Four ‘Puddles’ – Lower Piddle Valley
Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick Treves down the lower Piddle Valley
Published in March ’14
‘It is intriguing that all Treves writes of Tolpuddle in his book, Highways and Byways in Dorset, is: ‘Tolpuddle, on the Bere to Dorchester highway, is a typical Dorset village of thatched cottages and gardens, very indulgent to ducks and geese. It takes its name from Thola, the wife of Orc, one of Canute’s famous henchmen.’ Ask anyone in Dorset, or the UK for that matter, about the village and the first thing they will mention will invariably be the Tolpuddle Martyrs. For Treves it’s ducks, geese and Orc’s wife. Why this should be, in a book designed to be a guidebook to Dorset, is unknown. Highways and Byways, still the most popular book written about Dorset, was reprinted many times and those editions printed after Treves’s death in 1923 contain extra paragraphs on the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the commemorative arch erected in 1914 and the six labourers’ cottages erected by the Trades Unions during the 1934 centenary.
Treves has much more to say about Affpuddle: ‘An exquisite river-side hamlet, whose sleep has remained unbroken for the last hundred years or so. The old church stands by the river-side, in company with a mill whose water-wheel, if it splashed and moaned during service time, would drown the voice of the preacher. The shadow of the grey tower, with its battlements and pinnacles, falls across the thicket of reeds by the stream. No more lovable village church than this is to be found in the county.’
The lane leading from Tolpuddle to Affpuddle would, aside from the metalled surface, still be recognisable to Treves today as little appears to have changed. One is constantly aware of the River Piddle, either under one of the many bridges or behind the next hedgerow or house. Treves clearly was very taken with Affpuddle, since the word ‘exquisite’ isn’t one he uses very often in the book. His comments appear to have influenced other writers; in Arthur Mee’s 1939 publication, The King’s England – Dorset, Affpuddle is described as: ‘one of the most lovable villages in Dorset’. In Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff – a book which used place names to describe ‘things that there aren’t any words for yet’, the village appears as follows: ‘Affpuddle (n); A puddle which is hidden under a pivoted paving stone. You only know it’s there when you step on the paving stone and the puddle shoots up your leg.’
Affpuddle’s mill and water wheel appear to have been replaced by a more modern building, whilst the mill race runs alongside the Garden of Remembrance. The Piddle was in full spate during our visit and (as Treves suggested) could be heard very clearly from inside the church. St Laurence’s, with its large graveyard and extensive surroundings, seems out of place in such a small settlement, but bear testament to the importance once placed upon this village and the fact that Briantspuddle, just down the lane, shares the church.
Inside the church, Treves continues: ‘Its chancel is Early English, its font Norman, while the richly-carved woodwork with which it is furnished dates from the sixteenth century. On one seat, indeed, is the legend: “Thes seatys were mayd in the yere of oure Lord God MCCCCCXLVIII , the tyme of Thomas Lyllynton, vicar of thys cherch”; it was the time, too, of Edward VI – just a year after the death of Henry VIII. The “seatys” used by yeomen then are used by their descendants still.’
The Norman font Treves refers to was moved back to its original position by the south door in 2008, at the same time as another font, which had been in the care of Affpuddle since World War 2, was returned to Turners Puddle church. The pews were renewed in 1883, but the pew ends are original and beautifully carved, and one still displays the legend seen by Treves. The church contains a wealth of interesting features, including the impressive pulpit, likewise from the 16th century. Many of the changes that St Laurence’s has seen since Treves’s time have been financed by donations from Sir Ernest Debenham (of whom more below).
Referring, as he often did, to Hutchins’s 1774 tome, The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset, Treves makes use of his considerable medical knowledge (he was one of the country’s leading surgeons) to mock Hutchins’s opinion: ‘In Hutchins’s time life in this pleasant village was “extremely hard”. There was much scrofula, as well as a prevalent fever, which he [Hutchins] ascribes to the too early use of new cider. In modern times the malady would probably be called typhoid fever, and be ascribed to imperfect sanitation.’
Moving on to what would have been an even smaller village than Affpuddle a century ago, Treves now looks at Briantspuddle: ‘Bryants Puddle receives its title from no less a personage than Brian de Turberville, who was lord of the manor in the time of Edward III. It is now only a very rudimentary, very pretty hamlet, which may certainly claim to be situated in what city folk call “the real country”.’
Within ten years of Treves’s visit, radical changes were afoot in Briantspuddle. Sir Ernest Debenham – of Debenham’s department stores fame – purchased the settlement with the intent of creating a model village and a self-sufficient farming community.
What Treves saw was a hamlet of only around a dozen houses, but today there are scores more buildings; many are thatched and, although not old, they look as if they have always been there. A remarkable village hall, which is a converted thatched barn of some age, and a notable war memorial by sculptor Eric Gill, erected in 1918, complete the picture.
Treves now travels the lonely lane toward Bere Regis: ‘At Turners, or Toners, Puddle is a small church, simple and pathetically plain, standing by the river’s edge at a bend where the stream widens into a rush bordered-pool. By the side of the childlike church is a farm-house, as unpretentious and as rustic. The houses of the hamlet have shrunk away from these two, as if in respect for their venerable companionship.’
Turners Puddle’s parish church of the Holy Trinity, still standing by its companion, the rustic 16th-century farmhouse, has been redundant since 1974. Its roof, which had been badly damaged by death watch beetle infestation at the time of World War 2, was fitted with asbestos sheeting in the 1960s; it is a rather undignified method of keeping the elements at bay, as Treves would have almost certainly have commented.
Holy Trinity’s font spent over sixty years in the care of Affpuddle church, only returning home in 2008. There seems to be a theme in Turners Puddle of ‘losing’ important items, only to have them returned; in the 1950s, according to the church guide, the two bells were stolen. They turned up one Christmas Eve at the gates of the farmhouse, covered in soil, with a roughly written note attached to them inscribed ‘Sorry Xmas’.
Turners Puddle is not a place you pass through on your way somewhere else. It is one of those hidden parts of Dorset that takes an effort to find – common maybe in Treves’s time, but something of a rarity today. A visit to this part of Dorset shows that, all things considered, the passing of a hundred years has done little to spoil these villages, sitting demurely on the banks of the River Piddle; Sir Frederick would be delighted. ◗
❱ Apologies to ‘Puddle’ villages denizens disagreeing with the spellings used above. Almost every source of reference used in researching this article used a different spelling or an extra apostrophe – Briants Puddle, Bryant’s Puddle, Toners Puddle, Toners Piddle, Turner’s Puddle, Turnerspuddle and so on.