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Booton Foot Trails – Peter Booton in Symondsbury

Peter Booton strolls around a wonderfully preserved village, just west of Bridport

Thatching Manor barns in Manor Yard

This month we visit the delightful village of Symondsbury, one mile west of Bridport, and walk around part of the privately owned 1500-acre Symondsbury Estate that is being actively maintained as a sustainable heritage landscape. There are a number of interesting and historic buildings in the village and the most notable cluster around the Parish Church of St John the Baptist.
Behind the church is the 17th-century Symondsbury Manor and, just across the road, is Symondsbury C of E Voluntary Aided Primary School which dates from 1868. It was built as a charity school with money donated by the cousin of a former rector, Reverend Gregory Raymond, and named Raymond’s Charity School in his honour. William Barnes was friends with his successor, Henry Rawlinson, and he visited the school in 1870. It appears that Raymond’s Charity School encountered some difficulty in retaining suitable headmasters and on one occasion resorted to recruiting a missionary on his return from Australia. The new headmaster brought with him an aborigine and a kangaroo. When they eventually died, the aborigine was buried in the churchyard and the kangaroo in the school orchard.
The former rectory now known as Oakhayes in Shutes Lane was built in 1730 and remodelled early in the 19th century. It remained in use as a rectory until 1951 and is now privately owned. Allegedly, a rector hanged himself in the cellar and, on another tragic occasion, a footman hanged himself in the attic.
The age of the parish church is uncertain, although it is recorded that the first rector was Nicholas Lambert, a Canon of Sarum, who was appointed in 1325. The building has been the subject of much alteration during its long history and in the 1920s it was extensively restored by Weymouth architect Harry Crickmay. Among St John’s most notable features are its timber-framed barrel roof, which was constructed by shipwrights from West Bay and, in the south transept, the stained-glass window of The Four Evangelists designed by the renowned Arts and Crafts architect, William Lethaby, in 1884.

The Four Evangelists window by William Lethaby

Symondsbury Manor was originally a medieval farmhouse which was greatly altered, if not completely rebuilt, during the 17th century. In the late 1800s it was remodelled by Crickmay for its then owners, the Symonds Udall family, who were regularly visited by their literary friends, Thomas Hardy and William Barnes. In 1922 the property was purchased by Lieutenant Colonel Sir (William) Philip Colfox, 1st Baronet (1888-1966) who owned a sizeable acreage of the manorial land around Symondsbury. In that same year Sir Philip was elected to the House of Commons as the Unionist Member of Parliament for Dorset West, a post he held until 1941. Symondsbury Manor remained in the Colfox family until 1975 when it was sold to its present owner, Mr Peter Hitchin. The manor house now provides self-catering holiday accommodation and is a venue for weddings and private parties.
The name Colfox has been associated with Symondsbury and neighbouring Bridport since 1280 and, in 1397, was mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Nonne Priests Tale. More recently, the Colfox family have undertaken various philanthropic activities locally, particularly with regard to health and schooling.
Round-topped Colmer’s Hill, which lies between Symondsbury and North Chideock, is a well-known landmark for miles around, largely due to the pine trees which were planted on its summit, around the time of WW1, by Sir Philip Colfox for his father Colonel Thomas Alfred Colfox. The hill is named after Reverend John Colmer, who owned the land in the early 19th century, and which is now part of the Symondsbury Farm Estate run today by Philip Colfox, grandson of Sir Philip and son of Sir John, whose name is immortalised in the Sir John Colfox Language College in Bridport. Philip works to promote the interests of the school.

Netherbury’s restored sheepwash

Four hundred acres of the Symondsbury Estate are farmed in hand with the remainder leased to tenant farmers, mainly for grazing cattle and sheep and growing rotated animal feed crops. To support and maintain this important sustainable heritage landscape a considerable number of young native trees, particularly wild cherry, have been planted in recent years with help from a Forestry Commission grant. Additional specimen trees have also been planted on Colmer’s Hill.

Iconic Colmer’s Hill

A number of attractive old cottages and farmhouses on the Estate have recently been restored and these now form part of the holiday cottage portfolio which is run by Philip’s wife Julia. Another important ongoing venture is the much-needed restoration of the former stable block, cart shed and 14th-century tithe barn situated in the centre of the village next to the manor house. The tithe barn is the second oldest in Dorset and the third largest in the county. It is intended that, when the restoration is finished, the venerable barn will serve as a venue for various events such as local exhibitions, weddings and courses as well as community functions at the Estate’s discretion.
The Monarch’s Way, a 615 mile (990km) long distance path linking Powick Bridge in Worcester to Shoreham-by-Sea in West Sussex, passes through the Symondsbury Estate and closely follows the ‘escape route’ of King Charles II following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The route is way-marked by a blue arrow bearing a logo depicting the Royal Oak tree at Boscobel (in which the king hid), the version of the Prince of Wales’s crown he initiated and the ship The Surprise on which he fled to France.

Llamas en-route

The walk:
1 Park on the roadside near The Ilchester Arms in Leggs Hill. Walk north towards end of the road and into Shutes Lane ahead. Pass Oakhayes on the left and follow track uphill to right past ‘Public route to public path’ sign.
2 After Colmer’s Hill on the left take the right fork past the restored barn and onto a path alongside three llamas in the field. Enter the next field through a metal farm gate and keep to the right side. At the end go through the gap in the hedge to the next field, keeping to the right side, with recent plantings of native trees on the right.
3 At the end of the field turn right onto Monarch’s Way and shortly after pass the derelict Axen Farm on the left. On the right are views south-east of Park Copse Wood and distant Bridport.
4 At Broadoak Road cross onto a bridleway signed Monarch’s Way and go through a metal farm gate onto a downhill track alongside the recently laid hedges. The next section becomes extremely muddy after rain.
5 After 300 yards go right onto a narrow footpath to a field where turn left and follow the boundary to the end (ignoring way-mark into a field on the left) where turn right and, after 80 yards, go through the new wooden gate on the left and over a footbridge crossing the River Simene. Follow the left side field fence uphill and go through a metal farm gate on the left near the top of the field onto a farm track. After 80 yards pass through another metal farm gate where go right and follow Monarch’s Way signs onto the metalled Bilshay Lane. Recently restored Bilshay Farm House, now a holiday let, is on your left.
6 After 250 yards turn right onto a public footpath (opposite private road to Bilshay Farm) and follow the right field edge to the stile at the end. Ignore way-mark pointing right and go left along the field boundary to the stile at the end.
7 Don’t cross the stile but go right, following the left field edge, past Waddon Barn to a metal farm gate. Go through into the next field, keeping to the left side, and at the end continue ahead onto a woodland path between the fields until it reaches the approach road to Bridport Community Hospital.
8 Cross the road to a wide footpath opposite leading to Allington Hill, which is owned and managed by the Woodland Trust. Cross the stile and keep right on the path to reach the Diamond Jubilee Wood which, on 17th March 2012, was planted with saplings of oak, birch, dogwood, rowan, hawthorn, cherry and hazel by more than seventy local people. Backtrack for 80 yards and turn left onto the wider of two downhill paths which ends at a step-through metal stile.
9 Continue into the field, keeping to the left side. At the first corner head diagonally right (west) across the field towards some farm buildings. Cross the stile beside the metal farm gate and, keeping to the left side of the field, proceed to a stile where cross stone bridge over the stream into a paddock. Turn right heading for the metal farm gate and stile at the end. Cross farm track and stile into the field, keeping to the right, with Colmer’s Hill ahead. At the end cross the stile into a field, where there may be horses, and head for the wooden gate at the end on the right side. Cross onto a woodland path and reach the restored sheepwash, which was used until the 1950s.
10 Turn left onto Mill Lane and follow to the village, passing Manor Yard barns and a private drive to Symondsbury Manor, just before the Parish Church and Primary School. At the end of the road turn left into Leggs Hill and return to your vehicle.

The parish church of St John the Baptist

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