Dewlish: A village photo essay
Ken Ayres takes his camera round a central Dorset village that is packed with historical curiosities
Published in May ’14
Dewlish is about as central in Dorset as one can get; it is almost exactly an hour by road from Lyme Regis in the west, from Christchurch in the east, from Portland Bill in the south and from Bourton in the north of the county. Despite this, it is not really on the way to or from anywhere. There was a time, up until 264 years ago in fact, when the main Dorchester to Blandford (and thus Dorchester to London) road passed through Dewlish, but it was re-routed south and east of the village, to where the A354 runs today.
Just as the Piddle and Puddle villages were named for their rivers, so Dewlish was named for its watercourse – the Celtic word for black stream; the village name evolved from Devenis (in the Domesday Book of 1086), to Deueliz in 1194, to Douelis in 1212 to a more recognisable Dewelisshe by 1481. The stream, meanwhile has evolved to become the Devil’s Brook; Folk etymology, as the peerless David Mills explains in his book Dorset Place Names, must have associated the brook with the word ‘Devilish’, presumably derived, in a nice completion of the circle of naming,
The village also has a number of associations with things ancient. In The King’s England, editor Arthur Mee relates the tale of Dewlish, better than can we, under the name ‘The Elephant and the Mouse’.
‘Dewlish. We remember it for the story of an elephant and a mouse, and for the heroic spirit of a captain who knew no fear. The elephant roamed these downs a million years ago, and its bones were found last century in the Pliocene of the chalk bluff by Devil’s Brook. Round about are burial mounds in which have been found urns and ashes, a fine bronze dagger, a whetstone, and a bone pin, all buried with the dead. There was a Roman villa here, and a tessellated pavement was uncovered in the 18th century. But how young the Roman Empire seems when we think of the Dewlish version of mountain and the mouse.
‘The hill below which the village nestles is built up of chalk, and was thought to be nothing but chalk till one day early in the 19th century, a peeping geologist discovered a mouse hole in its face some hundred feet up, and, lo, the little tunnel was filled with sand. Sand being a precious commodity in a country of chalk and loam, borings were made and sand was found in plenty, but five feet down the diggers found yet more surprises, for here were fossil willows, and under these the remains of almost incredible animals. An immense ancient trench was found and in it were two elephants which in life had stood seventeen feet high. They had walked these downs before the last Ice Age. Once a river ran high above where Dewlish lies, and the trench would be its bed, the willows would line its banks, and the elephants must have been bogged in its marshes. There they fell and must have lain for perhaps ten thousand centuries till a little field-mouse tunnelling into the sand brought here by the vanished river revealed the secret of the mighty tomb. Excavations were taking place when the Great War, which held up all the good things of the world, broke out, and the museum at Dorchester has a rich hoard of bones of the giants which lay so long wrapped in chalk in their sandy bed above the unsuspecting village.
‘Where the Roman built his house now stands the fine house of the Michels, built about 1702. It stands in the park and has been the home of a line of heroes for two or three generations. Sir John Michel spent his long life in the army and won renown by his zeal and great courage. He served in the Kaffir Wars, was shipwrecked on his way to China after the Crimean War, fought and defeated the mutineers in Bombay, took part in the occupation of Pekin, and became a Field-Marshal. His daughter married General Frankfort de Montmorency, who had fought at Sebastopol and had almost won the VC. He was recommended for it but did not receive it. His son Raymond did receive it. He was known as the captain who knew no fear. He served in the Sudan under Kitchener, and one day after a charge went back in the face of the enemy to look for his troop sergeant. He picked him up and put him on his horse, not knowing that he was dead. The horse bolted, and he was left to face 3000 Dervishes. Two companions caught the horse and brought it back, and these three men fought against 3000 until they regained their regiment unhurt. The captain fought again in South Africa, where he organised a body of scouts over whom he had a remarkable influence, but the fearlessness they loved in him cost him his life, and he fell on the field.
‘They are all remembered in the little church, to which we come by an avenue of yews, and through which we enter through a Norman arch resting on the heads of a king and queen. A massive old door still opens for us, and there is another Norman doorway to witness to the long life of this small place; there are medieval arches, an ancient font, and much woodwork about three centuries old. There are fine choir stalls, a good pulpit, and some notable sanctuary chairs.
‘Sir John Michel’s memorial is in the manor pew where a winged angel and a little cherub hold up a medallion with his sculptured portrait; another angel guards his grave in the churchyard. Near him sleeps the man who married his daughter, Viscount Frankfort de Montmorency, and on the chancel wall is a tablet paying tribute to his grandson, the captain who knew no fear.’ ◗