The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the footsteps of Treves: Maiden Newton and Piddletrentide

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick on an odd transverse route

Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923) cycled over two thousand miles through his native Dorset in the early 1900s, carrying out research for his book Highways and Byways in Dorset. The book follows the actual journey he made, on what were then essentially rutted chalk tracks.
He sometimes chose unorthodox routes, one being at the end of Chapter 21, where he visits Maiden Newton before travelling to Piddletrentide: ‘Much of the interest in Maiden Newton from the point of view of the tourist has vanished since the pulling down of its famous inn, the White Hart. This beautiful building has been replaced by an hotel of the most uninteresting type. The old White Hart was a charming specimen of the 17th-century hostelry. It was a house of two storeys, with dormers in the roof. The roof was of course of thatch, and the windows provided with stone mullions and dripstones. A gateway, with a chamber over, led under the house to the stable yard at the back. There are now few relics of the olden times left in this progressive settlement, if exception be made of the church and the mill on the River Frome’.
Treves would probably not recognise Maiden Newton now – it has expanded and is more a small town than a village. The countryside around he would recognise; whichever point of the compass taken from Maiden Newton finds the traveller in enchanting surroundings, such as water meadows. The old White Horse inn that Treves so admired (although he got the name wrong!) was demolished, despite much local opposition in 1898 (see Dorset Life January 2011). Thomas Hardy was consulted by the group seeking to save the building, as was the newly formed National Trust, but to no avail. Its replacement, now over 100 years old, became apartments toward the end of the 20th century. Treves’s comment regarding the look of the ‘new’ structure rings true today; it is not an attractive building. The mill on the river Frome still stands and as Clive’s picture shows, seems to have changed little, outwardly at least. No longer a mill, it has been used, since Treves’s time, for many purposes such as carpet making and light engineering. In July 1952, Queen Elizabeth II (almost a year before her Coronation), spent the night in the Royal Train in a railway siding at Maiden Newton. Supposedly a secret, the parish Council were given permission for an ‘Address of Welcome’. Treves had saved the life of Queen Elizabeth’s Great Grandfather Edward VII in 1902, actually halting the Coronation to perform an operation.
Meawhile, Treves now looks more closely at Maiden Newton church: ‘The church, which contains much Norman work, is the most charming feature of Maiden Newton. Its surroundings are peculiarly fascinating. The churchyard is a garden of flowers, a vine climbs over the old church porch, lichen and moss have added rich tints of yellow, brown, and green to the drab walls, while between the windows and reaching up to the very roof are masses of roses’.
While the north side of St Mary’s church has been largely given over to wild flowers, our visit in early March meant that only primroses and some snowdrops were to be found. Whether this area becomes Treves’ ‘garden of flowers’ during the summer is doubtful; the north facing aspect means the church throws a shadow over the area. The rest of the churchyard, nowadays, appears like any other; manicured grass and gravestones. No vine now climbs over the porch, although there is a single climbing rose on the west wall that looks to be of some age. It is also sad to report that the church has had its share of woes over the past four years; in 2009 valuable items, including an Elizabethan silver chalice were taken from the safe, whilst 2011 saw a devastating fire from which the building has only very recently recovered. The interior of the church belies the fact that a fire took place such a short time ago, testament to those involved in the task of renovation. Chairs have replaced pews and the result is a much more open environment than is achieved with pews in situ. Treves, surprisingly, makes no reference to the famous oak door in St Andrew’s church; claimed to be one of the oldest in England, it was hung in the 15th century. The church guide says that in the 1940s a number of balls of lead shot were found embedded in this door, supposedly from muskets fired at the church by Cromwell’s men. In the Second World War the church suffered again when a German aircraft sent a bullet through the east window. The area of Maiden Newton around the church possesses a number of interesting and attractive buildings and sitting as it does well back from the main street, is surprisingly tranquil.

Leaving Maiden Newton, Treves now cycled a surprisingly long way, via Cerne Abbas, to find himself in Piddletrentide. Its is fascinating to be able to write that the byway along ‘Kiddle’s Bottom’ is one of the few routes that Treves traversed in Dorset that hasn’t been metalled or substantially altered. One can walk or cycle from Cerne Abbas to Piddletrentide, fundamentally along the same byway that he did.
All Saints Church met with his approval: ‘Well to the left of the Cerne road, and approached from that town by a byway along Kiddle’s Bottom, is Piddletrentide. Here is a church which claims to be the finest village church in Dorset. It is an imposing building, situated by the side of the stream. Its lofty pinnacled tower of ashen stone has been tanned to a gentle brown by the sun of centuries. It is a tower with immense buttresses about its sides, with a fine gold weather-cock on its summit, and numerous gargoyles under its battlements’.
Where Treves found the claim that the church at Piddletrentide was the finest in all of Dorset’s villages is unknown. I am not disputing this claim as this is indeed a very attractive church, however, many of Dorset’s villages are endowed with attractive churches and I wouldn’t want to be the one that made this claim for any one in particular. That said, Piddletrentide’s church is beautiful, exceptionally large for such a small village, it sits high above the surrounding houses and is festooned in gargoyles.  Buttresses on the south walls have a number of unusual carved lions as decoration. The buttressed and pinnacled tower also belies its village status in both height and decoration. The weather-cock still takes pride of place.
Treves continues: ‘The sundial over the south door bears the date 1662, while an inscription in the Latin tongue on the west side was carved there in 1487. Both the south doorway and the piers of the chancel arch belong to the time of the Normans. The colouring of the church is not among the least of its charms, for the greys and yellows and browns of its walls are contrasted with the deep green of ivy and the red of many roses, while in the foreground are ancient yews, and in the distance the jade green of the downs’.
The church guide confirms the date on the sundial to be 1602, preceding Treves suggestion by 60 years. The inscription ‘in the Latin tongue’ is unusual in that the date 1487 is written in Arabic numerals (i.e. the digits 0-9); when Roman numerals were still the norm and this is one of the first recorded instances of Arabic numerals being used on a building in England. The church no longer has its covering of ivy – Treves always makes reference to the ivy on churches – it would seem that the Victorians were happy to leave it to grow, whereas nowadays the inclination seems to be to remove it.
A trip to Piddletrentide is worth making just to see this exceptional church in its lovely surroundings. One doesn’t have to take the rather protracted and arduous cycle journey that Treves took to get there, but the fact that there are a number of first-rate hostelries nearby would make such a journey more appealing!

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