The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the footsteps of Treves – Milton Abbas and Milton Abbey

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow in the footsteps of Sir Frederick Treves and Capability Brown

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In his book Highways and Byways in Dorset, Sir Frederick Treves starts his examination of a most particular village thus: ‘Milton Abbas consists of one long, straight street mounting up hill through a thicket. On either side of the way are mathematically placed cottages, all exactly alike. Twenty on one side and twenty on the other. The space between any two adjacent houses is the same, and in every space is a fine chestnut tree. The cottages are square, have yellow walls, thatched roofs, and an arrangement of windows characteristic of the common doll’s house….In the centre of the settlement are a prim church and an almshouse, somewhat over redolent of charity, while at the end of the avenue of yellow houses is a quaint little thatched-roofed inn. The visitor may begin by regarding the strange yellow and green street as ridiculous; he will end by owning that it is possessed of a rare charm.’
Milton Abbas, being beloved of authors, has a reliable written record of changes over the years – Arthur Mee’s book Dorset, published in 1939, has a photo of the ‘fine’ chestnut trees; so large that they appear to be at least twice the size of the houses, completely dominating the street. Roland Gant says in his book Dorset Villages that the trees, declared unsafe, were removed in 1953 and replaced by rowan trees. The majority of the houses were still yellow in the 1930s but almost all were white by the time Gant’s book was published in 1979. Today 36 of the original houses remain; a number of brick buildings now fill the gaps. The majority of the rowan trees are gone and with it the ‘precise repetition’ of house and tree. Despite these changes, inevitable over a period of more than 100 years, this one road of houses in Milton Abbas remains an intriguing and attractive part of Dorset. The quaint little thatched-roofed inn; now called the Hambro Arms, is still popular, judging by the number of people there when we visited. This is one of those pubs that have been renamed several times – originally the Milton Arms; it became the Dorchester Arms, and then the Portarlington Arms before taking the name of the Hambro family. Treves may have known Milton Abbas as just one street but it has inevitably expanded and a number of roads now make up the village.
Treves now describes how Joseph Damer, upon becoming owner of the ‘Milton estates’ in 1752, decided to build his mansion next to the Abbey. Though the Abbey was apparently acceptable as a neighbour, the village of Middleton was not. Over 100 buildings were removed from the site and the new village of Milton Abbas was built… well out of sight of his mansion. The almshouses were taken down and re-built in the new village and a new church was also erected. The enormous abbey in effect became Damer’s personal chapel. The mansion was designed by Sir William Chambers who, as well as designing Somerset House in London was responsible for the strangest folly in Scotland – the Dunmore Pineapple. Chambers also designed the Gold State Coach; still used for coronations. There was, however, a disagreement between Damer and Chambers leading to the replacing of the latter with James Wyatt, himself a famous architect involved with numerous important buildings such as the Palace of Westminster.
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Leaving the village built by Damer, Treves sees for himself the mansion house next to the Abbey: ‘Here, on a lawn and amid the flowers-gardens of a private mansion, is a cathedral! No other building is in sight. It is a strange thing to meet with, a great grey house and a great grey church standing, side by side, in a hollow in a wood. The place is a solitude, green and still, shut off from the world by a rustling ring of wooded hills. Such is Milton Abbey.’
And so it remains, much as Treves describes; a very substantial ‘cathedral’ completely out-of-place here, set on green lawns and fields close to a large house (now a school, of which more later). Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) designed the extensive landscaping around the house and abbey and it was most likely he that suggested the removal of the village of Middleton, as it would not have fitted his vision for the area. Sir William Chambers was, with Capability Brown, also involved in the design of the new village of Milton Abbas.
Of the abbey, Treves notes: ‘The abbey church is a superb Gothic building, with an elaborate tower, many beautiful windows, and many exquisite flying buttresses. It dates from the 12th and 14th centuries, has been admirably restored, and is one of the most elegant of the many minsters in England.’
When Treves came here (in around 1904) the estate was owned by the Hambro family and it was they who admirably restored the edifice. Carl Joachim Hambro acquired Milton Abbey in 1852. Hambro (1807-1877) was a Danish banker and founder of Hambro’s Bank. He set about restoring the abbey church, then in a poor state of repair. Sir George Gilbert Scott, famed for his work in this field, was employed in the task, as was Augustus Pugin, who co-incidentally designed the interior of the ‘new’ Westminster Palace, as well as the design for the tower housing ‘Big Ben’.
The building itself is magnificent and Treves describes numerous rarities and other fascinating interior features such as, the altar-screen, canopied sedilia and the oak pyx (possibly unique in England), all of which are still to be found. Sad to say however, Milton Abbey church is in trouble, the building has a major water ingress problem as evidenced by many damp, green areas of stonework.
There is a project called ‘The Great Stare’ – after the dramatic flight of grass steps between St Catherine’s Chapel and Milton Abbey – known as ‘The Great Stair’ – in aid of the repair and conservation of the abbey church, provision of visitor facilities, the restoration of the surrounding landscape (which is one of the finest examples in the UK of the work of ‘Capability’ Brown) and the setting up of exhibitions and activities which help our understanding of this amazing piece of Dorset heritage. Viridor Environmental Trust has donated £240,000, the Heritage Lottery Fund has provided £105,000 towards a Round 1 developmental project; Round 2 (project delivery) is currently under consideration by Heritage Lottery, and the result of that should be known before Christmas.
There is a particularly grand memorial in the abbey church, although it is fair to say that Treves has mixed views on its merits: ‘There is one monument in the church which is, I think, the most commendable of all. It is to Caroline, Lady Milton, who died in 1775. The effigies of both Lord and Lady Milton are carved in marble upon an altar tomb….The figure [Lady Milton’s] is tender, delicate, realistic, lamentable. By her side her husband reclines, his head resting on his hand. He is assumed to be alive, and to be gazing upon her with a look stupefied by grief. He wears a bag wig, a sword, and pompous robes. He is uncouth, foppish, and ridiculous. He is living, she is dead. His grotesque self-importance and too prominent concern only serve to intensify her simplicity, her stillness, her dreamless sleep.’
The monument to Lord and Lady Milton was designed by Robert Adam and carved by Augustino (or Agostino) Carlini. Whilst the subject matter may be open to debate, it would be difficult to argue with the execution, it is a marvellous piece of work. Treves, as usual, says it as he sees it.
Outside he notes: ‘Those who stroll over the smooth lawns around the Abbey Church will hardly realise that they are walking over the site of the ancient town of Milton…It was a place of many streets and of many taverns. It possessed a brewery of great renown, as well as a grammar school founded in 1521. At this school were from 80 to 100 boarders, while among the scholars of one time was Masterman Hardy, Nelson’s captain.’
The grammar school was moved to Blandford in 1785 and there was a brewery in Milton Abbas until it closed in 1950. Most of the area of the original settlement of Milton is now under the lake created by Capability Brown and considered one of his finest endeavours; 2016 is the 300th anniversary of his birth.
The Hambro family sold the house and Abbey in 1939 to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who intended to turn the place into a theological college, this did not transpire and it was run as a faith healing centre until the house was sold again to establish a public school. Milton Abbey School, founded in 1954, now occupies the mansion house and the Abbey church is used for their religious services. Although the school has used some of the landscaping as playing fields, the overall effect is perhaps not far from what Capability Brown had envisaged.
The school kindly gave permission for a visit to the Abbot’s Hall; not open to the public, this is the only part of Milton Abbey School that precedes the date of the manor house, it is incorporated into the house’s structure. Dating from around 1498 and now the school’s dining hall, it retains many original features including a magnificent roof and an impressive oak screen with remarkable carvings. A large canvas celebrating 50 years since the school’s founding now covers the western wall of the hall, just over a decade old, this painting replaces a massive tapestry, which ‘went missing’ in 2000. ◗

❱ The author’s thanks go to Milton Abbey School, the Hambro Arms, Tom Roberts and Chris Fookes for their help in preparing this article.

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