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Dorset’s villages: from the coast to the Marshwood Vale

In the second part of his whistle-stop tour of Dorset's villages, John Chaffey looks west: from the coast to the Marshwood Vale


Lying farther away from major centres of population, West Dorset’s villages have grown more slowly than those to the east. In some parts of West Dorset, such as the Vale of Marshwood, there is a remoteness not encountered elsewhere in Dorset; villages occur less frequently. It is only in the river valleys – such as the Frome in the east and the Bride in the south – that villages multiply and flourish. West Dorset, does, however, have a rich variety of building stones such as the Corallian and the Inferior Oolite, which give a distinctive character to many of the villages.
The valley bottoms of the Frome and its main tributary, the Hooke, carry an important set of villages, that contrast with the surrounding higher chalk downs that are almost devoid of any settlement. Evershot, at the head of the Frome valley, much loved by Thomas Hardy, is a key settlement in West Dorset, with its school, hotels and architecturally diverse main street. Downstream, Cattistock, with its magnificent church, focuses smaller settlements such as Frome St.Quentin, the Wraxalls and Rampisham, the latter more remote in its deep valley. It is Maiden Newton, however, which is the main hub for these chalkland valleys. It is on the main railway line from Weymouth to Bristol, offers a wide range of services, including shops, pubs and a restaurant. The valley of the Hooke, that joins the Frome at Maiden Newton leads westwards to its source in the tiny hamlet of Toller Whelme, and sustains only one village, Toller Porcorum, and the isolated church and farms at Toller Fratrum.
Downstream from Maiden Newton, Frampton lines the north bank of the Frome, and Stratton and Bradford Peverell occupy terrace sites on either side of the river.

Old Bakehouse Cottage, Langton Herring

Between the Hooke valley and the South Winterborne valley is the remarkable village of Compton Valence, situated in a deep hollow in the downs to the west of Dorchester. Here, erosion has cut down into the dome-shaped geoloogical structure to reveal the Fuller’s Earth, although the village itself is on the Upper Greensand. The chalk stream of the South Winterborne, rising to the west of Winterborne Abbas near the Nine Stones, supports an almost continuous line of villages. Winterborne Abbas is linear, running alongside the stream. Brick and flint are used harmoniously in its cottages, but the village suffers heavily from the incessant traffic on the main road to the west. Winterborne Steepleton, with its church’s eponymous steeple, is altogether more quiet on the banks of the clear waters of the chalk stream. Downstream, Winterborne St. Martin (Martinstown), a much larger village, focused on its attractive tree-fringed green, is spreading in the form of burgeoning housing estates that climb away from the Winterborne. Further downstream, the villages maintain their presence, although less dominantly. Winterborne Monkton is merely a few cottages and its church; Winterborne Herringston and Winterborne Came are similar, and between, all that remains of Winterborne Farringdon is its almost wholly ruined church.

The places featured in this month's trip through Dorset's villages

High chalk downland separates the Winterborne valley from the Bride valley, with its streamside villages. Just downstream from the lake at Bridehead, Little Bredy, with its mock medieval 19th-century cottages, sits cosily on the banks of the Bride. Both Long Bredy and Litton Cheney have grown up on northern tributaries of the Bride, which reaches the sea at Freshwater after flowing through Burton Bradstock, a village using Inferior Oolite in local cottages and its church. It is here that the Bride has a tendency to flood, causing problems in the lower part of the village. Another line of villages runs westwards from Portesham to Burton Bradstock. Portesham and Abbotsbury lie in the shadow of the chalk downs, while Swyre rests in the more open country of the Cornbrash and Forest Marble. Nearby is the attractive little Greensand hill of the Knoll, with its now ruined coastguard’s cottage. Portesham was at one time the home of Admiral Hardy of Trafalgar fame. Abbotsbury is one of West Dorset’s busiest villages Its main street displays the warm golden colour of the local Corallian limestone to stunning effect. The Tithe Barn, St Catherine’s hilltop Chapel and the neighbouring Swannery and Tropical Gardens ensure a steady flow of visitors throughout the year. In the narrow tracks around Abbotsbury, the Abbotsbury Iron Ore may be seen, particularly near Jubilee Coppice. This oolitic iron ore was worked briefly in the early twentieth century but was never commercially viable owing to its excess silica.

Wall of Inferior Oolite in Askerswell

Beyond Bridport another line of villages sits just back from the coast amidst a landscape that owes its attractive diversity to the variety of the local Jurassic sandstone and limestone geology. Symondsbury, in the shadow of the iconic Colmer’s Hill made of the Bridport Sands, is a delightful village where the Inferior Oolite stone used gives prominence to its church and school, with its Ham Stone windows in the recent addition. Westwards, Chideock suffers from the traffic on the main west-leading road, but the warm Inferior Oolite brings character to its many thatched cottages. Morcombelake is inevitably associated with Moores’ biscuits, while by-passed Charmouth now looks seawards to one of Dorset’s most unstable coasts, where the upper parts of the cliffs founder on the underlying shales and clays.


Few villages line the narrow lanes of the deeply rural Vale of Marshwood, which has been eroded down to the shales of the Lower Lias. Whitchurch Canonicorum is built on a terrace overlooking the River Char. Its great church, St Candida’s – the Cathedral of the Vale – dominates. Wootton Fitzpaine and Monkton Wyld, with their chert-built churches, lie along remote tree-lined lanes. Marshwood, with another chert-adorned church, looks down on the damp lowlands of the Vale from its high position near the Devon border. To the north-west, Thorncombe, mainly built in Upper Greensand, and Drimpton, built on the Yeovil Sands, look away from Dorset towards the Axe valley, whilst Mosterton, at the foot of Mosterton Down (Greensand capped by Chalk) actually lies on the headwaters of the Axe.


Beaminster’s villages, some built on the Yeovil Sands, such as Stoke Abbott and Netherbury, and others such as Powerstock on the Inferior Oolite, use the latter’s building stones in cottages and churches alike to bring distinctive colour to these villages nestling quietly amongst wooded hills. Broadwindsor partly built on the Inferior Oolite and partly on the Yeovil Sands is another colourful village using its local stone to good effect. ◗

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