Curiosities of Sturminster Newton
Becky Bye takes a look at some of the less considered charms of Dorset's dairy capital
Published in June ’13
Whilst Sturminster Newton retains a rather quaint historical charm, much of its fame has been lost since the closure of its livestock market in 1998, which was once the largest in Britain. The main appeal now is its picturesque riverside location, perfect for walking and fishing. Known affectionately as ‘Stur’ by local people, this small market town in North Dorset has connections going right back to the Domesday Book, in which it appears as ‘Newentone’. The town centre now offers an eye-catching mix of 17th- and 18th-century thatched cottages, Georgian architecture and modern brick buildings. Records show that Sturminster Newton has held fairs and markets since as early as 1219 during the reign of Henry III, and the annual Cheese Festival helps to continue this tradition, receiving over 13,000 visitors every year. Like many small towns, Sturminster has its own well known tales of mythology and folklore. One of the most popular among residents is one in which the effigy of a red lion (which rests above the front door of what was once the Red Lion pub) is said to climb down from its plinth at the stroke of midnight, wander down to the old pump near the town bridge and quench its thirst from the river before returning to its platform. Many drinkers throughout the years claim to have seen this phenomenon on their journeys home after last orders… although, it must be said, rarely on their way in.
Thomas Hardy’s House – Sturminster is renowned for its literary connections, including poets William Barnes and Robert Young, though perhaps the most notable of all being that of poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. Now a private house, a pink and blue residence overlooking the river Stour boasts a blue plaque marking the place where Thomas Hardy lived from 1876 to 1878 after he married Emma Gifford. Hardy later said that this location was ‘idyllic’ and described his years here as being among the happiest of his life. It was during this period in 1878 that he wrote Return of the Native, and Sturminster Newton appears as ‘Stourcastle’ in his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Market Cross – Highlighting the spot where Sturminster Newton has staged almost 800 years of market selling, the market cross, now only made up of four steps, sits quaintly in the centre of the town. The monument, which dates from the 15th century, has remained incomplete since 1540, when the shaft that made up the rest of the feature was destroyed. The remaining stump, which has remained unchanged since it was partly destroyed, provides a quaint characteristic to the town whilst shops and businesses around it in the town centre have gradually developed over the years.
The Mill – Sturminster Mill was once a place for hiding contraband liquor, and is now in operation as a working tourist attraction, representing thousands of years of continuous working history. The Domesday survey gives details of a mill on the same spot since as early as 1086, but it is widely believed that there was one in existence even earlier. The present building dates mostly from the 17th century, though much of it was greatly altered during the 19th century. The mill is just one of several flour mills which have dominated the banks of the river Stour over the centuries. Sam Elkins was the last full-time miller at Sturminster, and in 1970, the mill was boarded up and left unused for years. An agreement was made in 1994 for the Sturminster Newton Museum and Mill Society to manage the mill as a visitor attraction.
Town Bridge – Sturminster Newton’s Town Bridge, which was built in around 1500, is made up of six arches, not only making it an iconic feature in the landscape, but ensuring its recognition as one of the finest medieval bridges in Dorset. A particularly characteristic feature of the bridge is the notice, which states that: ‘Any person wilfully injuring any part of this county bridge will be guilty of felony and upon conviction liable to be transported for life.’ No-one was ever transported for damaging this or any of the other Dorset bridges on which similar notices appear. The bridge has remained largely unchanged for over 500 years, aside from being widened in 1820. John Leland, Henry VIII’s travelling topographer, described the bridge as ‘a very fair bridge of six arches.’
Sturminster Newton Castle – Deceptively, Sturminster Newton unfortunately does not boast an imposing fortified castle, to which the tourist information makes tantalising hints. The ‘castle’ is actually in a very dangerous state and is the ruinous remains of a 14th-century manor house. The building, or what is left of it, now stands on private property, and was given as a gift from Henry VIII to his sixth wife Katherine Parr in 1543. The ruins have not changed much in a little over 100 years, and it is thought that there was once an Iron Age hill-fort in the vicinity, with the site most likely having been reoccupied from the late Saxon period. The position of the ruins represent the earliest settlement so far discovered in the town. Although no-one knows exactly where, legend has it that there is a well near the site of the castle, in which is hidden a wealth of treasure and a large object of solid gold is said to be hidden in a nearby tunnel.
St Mary’s Church – Tucked away from the high street, the historic site of St. Mary’s Church boasts a fantastic and ornate 500 year-old wagon roof. The 15th-century roof, which stretches along the length of the nave, is significant for its 14 carved Angels that are placed along it.
During the 1910 and 1911 restoration of the roof, William Westcott and his men removed lead shot from the vicinity of the projecting Angels, which is believed to have been the result of Cromwell’s soldiers taking pot shots whilst billeted in Sturminster Newton during the English Civil War of 1642-1651. Also notable is the north aisle window of the church, which depicts a spider on a web in the stained glass – the signature trademark of Geoffrey Webb.
Clock House – Perhaps the least altered shop front in the town centre, Clock House has remained virtually unchanged for 70 years. Even the window frames and the clock above the door are the same as those used from at least 1929, aside from a fresh lick of paint. There is a big difference however in the type of trade which is now run in this building. Formerly a shop which was not only a lending library, but in which clocks and watches were sold, as well as jewellery, sports equipment, carnival masks and toys, the business now runs as a takeaway selling kebabs and pizzas, though retains the building’s authentic name.
Robert Young’s Chair – Another well known literary name of Sturminster Newton is Dorset dialect poet Robert Young. Popular for his wit and style, Young was something of a local celebrity. His riverside home, The Hive, also included the ownership of nearby ‘Riverside’ Villas in which Thomas Hardy and his wife were tenants. In 1907, aged 96, the town held a flower show in honour of Robert Young as being the oldest inhabitant of Sturminster, and he died at the very respectable age of 97. His basket travel chair in which he could often be seen travelling around the streets of Sturminster is now on display at the town museum.
Sturminster Railway – The Somerset and Dorset Railway ran through Sturminster Newton until the closure of Bath Junction to Broadstone in 1966. Following this stage of the Beeching Axe, the closure marked the end of 103 years of rail travel in the market town. The cutting between the Bath Road and Station Road railway bridges has since been filled in order to create the Railway Garden, where a section of the railway’s original track is on display as a nostalgic feature. The railway goods yard was an important commodity for the town’s booming creamery industry, though the station and goods yard were not demolished until the 1970s.