Clive Hannay and John Newth in a village that retains its character despite the worst efforts of modern traffic
Published in January ’16
Between the chalk of the Dorset Downs and the clays of the Blackmore Vale runs a narrow strip of greensand. Along this strip, under the shadow of the downs, is a string of villages, of which the furthest north-east within Dorset is Melbury Abbas. Here the greensand is hard enough to be used as a building material and it can be seen in many of the village’s older houses. Only a mile or so to the east is the Wiltshire border and the rolling landscapes of the heart of Cranborne Chase, so Melbury Abbas is unique in being the closest thing to a meeting-place of the Chase, the Dorset Downs and the Blackmore Vale. It is dominated to the east and south by Melbury Down, Compton Down and Melbury Hill or Beacon, which at 863 feet (263 metres) is Dorset’s fifth-highest point after Lewesdon, Pilsdon, Bulbarrow and Telegraph Hill.
In the 19th century the manor was held by Sir Richard Glyn of the Williams & Glyn banking family, and it was he who built the church of St Thomas, on the site of an older one, in 1851. It is comparatively restrained in style, although decorated inside with the heaviness loved by the Victorians. The tiles that are used throughout, and which cover the floor of the chancel and run up the wall behind the altar, are somewhat oppressive, but they are not uninteresting or without merit.
Regrettably, it is impossible to write about Melbury Abbas without mentioning the main road that bisects it. This is the C13 from Blandford to Shaftesbury, which runs along the edge of the hills while the A350 takes the low road a mile or so to the west. In King Alfred’s day the top road was the main north-south route hereabouts, and Alfred himself used it when travelling from Wareham to visit his daughter, Aethelgifu, the founding abbess of Shaftesbury Abbey in 888.
Although the main road today is the A350, the C13 is used as an alternative, not least by heavy lorries anxious to avoid the tight bends beneath Hod Hill and round Stepleton House. It represents a classic modern dilemma of how to balance the needs of traffic, residents and landscape, since the narrow, winding road through Melbury Abbas is completely unsuitable for the type and volume of traffic that it is expected to carry today.
In the early 1990s, a bypass was mooted that would have swept round to the east of the village, but in doing so would have all but destroyed the outlook from Win Green, the famous viewpoint just over the Wiltshire border. The scheme made no serious progress in the face of opposition led by the formidable combination of Michael Pitt-Rivers’s Rushmore Estate, John Eliot Gardiner of Springhead, and Rodney Legg. In understandable despair, Dorset CC have not come up with any viable scheme since and do not even put up signs at either end of the road, warning that it is problematical for large vehicles. It would surely not be beyond the wit of man and modern technology to instal artificial pinch-points on either side of Melbury Abbas that could be opened if, for example, a removal van had to reach the middle of the village.
The villagers did enjoy temporary relief when landslips closed the road at Dinah’s Hollow, a holloway through the greensand just to the north. It was shut from April 2014 to June 2015 and is still open only to one-way traffic controlled by lights while work continues to stabilise the banks. Mindful of the disastrous slip that buried two people in their car near Beaminster in July 2012, Dorset CC are taking no chances, and they are also trying to improve the stability of the embankment below the church, further into the village.
A two-mile walk gives a sense of the village while using the main road as little as possible. If coming from the Blandford direction, turn right into White Pit Lane, signed to East Melbury, soon after the beginning of the village; if coming from Shaftesbury it is a left turn about 300 yards past the church. Continue to a very sharp left-hand bend in about ¼ mile, and just beyond it is a double wooden gate on the left. Opposite, there is just room to park tight up against the hedge. Be careful not to obstruct any traffic on the lane or coming through the gate.
Walk on up White Pit Lane. In a further half-mile, the lane descends on a big bend to the left. It begins to ascend again and just past Summers House on the right, a path runs off through the trees on the left. Follow this downhill to a stile, then continue in the same direction along an open space which is liberally scattered with scrub and nettles, but the path is clear and well-defined. At the far end bear left to follow the field-edge on the right down to a stile in the bottom corner.
Turn left after the stile, then the path bends to the right, through a rather boggy patch, to reach a gate. Go through the gate and continue straight ahead, with a steep slope on the left, to reach a metal gate with a stile alongside. Follow the left-hand edge of the next field to the next corner, where go left through a metal gate onto the drive of Punch Hill. Almost immediately, go through a gate on the right onto the road and turn left.
In about 70 careful yards, bear right on a narrow path that climbs up, above the road, to reach the church. After inspecting the church, turn right out of the lych-gate onto Quarry Lane and right again. Opposite the buildings of Manor Farm in about 150 yards, turn left through a wooden gate and follow the right-hand field edge towards the flank of Melbury Down. At the top of the field, turn to get an excellent overall view of the village, with the main road hidden from sight. Then continue to a gate in the trees, on the other side of which turn left.
Ignore a well-defined path that runs up and then along the hillside. Instead, stay as close as possible to the bottom of the slope and the wire fence on the left, until encroaching trees force you to move away from it. Shortly afterwards, a grassy path comes down the hillside from behind and to the right. Follow this path into the trees and pick up the fence again. This is another muddy stretch, which makes it difficult to pace out distance, but you can’t miss the first gate on the left: it is a large wooden one
with a National Trust ‘Please close the gate’ sign on it.
Go through it and down an enclosed path to the main road. Turn left, then right into White Pit Lane to return to your car. ◗