bulbarrow to the Blackmore Vale; at Ansty Cross it meets the road from the north-west which continues towards Milton Abbas.

Monica Hutchins wrote of the villagers of Ansty: ‘I sometimes feel they should still be dressed in skins, armed with clubs and peering over the ramparts of Rawlsbury, which defends this remote hinterland against invasion from the vale.’ Today’s inhabitants of Ansty might well resent this description, but this is deepest Dorset and therefore fertile ground for stories told by supposedly sophisticated folk about innocent yokels. One such concerns the Feast Day of the Ansty Friendly Society, when a villager rushed to get his pig out of the sty and to stand it with its front feet on the front garden wall, so that it might enjoy the band as it marched past. And why not?

In writing about Ansty, one first has to define what one means, because there is plenty of confusion about place-names hereabouts. Some authorities muddle Higher Ansty with Melcombe Horsey, which lies some distance to the south-west; some say that Lower Ansty is also called Pleck, which is actually the alternative name for Little Ansty. It does not help that at its southern end, Ansty runs seamlessly into Melcombe Bingham, both on the same road. This article follows the Ordnance Survey naming: from the south, Melcombe Bingham, Ansty, Lower Ansty, Ansty Cross, Higher Ansty, and Little Ansty.

Perhaps the best-known feature of the village is its pub, the Fox. Twenty years ago, despite the village’s isolation, it was hard to get through the doors on a summer weekend. It went out of fashion for a while but it is now re-establishing its reputation as one of Dorset’s more popular ‘destination pubs’.

It is appropriate that the Fox is now a Hall & Woodhouse pub because it was in Ansty that the brewery started in 1777 (see full story on page 27). After the brewery moved to its present home at Blandford St Mary, some brewing continued in Ansty until the 1940s, and the former brewery buildings are still prominent in Lower Ansty. It is often stated that what is now the village hall was once the malthouse, and it certainly was part of the brewery buildings. However, malting took place in the nearby building now converted into Malthouse Cottages.

The stream that runs through the village, just below the brewery buildings, is called Mash Water. Is this coincidence or, surely more likely, does it take its name from the heated mixture of malted barley and water, or ‘mash’, which is the start of the
brewing process?

Possibly because the traditions of its rural isolation were in danger of being lost, there was a move in the 1970s to revive some of Ansty’s historic customs. Foremost among these was Randy Day, when the young men armed themselves with decorated bamboo sticks, or ‘randy poles’, and chased the girls of the village. They were then (in theory) allowed to have their way with any maiden they touched with their pole. Given the name of the celebration and its obvious Freudian connotations, it is remarkable that it was revived by the local vicar!

He also organised a housebrick push, during which one Terry Mears pushed 298 housebricks, weighing over half a ton, nine yards in a standard wheelbarrow. The enterprising vicar was also behind a record 121 people sitting on each others’ knees in a circle with no other means of support. No doubt it was all good publicity for the village.

A gentle walk of about 2½ miles takes in some of the surrounding countryside, from where it is possible to get a sense of how the village snuggles into its bowl of hills. Park in Lower Ansty near the Fox Inn or, if you plan to be a customer before or after the walk, in the car park next to the pub. Turn right out of the car park and in about 300 yards look out for a stile in the left-hand hedge. Cross it and walk across the field to the far right-hand corner. Here cross a double stile and bear right to go underneath some power lines to a stile in the far right-hand corner of the field. Cross the stile and turn left on the road beyond.

Walk up to Higher Ansty, where follow the road round to the left. Continue on this road: it is not very busy but the traffic tends to go quite fast, so stay well into the right-hand side. After ½ mile, at the top of a gentle rise, there is a pink-painted house on the right, with a track running off to the right just past it. Opposite the track, almost hidden in the hedge, is a stile. Cross this and bear very slightly right to an opening on the far side of the field, with a plank bridge just before it. In the next, somewhat larger field, bear slightly right again, this time to a stile. To the left of the third, much larger field is an overgrown, boggy area. Just to the left of where this area meets the hedgerow on the far side of the field, cross a bridge and walk up the left-hand side of the next field.

Bear left to cross a stile in the next corner. Continue straight ahead with a fence on the left. Entering an open field, walk along its left-hand edge, go through a gateway into the next field and follow the left-hand edge again. As the path begins to rise, bear right towards the far right-hand corner, where cross a stile and turn left on the lane beyond. Walk down to the T-junction (which happens to be exactly the point where Melcombe Bingham ends and Ansty begins) and turn left down the slope to cross Mash Water. Go up the other side, past Malthouse Cottages and the Old Brewery Hall, and the Fox is on the right.

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