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Witchampton: Short walk with Clive Hannay

Clive Hannay in ‘one of the most beautiful villages in the entire county’

The quote above is from Frederick Treves’s Highways and Byways in Dorset and Arthur Mee, in his ‘King’s England’ volume on Dorset, used almost exactly the same words, only substituting ‘lovely’ for ‘beautiful’. What is it that gives Witchampton its special appeal? Partly it is the setting alongside the River Allen, perhaps the prettiest of all Dorset’s rivers. Partly it is the charm of the buildings, an unusual proportion of them in brick. Notable is Abbey House, which dates from the early 16th century and is believed to be one of the earliest examples of brickwork in Dorset.
The Romans, who had a good eye for a landscape, were here, leaving evidence of a vineyard in a field near the church, and a Roman villa at Hemsworth, a mile or so to the west. In fact the full meaning of the village’s name is ‘farm of the dwellers on the site of a Romano-British settlement’. A mosaic pavement from the Hemsworth villa, pre-dating Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ by some centuries in its depiction of Venus arising from the sea on a shell, is in the British Museum. So is a set of five-inch-high chessmen, made of whalebone and dating from the 11th century. These were found during the excavation of the old manor house – sometimes incorrectly referred to as Abbey barn – whose ruins can still be seen alongside the river.
The variety of buildings is unusual in what was very much an estate village – until the middle of the last century, it belonged almost entirely to the Crichel Estate. At various times the estate was held by the Matravers family (of Lytchett and Langton Matravers), the Earls of Arundel and the Cole family, to whom there are memorials in the village church. By the early 17th century it was owned by the Napier, or Napper, family who gave their name to Napper’s Mite in Dorchester. In 1765 it came into the Sturt family of Horton and Humphrey Sturt remodelled the house to make it what Roland Gant rightly describes as ‘the most palatial 18th-century house in Dorset’. He also extended the park, taking in what was then the village of Moor Crichel and relocating the villagers to New Town, half a mile to the north-west of Witchhampton. Did his actions put ideas into the head of Joseph Damer of Milton Abbey, who more famously removed the whole town of Middleton and created the model village of Milton Abbas? Today the house, which is the repository of some superb art, including family portraits by Gainsborough, Romney and Lawrence, is owned by the Marten family, the late Mrs Mary Marten having been a Sturt before her marriage.
Agriculture was until comparatively recently the predominant occupation, but there was also a paper mill at New Town. Converted from one of the two mills in the village mentioned in Domesday, it produced paper from the early 1700s until it was given over to housing a few years ago.
Despite its verbose dedication, the parish church of St Mary, St Cuthberga and All Saints is unremarkable, except perhaps for its lych-gate in Arts and Crafts style. Only the 15th-century tower, which includes a gargoyle playing the bagpipes, survived a re-build in the 1830s. The bowl of the 13th-century font has been restored, having been found being used as a cattle trough in a nearby field. There is a story that in the middle of the last century, one could put a few pennies into the slot of a machine in the church porch and hear a recording of the bells, of the Hallelujah chorus, or of a sermon by the vicar. The story does not tell what proportion of customers chose the last option.

A very easy walk of about 4½ miles takes in the greater part of the village and gives a good idea of its surrounding landscape – the fields and woods of the southern part of Cranborne Chase. Park and start in the main street, next to the bank under the parish church. Walk up the street, with the church on the left. At the fork just after the school, bear right. Walk out of the village towards the buildings of New Town, visible ahead and to the right.
Just before the road bends towards them, in front of a castellated archway and gate that remind us that this was once a drive to Crichel House, turn left up Lawrence Lane. At the T-junction at the top of the hill, admire the ‘Rest and be thankful’ seat built around the tree in the centre of the junction. It was made in 2001 as a replacement for a venerable predecessor with the same inscription. Cross the road to a stile.
Walk straight across two fields, aiming for red-roofed buildings visible on the far side of the second one. Reaching them, turn right, then after about 100 yards, right again up a rough track. Just after Hilda Cottages the track swings left, but continue straight ahead on a grassy path. In about 400 yards it meets a track, where turn left. Although no trace remains on the ground, this track crosses the line of the old Roman road running north from Badbury Rings, which are visible some 3 miles away to the left. When it reaches a road, go straight across and turn left down another track to the right of an open field.
Follow this track as it bends to the right after Constance Cottage and runs through one wood and along the edge of another. Continue past some farm buildings on the right and descend to a T-junction with another track. Turn left and follow this track until it reaches a paved lane. Turn left for about 150 yards, then right through a gate into a field whose humps and hollows clearly suggest an older settlement than what is there today. The farm ahead is Hemsworth but the site of the Roman villa is about half a mile away on the right. Walk straight up to
a gate at the field’s highest point, next to a corrugated barn.
Turn left and almost immediately left again, round the barn into an open space, then into the large open field ahead. Bear left to cross the field roughly parallel at first to power lines on the left, then heading down to its most distant corner. Here a stile leads onto a T-junction. Walk up the lane immediately ahead and at the next T-junction turn right and follow the road downhill and round to the right to another T-junction. Here turn left and walk up through the village to the church.

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