The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the footsteps of Treves – Cerne Abbas

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick Treves to the land of the giant

Like anywhere else, Dorset has seen countless changes over the last hundred years and it would be natural to assume that these were generally for the worse. Once in a while however, things do change for the best – Cerne Abbas is a case in point.
Sir Frederick Treves visited here just over a hundred years ago, while writing his book: Highways and Byways in Dorset. What he saw was a place in decline: ‘There was a time when Cerne was a stately place. It is humble enough now, although it is still dignified on the maps with capital letters. Cerne owes its greatness to the Abbey which was founded here in A.D. 987 by Aethelmar, Earl of Devon and Cornwall…. Of the Abbey little now remains but the gate-house, a glorious building of golden-grey stone, covered with much ivy, and standing in a cluster of trees. It possesses a most exquisite, two-storied oriel window, the casements of which are separated by escutcheons and bands of panelling carved in stone. The beauty of this ghostly building, like a pale light among the trees, is a wonder to look upon.’
The Abbey Gatehouse is a striking building and is in better condition than when Treves saw it; renovation was carried out in the early 1990s after the building fell into disrepair and the roof had begun to collapse. It gives one an idea of how impressive Cerne Abbey must have been in its heyday.

Close to the Gatehouse Treves finds another impressive relic of the Abbey: ‘In a part of the old Abbey buildings near by – now used as a stable – is a tiny oriel window of the quaintest kind, with little Gothic lights full of diamond panes, and a roof of stone slabs covered with moss and weeds. Its childlike simplicity is in strong contrast with the majestic window of the gate-house.’
The ‘stable’ is in fact the Abbey Guesthouse. The building hasn’t changed, although empty, it retains its handsome oriel window as well as its stone slab roof, which is still covered in moss and ferns. It is another impressive relic of a once extensive group of Abbey buildings.
Using romantic prose, Treves paints a vivid picture of Cerne Abbas from a distance:  ‘The town of Cerne Abbas, when viewed from the Dorchester road, is a cosy settlement tucked away in an amphitheatre of sage-green hills. There are many trees in the town, so that compared with the poor bare downs that close it in, it looks warm and comfortable, and curled up like a dormouse in a sunny corner.’
Whilst Cerne Abbas has grown in size, the centre of the settlement is, aside from the odd example of infill, much as it was. The mediaeval street plan is still obvious and from the excellent vantage point at the top of the church tower, one can see this clearly. New house building has taken place, in the main, away from the centre of the village and, although physically larger, the village still has around 700 residents. Trees still dominate the vista and Treves’s description, even now, fits well.
He continues: ‘It is a clean, trim, old-world town, which has remained unchanged for Heaven knows how many years. Its streets are quaint and picturesque, for they all belong to the England of the coaching times. No two houses are alike; some are tiled, some thatched, some roofed with stone. In not a few of them the first floor overhangs the causeway, according to a forgotten fashion.’
Much the same could be said of Cerne now, some of the houses date from the 14th century (some may be even older) and the views are the stuff of postcards. There are buildings that ‘overhang the causeway’ as well as roofs of stone, thatch and tile – it really is an eclectic mix of building styles.
Treves now describes Cerne Abbas as being on the verge of derelict: ‘The place, however, is empty and decaying and strangely silent. Grass is growing in the streets; many houses have been long deserted, many have their windows boarded up, or are falling into listless ruin. Here are empty barns, gates falling off their hinges and doorways grown up with weeds. There are quaint old shops with bow windows, but the windows are empty of everything but a faded red curtain, while over the door, in very dim paint, are traces of a name. One feels compelled to walk very quietly through the echoing streets, and talk in whispers, for fear that the sleep of Cerne should be broken. There are many bright flower gardens in its midst, while through the town runs a cheerful stream, whose banks are protected by white posts and rails.’
It’s likely that the boarded-up houses and empty barns were in Abbey Street; houses to the north and south of the church were demolished in the early 1900s having been condemned and on the site of the empty barn, a house now stands. In 1919 the Pitt-Rivers estate, which owned most of Cerne Abbas, sold off the majority of their property and things appear to have improved from that point on. Treves visited at a very low point in Cerne’s history – the difference today is that the houses are lived in, cared for and worth the kind of money that would have been considered a ‘kings ransom’ in his day.
Still in Abbey Street Treves notes: ‘At the end of one street is the Abbey farmhouse, a handsome old building of many gables, and in this same street is the church of Cerne, with its commanding tower. In a canopied niche above the door is a statue of the Virgin. Within, the church is, like the town, unchanged. Here are high pews with doors, a fine oak pulpit dated 1640, with a sounding-board above and a clerk’s pew below. Before the present organ was built the music for the service was provided by a barrel-organ. There are some 15th-century chairs in the chancel, while the fine altar-table bears the year 1638.’
Cerne Abbas’s church has suffered somewhat since Treves came by because, in 1960-61, major restoration work was carried out. The roof, declared dangerous, was replaced and the high pews, now something of a rarity, had rotted and had to be removed. Fortunately the church still possesses the chairs in the chancel, the exquisite oak altar table with the date 1638 carved on its front and the pulpit (there is no sign of the clerk’s pew). The statue of the Virgin on the outside of the church tower is quite unusual – almost all were removed by Cromwell’s men – it is said that Cerne’s was removed, hidden away and replaced when the risk had subsided. Interestingly, Treves would not have heard the bells ringing as in 1974, when the bells were removed, recast and re-hung (an additional sixth bell was added), they had not been rung for over seventy years.
Inevitably, this being Cerne Abbas, Treves now visits the Giant: ‘So sleepy and indifferent has Cerne become that it has even neglected its Giant. This colossal human form is carved on the slope of one of the barren hills which surround the town. The figure is of great antiquity, and dates – so the learned say – from pre-Roman times. Of its history and its purpose nothing is known…. Cerne Abbas the Depressed has so long ceased to care for its Giant that the poor Goliath has become grown over with grass, and is nearly invisible to the eye.’
So Cerne had not only become almost derelict, it had in effect abandoned the Giant – paradoxically the very thing that now brings it most of its fame. In the 1920s the National Trust took charge of the Giant and he is now in fine fettle.
Cerne Abbas possesses three excellent pubs, tearooms, a beautiful church, some exceptional houses, impressive Abbey remains and its famous Giant. There are a couple of closed-up shops but this, hopefully, is temporary. A mark of how far the village has come from Treves’s days is that Savills estate agents declared Cerne Abbas to be Britain’s most desirable village in 2008. Little has happened in the last four years to change that accolade’s accuracy.

• Our thanks go to George Mortimer and John Paterson of the Cerne Abbas Historical Society for their help in compilation of this article.

Dorset Directory