Clive Hannay in a pleasant village that was once one of the most important places in West Dorset
Published in October ’14
That indefatigable traveller, John Leland, described Netherbury in 1542 as ‘an uplandish town’, a good description of this village (a town no longer) of narrow valleys between steep hills, clustering round the River Brit. The Illustrated Bridport Magazine of July 1857 featured an article on Netherbury. It called it ‘a delightfully situated village, commanding from nearly every part some pleasing views….The village itself is picturesque, with its high hedges of box growing luxuriantly…. The cottages are clean, and in front of many of them are neatly kept gardens.’
The parish church of St Mary is, in the emotive words of Dorothy Gardiner in Companion into Dorset, ‘so high on the hill that the gravestones overlook the roofs of cottages where the dead men and women lived out their lives.’ Until the 19th century, it was the mother church of not only Melplash, Salway Ash and Mapperton but also Beaminster – the village was in those days a more important place than what is now its larger neighbour. The church contains a 12th-century font, even though the first recorded vicar did not take office until 1295. Some fifty years ago, some pieces of vellum were discovered in a hole in the wall inside the tower and they turned out to be manuscript music from the mid-13th century. The nave dates from the 14th century and the chancel and tower from the 15th. The inevitable 19th-century restoration was light and sensitively done.
In the church is a brass to the three Hood brothers, who were all born in the village and went to sea. The most famous of them was Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, who fought with Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and later became MP for Bridport. A less high-profile but very poignant story is that of Thomas Curtis, who was baptised in the church in 1713 and 35 years later was killed in an accident while he was re-hanging the bells in the tower; he is buried in the churchyard.
The previous importance of Netherbury owed much to its soil, which is particularly suitable for the growing of hemp and flax, of which the thriving rope and net industries of nearby Bridport would take as much as the village could produce. However, the raw material has to go through a number of processes before it can be spun into twine and there were several mills taking advantage of the water power available in the village for that purpose. Clenham Mill was to the north and Slape Mill to the south, while Netherbury and Yondover Mills were in the village. Many villagers would also act as outworkers in their own homes, making nets or braiding twine; there are records of children as young as three years old being involved in this activity.
The village is still known for its orchards and there is a long tradition of cider-making. Until tithes were abolished, the vicar received one shilling for each hogshead (about 50 gallons) of cider, and since in a good year several thousand hogsheads might be produced, Netherbury was one of the wealthiest livings in Dorset.
The nearby village of Mapperton is on such stony ground that its dead were carried to Netherbury. At the time of the plague in the 1660s, the bodies were turned back by the villagers of Netherbury, who feared contamination, and were buried in a pit on Warren Hill, between the two villages. Evidence of such a pit has been found, but there is no other proof of the story, although a similar incident had happened in 1582, when the Mapperton villagers complained to the Dean of Salisbury: ‘The vicar of Netherbury denies to bury our dead nor will not suffer his clerk to do it, as it long has been.’
In 1566, one John Walsh of Netherbury was accused before the Bishop of Exeter of being a witch who could raise spirits in the form of a calf, a dog or a man with cloven feet. It was also said that he would climb to the tops of high hills between midnight and dawn to meet fairies – black, white and green, ‘of which the black be the worst’ – in a fairy hut. Infuriatingly, the outcome of the case is not recorded, but one fears that it would not have gone well with John Walsh.
In keeping with the fact that Netherbury was more important than Beaminster until comparatively recently, Netherbury Grammar School was older than Beaminster Grammar School. The date of foundation is not known, the first reference to the school in a document being in 1546. By 1830 there were only thirty pupils; pulling no punches, and with a nice awareness of social distinctions, the Charity Commissioners suggested that the reason was ‘the circumstances of the small farmers requiring the assistance of their children on their farms, and disinclination on the part of the superior orders to suffer their children to associate with those of the former class.’ The school merged with Beaminster Grammar School in 1881.
The full character of this delightful village can be captured in a walk of barely a mile. Park carefully on the road by the war memorial at the western end of St Mary’s (OS reference SY470995; postcode DT6 5NB). Walk down the hill and just past the former chapel on the right, fork right signed to Waytown and Bridport, with The Redes on the left. Pass a turning on the right with Rose Cottage opposite and in a further 150 yards, just past The Old Orchard, turn left through a gate and down a path.
The path leads into an open field. Bear left down to the bottom left-hand corner, where go through a gate and continue along the left-hand side of a small patch of grass to reach another gate onto a drive. Cross the Brit and walk up the drive to a gate. Turn right, re-cross the Brit and turn left, all in quick succession, and walk up to a sharp right-hand bend. Here turn left in front of the drive to Parnham Farm, down a footpath. Cross a footbridge, turn right over a weir, then immediately left down some steps onto a path that winds up through woodland. The path ends at some steps, at the top of which turn right through a pair of stone pillars, then immediately left into the churchyard of St Mary’s. Walk up, with the church on the left, to a gate near the top right-hand corner of the churchyard. Go through it, turn left on the road and walk down to the war memorial ◗