The Dorset Life Walk – Melcombe Bingham
Teresa Rabbetts takes a gentle stroll around the centre of the county
Published in October ’14
At the centre of Dorset, surrounded by chalk hills, lies Melcombe Bingham, just one of a confusing plethora of place names containing Melcombe; as settlements have developed and grown then waned into desertion the names have changed or been subsumed. Melcombe Bingham is the name of the current modern settlement, while confusingly nearby is the deserted Medieval village Bingham’s Melcombe.
To the west at the end of a dead-end lane is the former site of Melcombe Horsey, which dates back to Saxon times, and, although they owned the house for less than a hundred years, the parish derives its name from the Horsey family, who gained the seat during the reign of Henry VIII. There are still some traces of the old village to the north-west of the manor house but otherwise all that remains in the present day is the manor house and a few farm buildings. Melcombe Horsey is now known as Higher Melcombe: a reference to the medieval place name for the settlement Upmelcombe or Overmelcome from the Old English meaning upper or higher.
Bingham’s Melcombe was the more easterly of the two early settlements. In medieval times the manor was sometimes called Nethermelcombe, from Old English word neotherra meaning ‘lower’, to distinguish it from Melcombe Horsey. Today it consists of nothing more than the parish church, the manor house and a few farm buildings; the remainder of the village is no more than a deserted site of banks and hollows covering a ten-acre meadow to the south of the church, in an area known as Town Hayes. The reasons for its abandonment are unknown, but it is believed to have been deserted from about 1400.
The parish church of St Andrew’s, which serves the parish of Melcombe Horsey, stands in the beautiful grounds of Bingham’s Melcombe: one of the most handsome houses in Dorset. St Andrew’s is delightful small church disturbed only by an innocuous stream – somewhat incongruously called Devil’s Brook – and a nearby waterfall. Of the many memorials to Binghams gone by, the most touching is one to Thomas Bingham: ‘who came into the world on November 13, 1710, and left it on June 26, 1711’, his mother hoping that ‘his dust might never be disturbed’. There has been a church here since 1150 but the current stone and flint building is 14th-century in construction.
The Bingham family lived at Bingham’s Melcombe from the 13th century and were responsible for building the present church and their manor house. The house is not open to the public and only brief, enticing glimpses can be seen from the footpath; it is much revered in various publications about Dorset, perhaps the most notable and romantically imaginative description is from Sir Frederick Treves in his Highways and Byways in Dorset: ‘The little mansion is of grey stone, warmed by many centuries of sun…. Behind are the courtyard and the chief wing of the habitation. This little flagged square is as quiet as a convent cloister, a place of mullioned casements and quaint gables, where pigeons strut on the stone terrace or perch on the pinnacles above the great Oriel window.
To step into this grey quadrangle is to find oneself back in the England of the Middle Ages. There should be at least on the terrace a knight in a plumed hat, a lady with ringlets, and at the gate a pretty waiting-maid and horses with pillions.’
The Binghams included some great and gallant men; Sir Richard was commemorated on a cenotaph in Westminster Abbey for many battles, most notably for fighting against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where the Holy League prevented the Ottoman Empire from expanding into Europe. His great-grandson, Sir John Bingham, was one of Dorset’s leading Parliamentarians during the civil war and Bingham’s Melcombe was chosen to be the headquarters of the local Parliamentary forces. Sir John is remembered for being Parliamentary commander in 1645 at the second siege of Corfe Castle: one of few remaining strongholds under royal control in southern England. Sir John, with the aid of the ex-royalist Lieutenant Colonel Pittman, managed a near bloodless capture of the castle by sending in Pittman and a band of Parliamentarian troops who pretended to be relief Royalist reinforcements.
Distance: 2½ miles
Terrain: Paths and tracks, some low-lying muddy areas.
Start: At the crossroads of Cross Lanes, Higher Melcombe and Melcombe Bingham. ST760023
Directions: Leave the A35 at the junction for A354 and then immediately follow the signs to Cheselbourne and then Melcombe Bingham.
Maps: OS 117 Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis
Refreshments: None on route, but the The Fox at Ansty is a 200 yard diversion to the right at point 5 on the walk. There is also parking there for patrons only.
1 Begin the walk from the crossroads at Cross Lanes. Follow the road which is signposted to Bingham’s Melcombe and Dewlish for just under a mile until reaching a right hand bend and see the Eagle Gate Entrance to Bingham’s Melcombe
2 The entrance has the appearance of a private drive, but even if the main double gates are closed, there are single pedestrian gates on each side giving access to the gravelled track). Follow the track towards the house and then bear right. St Andrew’s church is on the right and the Dower House is on the left.
3 Follow the path over the stream and through a pedestrian gateway following the left-hand track alongside the lake on the left, as it rises slightly uphill. Enter the field and cross it ensuring the telegraph poles and tree line is on the left. At the far left-hand corner cross the stile and the path drops into a small wooded area and crosses over a stream before rising up towards another stile and into the next field. Cross the field by keeping the hedge close to left-hand side again, walking until there is an opening between the trees where the path drops down into a boggy area and veers to the right. Again keep the trees on the left until reaching a gap where the path crosses a bridge and continues through mixed woodland.
4 The path rises up through the woodland area to a pedestrian gate into a field. Enter and cross the field keeping the tree-line on the right for about ¾ mile. Crossing a small footbridge over Mash Water, the footpath continues straight towards the houses of Ansty.
5 On entering Hartfoot Lane turn left, and follow the road through Ansty and Melcombe Bingham back to Cross Lanes crossroads.