In the footsteps of Treves: Charlton Marshall, Spetisbury, Sturminster Marshall
Clive Hannay and Steve White follow Sir Frederick down the River Stour
Published in December ’14
Treves begins chapter VIII of his book Highways and Byways in Dorset: ‘There are two roads from Blandford to Wimborne – one by the river, and one by Badbury Rings and Kingston Lacy. The river road brings us to Charlton Marshall, an uninteresting village with a prim, old-maidish-looking church’.
The river referred to above is that most renowned of Dorset rivers, the Stour. Treves may have neglected to mention this but what’s worse is his dismissal of the village and its church in one sentence. Treves, himself an eminent surgeon, seems intent on getting to what he considers a much more interesting story of a fellow medic. He tells of the ‘lurid drama’ that took place in Charlton Marshall in 1742, when John Truelove set fire to his house before shooting himself during a visit from the Sheriff’s Officer, brought about as a consequence of sizeable debts resulting from ‘riotous living’.
Most would consider Treves’s declaration that the parish church of St Mary is ‘old-maidish-looking’ (whatever that means) is unjustified. The church’s 15th century tower and north aisle arcade notwithstanding, St Mary’s was completely rebuilt in 1713. Despite its relative modernity, it is a notable building, considered one of the finest ecclesiastical Georgian structures outside of London. Thomas Bastard, whose sons were responsible for the reconstruction of Blandford after the major fire of 1731, may have been involved in the rebuild although some sources, including Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, suggest it was the sons themselves.
Interest continues regarding the building’s interior; the 18th century octagonal pulpit with its sounding board is topped by a golden pelican, the font cover, in carved wood featuring a pineapple, the latter believed to be the work of the aforementioned Thomas Bastard.
It is unfortunate that Charlton Marshall’s church sits so close to the busy A350; traffic is constantly passing within a few feet of the building – something Treves could never have foreseen, as the positioning of the building on the main thoroughfare through the village would have been considered an advantage 100 years ago!
Treves now cycled along this very road to Spetisbury: ‘About a mile from Charlton Marshall is Spetisbury church, wherein is a monument to one of the Bowyer family (1599) and an eighteenth-century hour-glass in its metal stand.’ The Parish Church of St John, was subject to major restoration in 1858 and again in 1868, however there are still some interesting monuments to be found, the one to the Bowyer family being a magnificent example. Unfortunately, like Bloxworth church, mentioned in a previous ‘In the Footsteps of Treves,’ the hourglass, dated 1700 was stolen (apparently in the late 1960’s) whereas the iron stand in which it would have been housed, whilst supposedly still in the church’s possession, was nowhere to be found when we visited. By the time this article is published work should have begun on fitting a kitchen and toilets, (sympathetically, according to the plans on display) at the back of the church.
Just down the road was the Priory of St Monica, now the site of a group of bungalows, known as Priory Gardens, Treves tells us: ‘The Priory, formerly under Augustinian nuns and afterwards occupied by Canons Regular of the Vatican, was demolished in recent years and the Canons moved to Blandford.’
Built in 1735 as Spetisbury House, the building spent 65 years as a private residence before purchase by Augustinian nuns, becoming St Monica’s Priory in 1800. By 1887 it had passed to the Canons Regular of the Lateran of Bodmin Priory, until it was sold by the order in 1927. The new owner, a builder, immediately demolished the house with most of the associated buildings and sold everything off – including entire panelled rooms. The splendid panelled saloon was procured by William Randolph Hurst in the USA, it has since been re-sold and is now in New York. Other parts of the house also found their way across the Atlantic – something not unusual at the time.
Highways and Byways in Dorset is liberally interspersed with wonderfully descriptive sentences. Treves’ description of Spetisbury’s Hill Fort is a classic example;
‘The road on its way passes under Crawford Castle, a well-preserved British fort, whose lofty rampart hangs at one point over the cutting of a railway. Between these two works of man, which are here in such close company, there stretches a gulf of centuries filled with the clamour of spade and pick, with the clank of anvils, the glare of fires, and the bursting breath of steam.’
Crawford Castle, also know as Spetisbury Rings is an extraordinary monument. Surprisingly, Treves makes no reference to the fact that when the railway was laid in the late 1850’s, mass graves containing a large number of skeletons were uncovered. The proximity of the monument to both the main road (which runs parallel to the old railway line) and to housing, doesn’t detract too much from the setting and some expansive views are to be had from atop the ramparts. The railway station was closed down in 1956 while the line continued to carry passenger traffic until 1966, prior to its lifting in 1969. The old track-bed is now a bridleway and work is currently in progress to renovate the old station buildings.
The river Stour is a major influence on the villages through which it flows and most likely the reason they were sited here in the first place, it’s perhaps not unexpected therefore, to find two fine ancient bridges in the locale. The first Treves chances upon is in Spetisbury;
‘Beyond the castle is Crawford Bridge, one of the many fine mediaeval bridges remaining in Dorset. It has nine old arches of grey stone to carry it over the river, to make a shelter for the trout and an echo for the water as it tumbles over the pebbles. There is some bravado about the ancient bridge, for on the upstream side it thrusts out angular buttresses of enormous strength, to show that it could stem a torrent if the need arose.
It is correct to call the west side of Crawford Bridge mediaeval, the east side, however, was rebuilt, using mostly the original stone etc, when the road was widened in 1819. The edifice would appear to be much as Treves saw it over 100 years ago, apart from the fact that it’s now metalled. The next ancient crossing of the Stour comes in quick succession:
‘Half a mile east of Sturminster Marshall is White Mill Bridge, by far the most beautiful of the Dorset bridges, now scheduled as an ancient monument. Built in the fourteenth century, its eight arches have chamfered ribs, and there are the usual recesses over each of the mighty cutwaters. The red and brown stones used in its construction give the structure a delightful pigmentation’.
Evidence suggests that the current bridge, (believed to be sitting on the wooden piles of the original bridge built in around 1170), is the oldest river crossing in Dorset. The existing eight arch bridge is believed to be 16th century although the Victorians carried out modifications and further restoration was carried out in 1964. Extraordinarily, unlike most bridges, White Mill Bridge has never been widened.
Treves now moves on to a village that he would now find difficult to recognise, as the past 100 years have seen Sturminster Marshall expand drastically;
‘Sturminster Marshall is a straggling village with a maypole, which was recently damaged in a storm, and is now propped up in splints. In the church hangs a helmet which, together with a sword, disappeared during the restoration of the church in 1860. The sword was never recovered, but the helmet was found in a cottage being used as a coal-scuttle, and was replaced in the church. Is it possible that the sword was beaten into a ploughshare? The church was assigned to Eton College by Henry VI, and to illustrate the King’s connection with the parish a sixteenth-century portrait of Henry, with two crowns, purchased at Brigstock, has been incorporated in the pulpit. There are fine fourteenth-century hinges on the church door’.
A permanent maypole still stands in Sturminster Marshall, the current version, erected in 1986, weighs in at three and a half tons. The plaque beside the structure states that permission for a fair on this site was granted in 1101, by then Lord of the Manor, the Earl of Pembroke. It is assumed that a maypole has stood here since. This part of the village seems to have changed the least; many old buildings are to be found but modern and sometimes insensitive infill is evident everywhere – this is the price the village has paid for its proximity to the Poole/Bournemouth conurbation.
Entering the Church of St Mary, one finds high up on the north wall of the aisle the funerary helmet, its colour and styling means that it isn’t difficult to imagine it being used as a coal scuttle. The oak pulpit procured from the church in Brigstock, Northamptonshire stands in the nave. The aforementioned door featuring a contemporary portrait of Henry VI has been removed for ‘safekeeping’ due to its undoubted value and therefore its vulnerability. It is ironic, that the very reason the pulpit was fetched down from Northamptonshire is the very rationale for the door being hidden away. Like Spetisbury’s church, Sturminster’s St Mary’s church is hoping to build an extension in which to install a kitchen and toilets. Centuries ago churches had more than just their spiritual function as far as the community around them was concerned as they were used for meetings, gatherings etc. It looks as if, in order to survive, these ancient buildings have to update, or perhaps revert back to their past role as ‘community hubs’. What would Treves have said about that? ◗
❱ We would like to extend our thanks to the churchwardens of Charlton Marshall and Spetisbury for unlocking their respective churches, and those at Sturminster Marshall church and the staff of the Woodpecker pub in Spetisbury for their collective help in the compiling of this article.