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Clive Hannay’s village walk: Tarrant Gunville

Clive Hannay in the northernmost of the villages of the Tarrant valley


Like its siblings further down the valley, Tarrant Gunville owes the first element of its name to the stream on which they all stand, the second element coming from a Norman family, the Gundevilles, who held the manor from at least the 12th century. It lies in the embrace of the beautiful downland that rises on either side of the Tarrant valley, its landscape reflecting its position on the fringes of Cranborne Chase proper.
Within living memory the village had a shop, a school and a pub, the Bugle Horn, but all have gone. The church of St Mary still stands in the classic position between the manor house and the former rectory, but it is rather hidden away, its squat tower ensuring that it is difficult to see from the road. There has been a church here since at least 1100, but the original building was replaced in 1503. The Victorians not only ‘improved’ the church, but virtually rebuilt it, the tower being the main survivor, along with the even older south porch. The octagonal stone font probably came from the 16th-century building. Outside, a tablet marking the interment of a former rector, Thomas Daccomb, has the sobering inscription: ‘All four be but one, earth, flesh, worms and bone.’
The village has one of the largest country houses in Dorset, Eastbury House – and this despite the fact that most of it has been demolished. In fact, it was Sir John Vanbrugh’s largest building after Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. He was commissioned by George Doddington, whose wealth had come from his position as Paymaster of the Navy. The project took twenty years to complete, but George died only two years after work had begun and his fortune, including Eastbury, was inherited by his nephew, Bubb Doddington, the son of a Weymouth apothecary.
Bubb Doddington was a somewhat loathsome individual who fancied himself as a dandy, a statesman, a wit and a patron of the arts but who was described by the poet, Alexander Pope, as ‘too much of a half-wit to love a true wit and too much half-honest to esteem any entire merit’. His massive house – the main frontage was nearly 200 yards across – was decorated sumptuously but more discerning visitors found it vulgar.
He enjoyed Eastbury for some twenty years until his death, when the house passed to Earl Temple, who had no need for another huge country house in addition to his seat at Stowe. Nor could he find a buyer, and he ended up paying someone to live in it. In the end, the only option was demolition and within fifty years of its completion, Eastbury was largely gone. The stable block was left and still survives, converted into a house which is very substantial in its own right. So does the magnificently solid entrance archway, today topped by two healthy trees growing out of the stonework. In the 19th century, the buildings were the base of the famous hunting family, the Farquharsons.
Eastbury supplies one of Dorset’s most sinister ghost stories. Because he was rarely there, Earl Temple left the estate in the care of his steward, William Doggett. It was a curious choice as Doggett was known in the area for his dishonesty and he wasted no time in diverting much of Eastbury’s income into his own pocket. When Earl Temple paid an unannounced visit, Doggett had no chance to cover his tracks and shot himself. According to legend, his ghost haunts the stone entrance pillars to the drive on the main road just south of Tarrant Gunville.
The story was embellished by the fact that although a suicide, Doggett was buried in the parish church, consecrated ground. From his tomb there, the story went, he rose as a vampire to suck the blood of unsuspecting villagers. Nonsense, of course – but when his tomb was opened during the 19th-century rebuild of the church, it was found that his corpse had not decomposed, and its legs were tied with a ribbon of yellow silk.

A walk of some three miles takes in the village, Eastbury House and St Mary’s, but also some of the attractive downland above the Tarrant Valley: less well-known, perhaps, than the downs of mid-Dorset further west, but just as lovely.
Park on the road that runs up the side of the village hall on the east side of the road through the village. Walk back to that road and turn right. Continue almost to the end of the village, to a lane which runs off to the right just after Marlborough Farmhouse. Go up this lane and continue straight ahead as it becomes unpaved, goes through a gate and becomes a broad grassy track. Follow the track to a wood on the right, at the far end of which turn left at a T-junction of tracks.
Immediately after the first gate, turn right onto another broad grassy track. Follow it through a gate and past a narrow belt of woodland on the right onto an enclosed track. Pass a wood on the left and continue to a large corrugated iron barn on the right. Turn right across the far end of the barn, then right again onto a track which curves to the left.
Follow the left-hand edge of the large open field into which the track leads. In the first corner turn right and continue to follow the left-hand edge. Go through an opening into the next field and again, follow the left-hand edge. In the first corner, turn left through an opening and walk down the right-hand field-edge to a power pole. Here turn right over a stile and turn left to follow the left-hand edge of the field beyond. Turn right at the first corner and continue to a paved track.
Cross it onto another grassy track which is enclosed, although through the hedge on the left can be glimpsed the intriguingly symmetrical arrangement of tumuli known as Solomon’s Quarter. Where the track divides, bear left to a small gate onto a path between a hedge on the right and a fence on the left. Further to the left is an avenue of trees and beyond that the park of Eastbury House. The remaining buildings of the house come gradually into view, including the famous entrance archway.
The path leaves the park and enters woodland, where it is easy to follow as it winds down through the trees and along the backs of gardens. It turns left to meet a rough drive, which leads to a lane. Here turn right and walk down to the road through the village. Turn right and take the first turning on the left to visit the parish church. Then retrace your steps to the road through the village, turn left and walk back to the village hall on the right. ◗



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