The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the footsteps of Treves: Chettle, Sixpenny Handley and Pentridge

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow a grumpy Sir Frederick to the northeast of the county


Cycling along the rough chalk tracks that were the main thoroughfares of Dorset back in the early 1900s, Sir Frederick Treves researched his book Highways and Byways in Dorset and in this chapter, crossed the high road from Blandford to Salisbury. Here Treves comes to a secluded lane leading to Chettle: ‘Some six and a half miles from Blandford there is a green lane which – as the country around is dreary and bare – appears very inviting. It leads to a wooded hollow, to a shady oasis wherein are hidden the village of Chettle, with its great trees, its charming cottages, and its noisy rooks. The utter seclusion of this delightful place made it good to live in during troublous times.’
Chettle, which still feels wonderfully quiet and secluded, is one of the few villages left in the country entirely owned by one family. The Chafin family line died out in the mid 1800’s and the estate was purchased by the Castleman family – whose descendents continue to own the estate. Consequently, Chettle has largely avoided the dramatic changes the past century has wrought upon many towns and villages. There are still a number of ‘great trees’, some the same individuals Treves would have seen, also ‘charming cottages’ can still to be found. Infill appears to be minimal and, where it has taken place, is largely sympathetic. The village still possesses a village stores (an excellent coffee can be procured here), a first class hotel, originally the Dower house – now named after the Castleman family – and a wonderful Queen Anne manor house. All this in a village of only eighty souls.
Treves spent a number of paragraphs explaining the fortunes of the Chafin family living at Chettle during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Thomas Chafin commanded a troop of Dorset horse opposing Monmouth at the battle of Sedgemoor and wrote a number of letters to his wife ‘Nan’ during the campaign. As Treves goes on to explain, Chafin died just six years later: ‘In the beautiful church of Chettle Thomas Chafin lies buried, as a tablet on the wall sets forth. He died in 1691, aged forty-one. By his side lies his “dearest deare”, who survived him by fourteen years. The gallant Nan was the daughter of Colonel Penruddock, who “was beheaded for his loyalty in the castle of Exon, May 18th 1655″. She had eleven children, and in this very church she and her family worshipped.’
Unusually, Treves has his ecclesiastical facts wrong here as Chettle church (aside from the tower which is original), was completely rebuilt in 1849. Nan Chafin and her family could not have worshipped in this church, although the tower would be familiar to them. Looking over the church wall Treves notes the beautiful house: ‘Chettle House stands in a fine garden, which borders on the churchyard. It is a dignified building of red brick faced with stone.’ Treves admits that this is not the house of Thomas and Nan Chafin stating: ‘for the house would appear to have been rebuilt about the time of Queen Anne’.
Back on the high road Treves travels north toward the county border: ‘Beyond Chettle the road mounts up over Gussage Hill, a bold open down, bare but for short, tough grass. From the summit it can be seen that the county is narrowing, that the boundaries are closing in upon the high-road. To the North-east is the gap through which the road escapes, and upon it the Pentridge Hills are advancing from the right and the highlands of Cranborne Chase from the left…. The traveller may be tempted by a sign-post, two miles northwards, to turn aside to the village of Sixpenny Handley. It is well, however, to resist such attraction, since this strangely named place is, I think, the ugliest village in Dorset.’
The rationale behind ‘In the Footsteps of Treves’ is primarily to update the reader as to the changes that the county has experienced since Treves came this way. It would therefore seem appropriate to comment on the situation regarding Sixpenny Handley and its unwanted honour of being Treves’s nomination for the position of ‘ugliest village in Dorset’. As recently as 1995, Richard Ollard in his book Dorset (Pimlico 1995), mimics Treves in his comment: ‘Do not be seduced into a deviation. It is not worth it’, is all he says.
The likely explanation for Treves’s feelings about Sixpenny Handley is the fire of 1892. It destroyed most of the buildings in the village – only the church and a few others survived. Treves, visiting just over ten years later was seeing a new village being built, and to his eyes, it could not have been pretty. Little has changed over the past hundred years and, although Handley may not be the prettiest place in the county, the ugliest village in Dorset
it isn’t.
Not content with his initial pejorative comment Treves goes on to mock the village signage. Older style signposts in the area still proclaim ‘6D HANDLEY’ and can be found in some of the more obscure road junctions around the area. ‘Evidently,’ says Treves, still in sneer mode, ‘the local authorities have been impressed by the urgent need for national economy, for the signpost bears the cryptic legend “6d. Handley”.’
Sixpenny derives not from the coinage, but from the Domesday Book Hundred with which that of Handley was combined. Sexpene, from which Sixpenny is derived, means ‘the hill of the Saxons’, from the Old English for Saxon (Seaxa) and the Celtic for hill (Penn).
Treves now moves to Dorset’s border with Wiltshire, and his mood, albeit only temporarily, improves: ‘We now come to the border of the county and to the famous Woodyates Inn, famous as a posting house in the old coaching days and memorable by reason of its dim association with the Duke of Monmouth…. The inn is by the road side, and has hiding shyly behind it a meagre hamlet.’
He continues: ‘The old hostelry is now much neglected, and seems indeed to have scarcely survived the indignity of being changed into an up-to-date tavern. The ancient portion of the house is uninteresting by reason of uncouth improvements and unheeded decay; the modern part is tawdry and deplorable. About the little inn is an air of utter loneliness and the look of the long-forgotten. The venerable innkeeper knew something of cycling clubs, but little of Monmouth: “I have heard tell,” he admitted, “that they have put the old inn into the history books, as you may say,” but beyond that he did not venture.’

Sixpenny Handley just after the fire

Treves may not have been saddened to hear of the inn’s further decline and eventual demise. Called, by this time, the Shaftesbury Arms, the inn was demolished in 1967. During demolition a fireplace-supporting beam was found bearing the date 1672. An unprepossessing bus stop and some bungalows occupy the site of the once famous inn and in 2005 a large stone monument was erected to commemorate the inn’s link with the battle of Trafalgar. The message from Plymouth to the Admiralty in London of that momentous victory, made its way by means of a rider who made a 13th stop and change of horse at the inn in 1805. In addition to all the claims to fame the inn could boast, George III reputedly stayed there on his way to Weymouth, possibly on more than one occasion.
Treves now moves to another secluded village: ‘Near by to Woodyates is the village of Pentridge. Here at a place called Rushay Farm, William Barnes, the Dorset poet, was born.’ After this brief ray of sunshine, he continues in his previous vein: ‘In the churchyard of this drear hamlet is a Jubilee monument in the form of an indifferent flagstaff supported by three wire stays, and decked with a suitable tablet to record the name of the donor of the pole. On a wall in the restored church is the following vicarious testimonial to the Bankes family: “To the Memory of ROBERT BROWNING, of Woodyates, in this parish, who died Nov.25, 1746, and is the first known forefather of Robert Browning, the poet. He was formerly footman and butler in the Bankes family.”‘
Sir Frederick Treves had been taught from the age of seven by William Barnes and throughout his life was a great admirer of Barnes’s work, especially his poems. Treves was not the first to get Barnes’s birthplace wrong; the poet and teacher was born at Rushay near Bagber, not Rushay Farm at Pentridge. Barnes had written a poem entitled ‘Pentridge’, so perhaps the mistake was an easy one to make. Later editions of Highways and Byways… correct this error.
Though the flagstaff monument and associated tablet in the grounds of the church of St Rumbold is not to be found, the memorial on the wall to Robert Browning’s great-great grandfather is intriguing. Treves’s version fits for the first five lines but the last line has gone to be replaced by a dedication from the poet’s admirers, dated 1902. It appears that the tablet may have been re-worded and some lines added at the expense of his forbear’s employment record.
Since Treves’s time, an etched memorial has been added to one of St Rumbold’s windows. It commemorates Wing Commander Roland ‘Bee’ Beamont CBE (1920-2001) who retired to Pentridge after an extraordinary career in aviation. He was a World War 2 pilot flying Hurricanes, Typhoons and Tempests; he was awarded a DFC with bar and DSO with bar and mentioned in despatches by the time he was 24. He shot down two ME-110s over Lyme Regis in a matter of minutes, and knocked out 31 ‘doodlebug’ V1 rockets. Later he was a leading test pilot, was the first Briton to break the sound barrier in level flight, led the flight test programmes of the Canberra and Lightning and was the pilot for the maiden flight of the ill-fated TSR2 supersonic fighter, fifty years ago this September. Even Sir Frederick Treves in his sniffiest mood would have to be impressed. ◗

Dorset Directory