Booton Foot Trails: Evershot and Melbury Park
Peter Booton visits the west of the county and finds an area beloved of Hardy, rock stars and a celebrity chef
Published in September ’12
Despite a declining population (587 inhabitants in 1821 and 181 at present) the picturesque West Dorset village of Evershot can boast a primary school (founded as a Free School in 1628), village shop and post office, a 150 year old bakery, 16th-century coaching inn, church with a rare peal of six bells, an historic country house hotel, children’s playgroup and a parish hall. The name Evershot comes from the Saxon words ‘edfor’ and ‘holt’, meaning wild boar and thicket, so clearly it was once a wooded area where wild boar roamed. At 190 metres above mean sea level Evershot is the second highest village in Dorset – Ashmore is the highest.
The village and its surrounding area have a number of connections with Thomas Hardy: his literary accomplishments, his career as an architect and his family. Two years after the publication of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1891, Hardy was designing an extension for Summer Lodge in the centre of the village which had been built as a dower house in 1798 by Henry Thomas Fox-Strangways, 2nd Earl of Ilchester. Situated in grounds of four acres bordered by Fore Street and Summers Lane, Summer Lodge became a hotel in 1979 and is now regarded as one of the finest country house hotels in England.
On Tuesday 26th September, 1865, a devastating fire which had started at a carpenter’s house in Summers Lane swept through the lower end of the village, destroying fourteen cottages, two slaughterhouses, two stables, several linhays, a barn and a cowshed. Three fire engines, one from Yeovil and two from nearby Melbury House on the Earl of Ilchester’s estate, eventually brought the fire under control, but more than 100 people were left homeless. However, within two days of the conflagration, the local community had raised the remarkable sum of £70 to assist the homeless. The 6th October 1865 edition of the Western Gazette reported, somewhat sadly, that goods including carpets, blankets and a butt of cider had been plundered from the burning homes.
Evershot is Hardy’s ‘Evershead’ and the village’s Acorn Inn was ‘The Sow and Acorn’ that is mentioned in a number of his literary works, namely Tess of the d’Urbervilles, A Group of Noble Dames and Interlopers at the Knap. The former coaching inn was originally known as The King’s Arms which at one time brewed its own ales using water from the source of the River Frome. Each of the present inn’s ten bedrooms is named after a character or location in Tess. When she visited Evershot, the heroine of Hardy’s famous novel stayed in an old thatched cottage on the corner of Back Lane, near St Osmund’s church, that is now called Tess Cottage.
St Osmund’s was largely restored in 1853 and at this time the church gained its clock by E B Dennison, the designer of Big Ben, which was given to the village by the 3rd Earl of Ilchester. In its western tower hang six functional bells. The tenor bell is inscribed ‘I to the church the living call, and to the grave do summon all’. The rector of the parish from 1783 to 1784 was the renowned poet George Crabbe.
Almost opposite St Osmund’s in Fore Street is The Old Manor, an impressive early Georgian-fronted house, the rear part of which dates from 1681. From 2001 to 2007 it was the home of TV celebrity chef Lesley Waters and her professional photographer husband Tim Macpherson. Before that it was owned by rock music artistes Toyah Wilcox and Robert Fripp.
Behind St Osmund’s, and accessed from Back Lane, is St John’s Well. To mark the new Millennium the local community chose to make the source of the River Frome ‘a feature which the village could be proud of and an attraction for visitors to the village’. Following the gift of a piece of land surrounding the source by the Ilchester Estate, a well-head and walls were constructed with local green sandstone by members of the community. Information boards at the site provide useful information on the geology and wildlife of the River Frome as well as an historic timeline of Evershot and a Millennium roll of residents on 31 December 1999.
Melbury Park extends northwards from Evershot to the village of Melbury Osmond, a distance of some two miles. The Park was landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown and its vast acreage contains a deer park, farms, lakes and large areas of woodland as well as many fine trees, including great oaks, limes and an avenue of sycamores. At the centre of the Park stands Melbury House and Melbury Sampford church. Melbury House is Hardy’s King’s Hintock Court in The Duke’s Reappearance, A Changed Man and A Group of Noble Dames. Dating from the 16th century, when it was built for Sir Giles Strangways, Melbury House was remodelled in 1692 and further major alterations have been carried out since that time.
The Estate has remained in the Strangways family for 500 years (with changes in name due to marriage) and until recent times it was the seat of the earls of Ilchester. The present owner of the Melbury and Ilchester estates is the Hon. Charlotte Townshend who inherited on the death of her mother, Lady Teresa Fox-Strangways in 1989. She was High Sheriff of Dorset in 2005/2006 and is currently Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset and a Master of the Cattistock Hunt.
The picture-postcard village of Melbury Osmond is variously Great Hintock and King’s Hintock in Hardy’s works. His mother, Jemima Hand, was born in the village and baptised and married in the Church of St Osmund where a framed copy of the marriage certificate is displayed. The thatched cottage in which she lived as a child stands near the church.
1. Park at the lower end of Fore Street and walk uphill past the village bakery and Acorn Inn to reach St Osmund’s church and Tess Cottage beside Back Lane on your right.
2. Go up Back Lane and St John’s Well is on the right after 100 yards. Continue past a terrace of three houses on your left and, immediately after, turn left onto a grass path leading to a wooden gate into a field. Follow sign for The Macmillan Way and head left towards the top corner of the field where there is a metal farm gate and stile. Cross this and a second stile into the next field and head for the large tree in the far side left corner. Go through the gateway and keep to the right side of the next field to reach a stile at the end.
3. Turn right onto Girt Lane. At the left bend follow the metalled private road (signed Lewcombe Woods Farmhouse and Girt Farm) downhill and at the fork,
4. Immediately after Girt farmhouse on your right, turn right into the farmyard and cross to a farm track ahead. Proceed along this track to a metal farm gate and follow the direction of the Macmillan Way arrow pointing left across the field. Head for the dead tree on the field boundary and go through a metal gate just left of this into the next field. Go straight
across to a metal gate on the far side and enter the next field. Keep to the right side and head towards distant woodland.
5. Follow a way-mark arrow pointing left at the edge of the woodland to reach a stile on your right and wooden steps leading down to a stream. Cross via a series of partly submerged stepping stones (NB: take care as the stones are slippery) and then go uphill to a stile. Cross into a meadow with views of Lewcombe Manor (to the right) and head uphill to a metal farm gate leading into the next meadow. Head towards a distant house partly hidden by trees and, just right of this, cross a stile alongside the private drive to Lewcombe Manor. Go left onto the drive and follow it to the end at the East Chelborough to Closworth road.
6. Turn right and after 250 yards go right onto a bridleway just before a road junction on the left and follow to a wooden farm gate. Enter the field, keep to the left and at the end go through a metal gate into woodland. On reaching a small private field, go straight ahead and enter the woodland through a small gap in the trees. Where the path forks after ten yards, go left (signed public footpath only) and uphill to a stile. Cross into a field and follow its boundary along the right side to reach a gateway at the top of the field. Just after, at a junction of farm tracks (ignore left and right) proceed ahead along the track on the left of the field and follow to reach a cross-track leading to farm buildings on your left.
7. Continue ahead on bridleway. Pass through two metal farm gates and at the next fork keep left on the bridleway to the end alongside East View Barn in Melbury Osmond.
8. At the junction with Holt Lane, turn left and St Osmund’s church is on your right after 150 yards. After visiting the church and viewing Thomas Hardy and Jemima Hand’s marriage certificate, go back down Holt Lane, cross a shallow ford and continue to end of road.
9. Go right onto the Ilchester Estate private road and after one mile pass Melbury House. Continue along the metalled road and go through the gate into the deer park.
10. After one mile exit Melbury Park via wooden steps through a gap in the boundary wall to the left of Lion Gate. Follow the road to its junction with Fore Street and return to your vehicle.
Distance: 6½ miles.
Terrain: Easy going. Mostly grassland and meadows (hay fever sufferers please note) with a two-mile metalled road through Melbury Park. Possible deep mud on the early stages of the bridleway north of Lewcombe Manor (between points 6 and 7 on the route above).
Start: Fore Street, Evershot. OS grid reference ST 573 045. Postcode DT2 0JW (Acorn Inn).
How to get there: Turn left off the A37 Yeovil to Dorchester road at Holywell, signed Evershot.
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis. OS Landranger 194 Dorchester & Weymouth.
Refreshments: The Acorn Inn, 28 Fore Street, Evershot. Tel: 01935 83228.
Public transport: South West Coaches service 212, Yeovil- Dorchester. Tel: 01935 475872 (Yeovil).