To the west of Shaftesbury – in the footsteps of Treves
Published in September ’13
Sir Frederick Treves, while on his 2000-mile cycle ride around Dorset researching for his book Highways and Byways in Dorset, finds himself in beautiful countryside close to the Somerset border: ‘Continuing on the road to Stalbridge, one comes by pleasant by-ways to Marnhull, the “Marlott” of Hardy’s novels, and the home of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. It is,’ Treves says in a characteristically blunt way, ‘a disappointing village, prim and stiff, with houses mostly of slate and stone, together with many villas of the Brixton and Camberwell type.’
Marnhull is unusual it that it appears to be made up of a number of lesser villages or hamlets, which – joined by main roads and country lanes – form a larger village. This makes finding the physical centre difficult. Is it the church or one of the two pubs? There are certainly a good number of ‘villas’ in Marnhull, but there are a large number of old stone cottages and a few thatches, too. Treves would be happy to know that ‘Brixton and Camberwell’ types of houses are no longer built and that the ones he saw have now blended in with their surroundings, but he would probably have the same negative attitude towards the ‘bungalow fever’ that swept Marnhull in later years of the 20th century.
Treves’s mention of Thomas Hardy meant that a visit to the ‘Pure Drop’ inn, actually called the Crown, as it has been for 400 years or more, was necessary. It is a fascinating building, and there have been discoveries made during recent renovation work suggesting that the pub might be considerably older than four centuries. While Hardy was living in Sturminster Newton, he would apparently walk the three miles along the river to visit Marnhull and the Crown. The village is fortunate to possess a second pub – the Blackmore Vale, another long-established watering-hole, equally mentioned by Hardy in his literature as ‘Rolliver’s’.
Treves says of the church of St Gregory: ‘There is at Marnhull a singularly handsome church, the fine tower of which is a landmark for many miles around. On one of the tombs it contains is the recumbent figure of a knight in armour, reputed to be Thomas Howard, Viscount Bindon, who died in 1582. His two wives lie on either side of him. The effigies are in alabaster, and their mutilated condition is explained by the statement that much of the alabaster “has been stole to make dies for coining”.’
The impressive church tower is visible from miles away because of the placing of the church on high ground, coupled with the height of its tower. The Dorset Historic Churches Trust website states that the recumbent figure, which Treves identifies as Thomas Howard, has been ‘near certainly identified as John Carent (senior), who died in 1478’. The damage seen today is probably no different from that which Treves observed; the arms of the knight are missing and the angels who were holding the pillows under the heads of the two wives are gone. Otherwise, the detail is remarkable considering the effigies are well over 500 years old. The font, not mentioned by Treves, is very large and made, it is said, from the upturned base of a roadside cross. This would explain its rather unorthodox shape and size.
Leaving Marnhull, Treves now journeys west where: ‘A pleasant road across the luxuriant Vale of Blackmore over the River Stour and the Bibbern Brook leads to Stalbridge…. The townlet is placed upon an isolated hill rising out of the valley. From the summit of this height there is a haze-encompassed view of the Vale of Blackmore, which in June, after a week of rain, is dazzling by reason of its greenness. The district is given up to fields for pasture and to dairies, so that he who is not well versed in the characteristics of cows, their lives and times, is regarded as a foreigner.’ The view from the town across the Blackmore Vale is indeed stunning – green fields and hills as far as the eye can see; Treves would still recognise the view. Cows can be seen grazing in the fields, but the obsession with all things bovine seems to have waned in Stalbridge.
The town, with its radiating streets, sprawls over the hill like a starfish. Treves continues: ‘…it possesses a neat row of semi-detached villas, worthy of the suburbs of Hull, a place where “petrol” is sold, and shows a general leaning to slate, iron railings, corrugated iron, and much bill-posting. There are, on the other hand, a few thatched cottages, some fine old roofs of stone outlined by moss, quaint alleys and ancient gardens, with here and there a white bow window filled with geranium blossoms.’
Now, as then, there is only one place in Stalbridge where petroleum spirit is purveyed – it seems that Treves wasn’t happy with the abbreviation being newly used at the time! There are still some slate roofs and iron railings but no corrugated iron (much used a hundred years ago to patch up thatched roofs) and bill-posting doesn’t appear prevalent. Stalbridge has retained a good number of interesting ancient buildings, including a number of public houses such as the Swan.
Treves was clearly impressed by Stalbridge’s cross, stating: ‘In one street is a venerable stone cross raised on four steps, tall and of much grace, and tanned by the sun a rich yellow brown. Carved upon it, they say, are figures of the Saviour, the Virgin, and St. John, with sundry shields and coats of arms, but the lower sculptures have been well-nigh obliterated by centuries of babies’ hands and the upper carvings by the rain.’
A rare survivor, the ten-metre-high stone cross is the finest in Dorset and possibly one of the finest in the country. It sits awkwardly back from the busy main street passing through Stalbridge, protected by substantial wooden posts. A difficult-to-decipher carving projects from the shaft of the cross; it appears to be a niche in which a statue or figure would have been placed. There are other carvings toward the top and at the base of the cross but none are decipherable now. The cross’s top section fell off in 1950 and was subsequently replaced, although this replacement is not obvious today.
‘In the much-restored church are pillars with capitals of angels’ heads and texts, and for a font a smooth bowl of stone like a kettledrum,’ observes Treves, adding, ‘On one altar tomb – so old that all knowledge of its date is lost – is the recumbent figure of a corpse in a shroud. It is a gruesome object, for the body of the unknown is so profoundly emaciated that the ribs appear as entrenchments through the skin. His head reclines on a pillow with roses. What is most noticeable about him is the very determined expression of his mouth, as if on the set lips was the resolve to get no thinner under any possibilities. People with names which would have pleased the eighteenth century playwright, are buried in this place. Among them are Ismond Plainewit, 1658, Mathew Foole, 1659, and Temperance Collins, 1666.’
Despite the Victorian restorations, the church contains much of interest, including the column capitals referred to by Treves. The font bowl is old and very impressive – belonging to the early 13th century, it is made from greensand, while the more modern stem is of Ham stone. According to the British Listed Buildings website, the table tomb with the corpse in a shroud is from the late 15th or early 16th century. These ‘cadaver tombs’ are quite rare and reflect a passing fashion of the time. Whilst there is no name to identify the occupant, the carving itself is very intricate.
The three unusual names Treves mentions are a mystery; with the help of the vicar we searched the records and could find no names to match in the graveyard. A search through the church also proved fruitless – Treves may not have seen them himself but may have quoted Hutchins’s History and Antiquities of Dorset – a source he acknowledges in the foreword of Highways and Byways in Dorset.
(Thanks to Rev. William Ridding, and the staffs at the Crown at Marnhull and the Swan at Stalbridge.)