The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Sandford Orcas

Ken Ayres visits a ham-stone village on the Somerset border

Not much has been written about Sandford Orcas, but what there is has been rather beautifully written. In The King’s England edited by Arthur Mee in 1939, Sandford Orcas: ‘lies in a green lap surrounded by hills and is reached by a sunken lane. Its gracious Tudor manor house stands by the church, its gatehouse like a friendly neighbour of the House of God.’

Sandford Orcas Manor with its roof monkey statuary

In his book, Dorset Villages, Roland Gant takes a rather more vernacular line. ‘Ladies in Poke bonnets and peripatetic dogs are commonplace at Sandford Orcas Manor, where the supernatural was, in the 1970s, a local industry. Sandford Orcas – the ‘Orcas’ is derived from the Norman family of Orescuilz – is a village Tudor in appearance, golden Ham Hill stone in colour, with a manor and church dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and very little changed. There is more of a feel of Somerset here than Dorset, but then Sandford Orcas was in Somerset until a county border change in 1896.’

The church itself which, despite Victorian attention, is still very clearly perpendicular in style

Gant goes on to describe the scene as he knocked at the manor house door: ‘I assured the middle-aged, cheerful woman who had opened the door that my boots were less muddy than they looked…, but she was already calling to someone who emerged through a doorway as onto a stage, a portly, flushed elderly man with shrewd eyes and a deaf-aid. His green jacket had arrived at that stage of decrepitude where it had taken on the manner of a sturdy Tweed cobweb – drawing dogs, cats, mice and moths for miles around, held together by brambles and trampish pride. “Which are y’interested in? The house or the ghosts? They go together mind you.” The then tenant who showed me round claimed 22 ghosts in all, ranging from a nice lady in a red shawl to a seven-foot tall former ravisher of virgin maidservants who now brings with him the smell of decaying flesh. The ghosts were uncooperative when a television team called to investigate.’

One of the stained glass windows in the church of St Nicholas

One of the stained glass windows in the church of St Nicholas

Sandford Orcas forms a quarter of the Queen Thorne Group Parish Council (along with Nether Compton, Over Compton and Trent) and, according to census information, the village had a population of 180 in 2011 – down nearly 10 per cent from the 2001 census. It does, nonetheless, have a pub of its own – the 163-year-old Mitre Inn – which is where, as well as food and drink being available, a gentleman may have a haircut on the first Monday evening of the month.

The village's 163-year-old pub

The village's stone construction is more reminiscent of a Somerset village, which of course Sandford Orcas was until 1996

The village’s church, dedicated to St Nicholas, is of perpendicular origin – and still looks the part, despite an extensive Victorian makeover in 1871 by Henry Hall. Part of this is thanks to the unusual memorial to William Knoyle, who died 407 years ago. As Sir Frederick Treves reports in his Highways and Byways of Dorset: ‘The work is in the manner of a small marble tablet, elaborately carved and as elaborately coloured. A knight in white armour is kneeling, and in his hand is a skull. In front of him is a lady dressed in black, with a wimple, who in her hands holds a Bible. Behind the knight is a second lady, also in black but wearing a ruffle, and grasping in her hand a skull. Behind her in turn are four little corpses.’

An attractive doorway in the village

‘From the reading on the stone,’ Treves continues, ‘the knight is William Knoyle and that he first married “fillip, daughter of Robert Morgane, by whom hee had yssve 4 children and bee dead.” The knight married in the second place Grace Clavel, by whom he had three sons and four daughters. This wife is evidently the lady of the wimple, and the seven children evidently survived him, for she does not hold a skull and the three sons – very small – are shown kneeling behind the knight while the four daughters are sheltered by the skirt of the lady of the wimple.’

The old village schoolhouse on the right of the picture

Incidentally, the explanation for the Sandford part of the name is no more complicated than the fact that the village lies at the confluence of three streams which once were crossed at a sandy ford. To compensate for this entirely banal piece of information for those who like to be able to call on rather more obscure facts,
the Icelandic equivalent of the village’s name is Sandfurða Yrsklinga. ◗

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