The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset village walk: Compton Abbas

Clive Hannay visits what Treves called 'one of the many buried villages of the county'

' a shy lane that leads to a glen'

It is ironic that probably the most widely known feature of Compton Abbas lies a mile to the east of the village. Compton Abbas airfield is one of the most spectacularly sited airfields in Southern England and attracts many airborne day trippers who fly in to admire the view while having a cup of tea. Other pilots base their aircraft here, and there is a flying school. The restaurant attracts non-flying locals who just come for the good food, the view and the added interest of the aircraft taking off and landing. Special events such as ‘fly-ins’ are popular, including one specifically for lady pilots.
As well as being some distance from the village, the airfield is 300 feet higher, because Compton Abbas lies in a valley guarded by a U-shaped rampart of some of North Dorset’s most spectacular hills. To the north is Melbury Beacon, narrowly beaten by Bulbarrow as the county’s highest point outside West Dorset, and to the south is Fontmell Down with its outstanding nature reserve. Between these two are Compton Down and Clubmen’s Down. The origin of the former name is obvious, that of the latter perhaps less so.    The Clubmen were country folk whose attitude to the English Civil War was ‘A plague on both your houses’. Fed up with both armies damaging their crops and stealing their livestock, they took up arms, even if those arms were often only staves and pitchforks. Under the motto, ‘If you offer to plunder or take our cattle, be assured we will bid you battle’, the Clubmen were active in a number of counties, but especially so in Dorset. They were often led by clergymen, one of whom was Rev. Thomas Bravel, the rector of Compton Abbas. They would meet on the hill above the village, hence its name, but they got their comeuppance on another Dorset hill, Hambledon. Here some 4000 of them made a stand against Oliver Cromwell’s dragoons but were defeated with farcical ease, sliding down the hill on their backsides to escape. Wisely, Cromwell showed uncharacteristic mercy to the ‘poor silly creatures’ and even their leaders were spared, although Brivel and their other ordained commanders were labelled ‘vile ministers’ and ‘malignant priests’ by the future Lord Protector.
The church to which Rev. Bravel returned after this chastening experience was not the modern parish church. St Mary’s then was in East Compton and its 15th-century tower still stands, once covered by ivy but now cleared and in the care of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Some gargoyles and the arch of the nave can still be seen, while the ruin is surrounded by a number of indecipherable headstones. On a day when the airfield is not busy and the farm next door is quiet, this is a serenely peaceful spot, with the cawing of rooks replacing the racket of aero engines and farm machinery.

Old Forge and Reading Room

As time went by, the centre of the village shifted from the hills westwards towards the main Blandford-Shaftesbury road, now the A350. In 1866 a new church was built very close to the road and the treasures were transferred from the old church to the new St Mary’s, including three bells (the church now boasts five), the Norman font, and a plain silver chalice with the inscription, ‘The Parrish Cupp of Compton Abbies 1665’. The new building was designed by George Evans of Wimborne, who was evidently the church architect du jour in this part of Dorset, since he also designed parish churches for Fontmell Magna and Melbury Abbas.
In his description of Compton Abbas in Highways and Byways in Dorset, Sir Frederick Treves shows two main characteristics – a dislike of anything new, and a sometimes over-the-top lyricism – ‘The modern village, that all can see, is by the roadside, and is bald and bold enough. There is, however, a shy lane which leads to a glen at the very foot of the downs, where, hidden among orchards and trees, the shrunken old hamlet will be found. It is one of the many buried villages of the county.’ The modern traveller might express it in rather different words, but the description remains accurate enough.

A walk of a little under two miles is a chance to explore some of the village, while the early part of the route is through fields on its outskirts, where one can most easily get a sense of its position within the embrace of the encircling hills. There are one or two sharp but short climbs, and it is better not done after a lot of rain, which can make the field paths muddy. To reach the start, turn east onto a lane off the A350, a few yards inside the 30 mph signs at the south of Compton Abbas. In about 300 yards, a path runs up straight ahead but the lane bends sharply to the right. With care, it is possible to park on the left-hand verge here.
Walk on down the lane for about 150 yards to a path on the right, soon after Willis Farm on the left. Turn down this path, which eventually bends to the left and climbs gently before bending sharply to the right and descending to a gate. Go through the gate and continue over a rise and down to another gate. Go through it and turn immediately left to follow the fence on the left. Walk the length of the field, with the slopes of Fontmell Down looming on the right, and just before the end of it, turn left through a gate onto a grassy track. Go through the next gate (not round to the left of it) onto an enclosed path that leads down to another gate. Here turn right on a grassy track. Immediately after the next gate, turn left and walk up to another gate onto a lane.
Turn right on the lane and immediately follow the road round to the left. After the old church of St Mary and a house called East End, fork left and follow the wall round to the left. In about 350 yards, turn left onto the drive to Gourd’s Farm and in a few yards go through a kissing gate on the right. Walk down the left-hand edge of the field to a stile and turn right on the lane beyond. Walk past the new housing curiously named Twintown and continue downhill to a junction on the left.
Here turn left and follow the road round to the right before turning right in front of thatched Corner Cottage. Walk up to the main road but just before the junction, turn left up some steps onto a footpath which winds through woodland, passes a house with a rather handsome porch, and reaches the main road by the new parish church. Having inspected the church, walk back to the gate and turn sharp left, downhill. Bear right in front of a pair of gates and continue down the path to reach your car. ◗

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