The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset villages: The Chalkland valleys

In the penultimate of his epic trek around Dorset’s villages, John Chaffey wanders the county’s chalk river valleys

The beautiful church of St Nicholas in Winterborne Clenston is a joyful surprise to those who come across it as they head north from Winterborne Whitechurch to WInterborne Stickland

The beautiful church of St Nicholas in Winterborne Clenston is a joyful surprise to those who come across it as they head north from Winterborne Whitechurch to WInterborne Stickland

It is in the verdant open valleys of Dorset’s Chalklands that the village scene finds its finest expression. From the Gussage in the north-east to the Frome in the south-west villages line the course of the streams, representing a period of occupation that extends well over a thousand years: once-important villages now only survive as a farm or a few cottages. Villages sites are usually terrace-based, overlooking the small floodplain in the valley bottom, but parishes extend well up the valley sides to the flinty fields on the waterless downland above.

The villages mentioned in this post

The villages mentioned in this post

The Gussage (‘gush of water’) valley in the north-east carries only three villages of its name, each reflecting the name of the patron saint of the parish church. Gussage St. Andrew, with its attractive chapel-like church, lies upstream in a dry valley that only carries a stream in the wettest of winters. Downstream Gussage St. Michael has its church on a small mound above the village that straggles along the valley bottom. The largest village is Gussage All Saints, with its splendid church, built of flint Greensand and heathstone, high on the valley side. Its thatched cottages are of brick with flint banding and cob; they overlook the widening Gussage, which shortly joins the River Allen below Bowerswain Farm. The Crichel stream rises a mile or so downstream from Chettle, and supports two villages that carry its name. Long Crichel’s brick cottages line the valley and its bakery is rural industry at its best. More Crichel is only a remnant of the much larger village that was destroyed in the 18th century in order to create Crichel House and Park, the former almost hidden from view apart from the brick stables. Ornate gates give access to the park and its huge Crichel Lake from Witchampton. The villagers were rehoused in Newtown, two miles away on the banks of the River Allen, where there was a paper mill until recently.

 The Old School House, Tarrant Hinton shows another variation of mixed material building

The Old School House, Tarrant Hinton shows another variation of mixed material building

Westwards, the Tarrant ‘river liable to flood’, nourishes eight settlements to which it gives its name. High in its valley is Stubhampton, merely cottages and farms that line the valley bottom. Tarrant Gunville has some of the finest brick and flint-banded cottages in the valley, particularly the row of Westbury Cottages, and The Old Post Office next door. Tarrant Hinton has its lovely medieval Greensand church, with its flint-banded interior. The Tarrant now flows in brick-lined channels alongside the main street.

The Westbury Cottages at Tarrant Gunville show a mix of the popular vernacular building brick and flint banding styles

The Westbury Cottages at Tarrant Gunville show a mix of the popular vernacular building brick and flint banding styles

Downstream Tarrant Monkton – served with a pub and with some of the counties easiest on the eye cottages – is reached only by ford or packhorse bridge. Tarrant Rushton gave its name to one of World War 2’s great D-Day airfields, and has a rather quaint cruciform church. Tarrant Rawston, on the other side of the valley, is essentially a farm and a small private, recently restored church. Beyond the Wimborne-Blandford road (with its True Lover’s Knot public house), Tarrant Keyneston is a substantial village. Just before the Tarrant enters the Stour at Tarrant Crawford, there is the Greensand and flint mediaeval church of St Mary, now disused, but well maintained
The Stour crosses the Chalk from Shillingstone to just above Wimborne. Charlton Marshall lies above the flood plain (although not entirely so in the floods of earlier this year), and downstream linear Spetisbury rests safely on a marked shelf above the river. On the opposite bank from Spetisbury, Shapwick needs protection from flooding, particularly its church of St Bartholomew, which is very close to the river. Riverside Sturminster Marshall is a big village, with its two greens, two pubs and surviving
village stores.
The North Winterborne rises at Winterborne Houghton and counts eight settlements along its banks. Winterborne Stickland is its key focus in the upper valley, with its school, stores and public house. Downstream Winterborne Clenston only retains its steeple church with some lost villages nearby. Winterborne Whitechurch endures the busy main road, and Winterborne Kingston has seen modest recent growth. The delightful church at Winterborne Tomson is now redundant, but well maintained. Secluded Winterborne Zelston has its fine heathstone and flint church.
Milton Abbas is one of Dorset’s most iconic villages, in reality a relatively new village, built to house the inhabitants of the old ‘town’ when they were evicted by Lord Milton in 1780. Today the thatched, whitewashed cottages in the long, tree-fringed dry valley are one of Dorset’s most photographed sights.

The model village of Milton Abbas, created to house those made homeless when Middleton was razed to allow the landowner, Joseph Damer, to have improved views

The model village of Milton Abbas, created to house those made homeless when Middleton was razed to allow the landowner, Joseph Damer, to have improved views

In the central downs, the Devil’s Brook supports two villages, Dewlish and Cheselbourne, secluded and not often visited.
The Piddle flows through the Chalk from Alton Pancras to just above Puddletown and settlements line its banks almost continuously. It rises close to the church of St Pancras and thatched cottages lead away to busy Piddletrenthide. This is the straggling main village of the upper valley, with hotels, shops and a thriving new school. Its church, built using Ham Hill Stone and flint, dominates from slopes high above the west bank. Sitting betwixt the two Piddles is the relatively banally named White Lackington, and although some give it the soubriquet of ‘Piddle in the middle’, it actually marks the end of Piddletrenthide. Piddlehinton is altogether more compact village, focusing on its centre, with thatched cottages and a much-restored church. Remnants of lost villages survive downstream as farms or groups of cottages.

Cheselbourne church has 13th-century elements, but is thought to be on the site of a church which was built 300 years previously

Cheselbourne church has 13th-century elements, but is thought to be on the site of a church which was built 300 years previously

Chalk downland separates the Piddle villages from those in the Cerne valley. Minterne Magna is dominated by Minterne House and its beautiful gardens. Cerne Abbas is one of Dorset’s largest villages, offers a wide range of services: its fine church, attractive buildings and hillside Giant bring in many visitors. A wide range of building stones has been used in its houses and larger buildings.

This former smithy at Godmanstone was a pub called the Smiths Arms, claimed to be the smallest in Britain

This former smithy at Godmanstone was a pub called the Smiths Arms, claimed to be the smallest in Britain

Downstream lies Godmanstone, which once had the smallest pub in the country, alongside the Cerne. Charminster, with its huge church, continues to grow because of its nearness to Dorchester. Beyond, to the west, lies remote and quiet Sydling St Nicholas, its many attractive brick and flint-banded cottages lining the much-bridged Sydling Water, a lovely clear Chalk stream, as evidenced by the nearby watercress farm. ◗

Dorset Directory