Dorset village – Shapwick
Ken Ayres takes his camera to a village on the Stour with links to the Olympics to the Romans and, obliquely, to Odysseus
Published in May ’15
Shapwick has a deserved reputation as being home to the fleet of foot, and a rather undeserved one for being home to the slow. It is a crossing point: literally in Roman times when it was a ford across the Stour on the Dorchester-to-Badbury-Rings Roman road; postally as postcodes drift from Shapwick’s DT11 (Blandford) to Sturminster Marshall’s BH21 (Wimborne); administratively, as Shapwick is the first of the Stour villages to be in East Dorset, rather than North Dorset.
It is a crossing point no more as far as the river is concerned; one now has to go on a longer trip to either of arguably Dorset’s two prettiest bridges (Crawford and White Mill) each a mile distant.
The village’s proximity to Badbury has left it more hinted at than discussed by those who plied a trade writing about the county. Sir Frederick Treves contented himself with saying ‘…the Kingston Lacy road traverses the pretty village of Shapwick…’ in Highways and Byways in Dorset, before then devoting two whole pages to the importance of Badbury rings in Arthurian legend (dubious) and as being the location of a camp before a battle (that ended up not happening) between Athelwald and Edward the Elder following the death of King Alfred.
Dorothy Gardiner, in her Companion into Dorset, talks tantalisingly of a road where ‘one may bear right to Shapwick, a village full of interest’ without elaborating on a single point of interest. Roland Gant, the most lyrical of modern travel writers, ignores Shapwick completely. Pevsner is not at his most poetic (and has dated, too) when describing the Village Cross as ‘nothing but a stump’, the housing as ‘several thatched cottages around, but no special group’ before going a bit wild describing the iron font cover in St Batholemew’s Church as ‘exuberant’ and the East window as having ‘some bleak, uncusped tracery’; steady on, Nikolaus.
Jo Draper, in her Dorset: The Complete Guide, adds the tale of the 1870 funeral where the rising flood of the Stour carried the coffin of the deceased away, presumably to sea, but certainly never to be seen or heard of again.
Ralph Wightman’s Portrait of Dorset contains the most complete description of Shapwick, laying out its dependence through time on the clay pasturelands of the alluvial Stour valley, coupled with the village’s arable chalk field uplands, which marked it out from those rural lands further from the river so hard hit when arable-only farmers with unwatered hill fields suffered a drop in proceeds compared with the corn crops of the pre-World War
In much earlier years, before the advent of (for Victorian times) large-scale dairy farming, the village’s focus would have been more ovine than bovine, as its name (meaning sheep farm and derived from the Old English sceap and
In late Roman times, a Romano-British town called Vindocladia was the only place listed in the Antonine Itinerary between Sorviodunum (Old Sarum, near Salisbury) and Durnovaria (Dorchester) and was said to be second only to Durnovaria in size in Dorset. The remains of Vindocladia are thought to be at the Badbury (northern) edge of Shapwick near to Crab Farm (of which more in
Shapwick is unique in Dorset place-name terms of being used as an adjective, not once, but twice. Its first usage is based on a tale, rendered by John Symonds Udal in his Dorsetshire Folklore – wherein the phrase ‘A Shapwick Monster’ (definition: something too extraordinary to be explained) appears – of fishermen passing over a down or hill in the parish of Shapwick and by accident dropping a tortoise or lobster from their baskets. Some workmen who came across the creature could not determine what it was, even after consulting with their neighbours. The wise man of the village was called for and, ‘as infirm as he was gifted, he was brought to the scene in a wheelbarrow, and after due scrutiny he pronounced the unknown intruder to be a “monster”.’
In other tellings, the tale has grown and grown, in detail and also in spite, as the creature is described as a crab, whence Crab Farm. A popular retelling has a travelling fishmonger from Poole, bound for Bere Regis, on the suspiciously precise date of 12 October 1706, dropping a crab on the outskirts of the village, whereupon landlocked villagers, never having seen a crab before, believe it to be some kind of Devil or monster, and arm themselves with sticks and pitchforks in attempt to drive away the creature. The story is told as a demonstration that Shapwick folk were simple, and the tale is embellished further so as to say that thereafter villagers durst not visit fishmongers’ stalls for fear of being ridiculed.
It is a tale that re-emerges now and then, and on one such occasion in the 1840s it was retold in verse (155 lines of some of the worst doggerel you will encounter) and illustrated with a suitably mocking picture.
Even were the tale based on a real event, and it was a crab that had appeared, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a farm labourer might not have seen a crab, being some ten miles from the sea. When on his return to Ithica, Odysseus was sent inland with an oar until it was identified by a wayfarer (ignorant of the use of an oar) as a winnowing fan, which Odysseus planted and then at which he sacrificed various animals to Poseidon, it seems likely he would only have had to walk two miles inland at most (Ithica being quite a small island); to pillory inland folk for not recognising a crab seems harsh.
Shapwick’s other adjectival use is the nickname of its most famous son: Charles Bennett – ‘The Shapwick Express’ – the railwayman and world-record-breaking mile runner who was the first Briton to win an Olympic athletics gold medal. His father apparently forbad him to marry before the age of thirty; his wife (whom he married at the age of thirty) forbad him to go off gallivanting around the world running in races. Luckily he won his gold medal at the age of thirty. ◗