The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the footsteps of Treves – Beaminster and Mapperton

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick Treves to Beaminster and Mapperton

When Sir Frederick Treves visited Beaminster in Chapter 18 of his book: Highways and Byways in Dorset, he found that: ‘Beaminster is a clean, cheerful, self respecting county town, without pretensions, without offensively modern houses, and without red-brick suburbs. There are a few thatched cottages in the streets, but Beaminster mostly affects a cosy, yellow-brown stone and ruddy tiles for its dwelling-places. No two houses in the town are alike. They belong mostly to the early part of the nineteenth century, and are much given to stone porticoes and ample bow windows, full of red geraniums.’
Stone porticoes and ample bow windows still abound in Beaminster. The town, at least the centre of it, consists predominately of the buildings Treves describes, all different with none of the ‘red-brick villas’ he loathed. As for thatched cottages, a good search found none although there are a number of very steep roofed buildings, suggesting that they were once thatched.  Most modern buildings in Beaminster seem to have been built sympathetically; stone is used and they match the style of the older buildings. Unfortunately there were a considerable number of houses and bungalows built during the unenlightened 1960s/70s and these sit inelegantly in their surroundings.
Treves continues to be impressed with what he sees: ‘The pride of Beaminster is not its queer little square, nor that fine, farmer-haunted inn of stone, the White Hart, but all such conceit as it may harbour is centred upon its church, and especially upon its glorious tower, which is unrivalled in the county. This gracious, golden-brown tower is worth a pilgrimage to see. It was built as long ago as 1520. It is a tower of many pinnacles, gargoyles, and niches, which is endowed with as lavish a wealth of delicate carving as a gold casket. Here are sculptures of the Blessed Virgin, of the Crucifixion and the Ascension, all in the same warm, golden-brown stone: yet from this happy tower were hung, like carrion, the quarters of some of Monmouth’s followers’.
The White Hart closed 100 years after Treves came here in the early 1900s. The inn, still displaying its effigy of the White Hart high above the street, has become shops and flats. The building was relatively new when Treves saw it, so it is quite surprising to read that he considered it ‘fine;’ he wasn’t generally impressed with Victorian architecture – perhaps he spent an evening enjoying the inn’s hospitality? History shows that the White Hart was once the hub of activity in Beaminster – it wasn’t just farmers that ‘haunted’ it.
Completed in around 1502, slightly earlier than Treves suggested, the tower of Beaminster church must be the finest in Dorset. Unlike most church towers, which are somewhat plain on the outside, Beaminster’s is lavishly decorated. All that Treves describes can still be seen albeit after some renovation work, carried out in 2002. Acid rain apparently caused the carvings to deteriorate, they are now coated by a lime wash designed to protect them from further damage. Records prove that the pinnacles of St Mary’s have been problematic for centuries; more than once one has come crashing down. Various methods of securing them such as metal brackets and dowels have been employed, the result being that they have been a constant financial burden on church funds. However, as Treves says, the tower is unquestionably ‘worth a pilgrimage to see’.

After waxing lyrical about the tower Treves is less than complimentary about the church which, he says: ‘does not attain to either the magnificence or the elegance of its tower. Indeed, the two are a little ill-assorted’. It’s difficult to see what Treves is getting at here; true the rest of the exterior of the church lacks any decoration and so cannot match the magnificence of the tower, but inside is another story. Crammed with monuments and many original features, the church is impressive. There have been changes; in 1912 a beautiful oak chancel screen was installed, in 1983 a ‘beetle infestation’ meant the removal of the Victorian wooden floors and all of the pews, the result is an imposing interior.
Treves would be intrigued to know that the font he saw was a rather ‘temporary’ addition to the church; the Norman font was removed by the Victorians in 1863, found in a stonemason’s yard, repaired and returned to the church in 1927. This was not unusual; the Victorians removed a number of ancient fonts from churches, replacing them with their rather garish gothic revival versions.
As in the days of 16th century antiquarian John Leland:, Beaminster still ‘usith much housbandry,’ continues Treves, ‘and is the centre of the district in which is produced the famous Blue Vinny cheese, without which no Dorset man is really happy.
It is remarkable that only 100 years ago this was one of the main areas of production of Blue Vinny cheese. By the 1970s all production had ceased and the cheese no longer existed. It is now only produced by a single dairy in Sturminster Newton. Blue Vinny was once made in many farmhouses in Dorset as a by-product of butter production. All the cream was skimmed off and sent to London so the cheese made from the remaining milk could be, at times, an inferior product.
Sir Frederick Treves was a close friend of Thomas Hardy and the two would often meet in London to reminisce of Dorset – one mutual love was that of Blue Vinny cheese, with Dorset knobs, accompanied by a fine Burgundy. This love of Dorset was in essence the reason for the formation of the ‘Society of Dorset Men,’ a chance for natives of Dorset, living or working in London, to meet up. Treves became the first chairman (1904-07), Hardy the second (1907-9).
Leaving Beaminster Treves looks at the important houses in the area: ‘In the environs of Beaminster are three notable houses, Parnham, Mapperton and Melplash. Parnham is a large Tudor mansion, characteristic of the period, which was for many generations possessed by the Strode family. It is scarcely visible from the road’.
Parnham has seen numerous changes since Treves ‘scarcely’ viewed it from the road. It was a country club during the 1920s and requisitioned for the American Army during World War 2. From 1956 until 1973 it was a nursing home, then was empty for three years until bought by John and Jennie Makepeace to house their School for Craftsmen in Wood. It has been back in private ownership since 2001.
At Mapperton Treves notes that the house ‘lies in a beautiful glen approached by an avenue of trees. It is one of the famous houses of Dorset, and one of the most charming and picturesque. The building belongs to the time of Henry VIII. The house is a building of two stories, with dormer windows in the roof. It is of grey-yellow stone, and is so disposed as to form two sides of a prim square, a third side being supplied by a venerable church of the humblest proportions. Perched on the gate-posts before the house are stone eagles with outspread wings, gazing at one another as if awaiting a signal to rise. Elsewhere are heraldic beasts on pinnacles.
‘The roof is tiled with slabs of stone, the chimneys are of stone twisted into spirals. Over the door of the porch is carved a gallant coat-of-arms. There are gracious bay windows, with stone casements and small panes, and an open stone parapet to crown them all. It is a house of many gables, whose aspect of great age is tempered by a growth of much ivy upon the walls and of moss between the stones,
while it is saved from utter silence by a colony of garrulous rooks.’
Mapperton House has seen few changes and Treves would recognise everything he mentions. Country Life recently declared it to be the ‘Nation’s Finest Manor House’, while the BBC’s Countryfile Magazine Awards 2012 awarded Mapperton second place in the ‘most beautiful garden’ category. The church of All Saints contains a Jacobean pulpit and choir stalls from the same period, there is much 15th-century glass, as well as a 12th-century pulpit. The church itself seems reason enough to visit Mapperton, as are the gardens, all three are open at various times during the year.
‘The mansion at Melplash,’ Sir Frederick’s third notable, is described thus: ‘although much modernised, [it] is still worthy of the princely days of the squires. It is said that over the chimney-piece in the hall are the arms of the Paulets, with the motto of the family, ‘‘Aimez loyaute,’’ and the date 1604’.
Treves, though, could not have called in to Melplash manor, or at least not that recently. He missed something that he would have found intriguing. The chimney piece to which he referred (along with one other example) was moved from Melplash Manor to Mapperton House around the turn of last century, when both houses were, for a time owned by the same family.

• Our thanks go to John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, to Annabel Douglas and to A A G Walbridge, author of the excellent book on Beaminster church.

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