East and West Chelborough, Corscombe and Forde Abbey
Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick to the west of the county
Published in March ’16
Over 100 years ago, Sir Frederick Treves cycled around the county researching for his book Highways and Byways in Dorset. As he approached the villages of East and West Chelborough, he was in an unusually benevolent mood: ‘One of the most pleasant corners in the far west of the county will be found among the uplands about Corscombe and Chelborough. Here is an undulating district of valleys and downs, of many trees, of deep lanes shut in by hedges so high that the narrow way is always in shade. The road through the Chelboroughs – going south from Closeworth [sic] – is as beautiful as any in the South of England. It follows a ridge from which can be seen on either side a rich, comfortable country, with smooth slopes dotted with sheep, and hamlets so hidden in green that they are only to be discovered by their rising smoke.’
The road on the ridge travelling south to the Chelboroughs still provides the extensive views that Treves so appreciated; little in the way of buildings can be seen and it remains an embowered landscape. Most of the lanes in the vicinity retain the high hedges as Treves described them. Monica Hutchings writes of this area in a similar manner to Treves; in her 1965 book Inside Dorset she describes ‘a beautiful road which twists and turns and climbs’. And so it does to this day.
Treves comes to the secluded settlement of East Chelborough: ‘East Chelborough, it may be said, consists only of a house or two on the high ground near about the “Castle”. West Chelborough is below the fort on the way to the valley. Chelborough Castle stands on a conical hill isolated from the rest. It is represented now by a mound, surrounded by a rampart. The bold outpost advances to the very edge of the range of hills, and in the days of the Britons must have been one of the watch-towers upon which hung the safety of the colony.’
It could be that Treves didn’t find East Chelborough’s church of St James – it is almost a mile from the settlement and has the alias of Lewcombe (the old name for the parish and the name of the adjacent manor house) but here it is anyway, secreted away down a quiet lane. The diminutive church, partly 16th-century, is of very modest dimensions, but with a large, impressive round window in the east wall recording a death in 1893. Chelborough Castle, likewise, is not easy to find, at least when one is close by, as it is hidden from the road by high hedges. Impressive earthworks are all that remain of a motte and bailey castle, but the views from the top of the ‘castle’ are extraordinary; from here can be seen Somerset and Wiltshire. Arthur Mee’s The King’s England suggests that it is one of the finest views in the county. Whilst the monument may be difficult to locate from close to, from a distance and in most directions (when there is a clearing in the hedgerow) the Castle can be seen dominating everything around. It is then that it becomes apparent why it was sited here. The ‘house or two’ Treves saw are still here, the only additions being associated farm buildings that have mushroomed up since.
Even more secluded is West Chelborough, which Treves finds to his liking: ‘West Chelborough is a village so far from the haunts of men that the visit of a stranger causes some unrest. It is a delectable little place, beautifully bestowed. The ancient church is very quaint; its walls are of yellow masonry, its roof of slabs of stone, while its font, shaped like a tub, belongs to Norman times….The most curious thing in the church is an altar tomb, upon which are the recumbent figures of a lady and child. The lady is enveloped in a species of down quilt, and is asleep. Such costume as is apparent pertains to the time of Elizabeth. The monument is without date or name, is surmounted by the arms of the Kymers, and is on the whole exceptional and unpleasant.’
Things have changed in West Chelborough inasmuch as none of the residents seemed particularly concerned when we turned up in their village, although, in fairness, there didn’t appear to be anyone around. Those who live in inaccessible parts of Dorset may need to re-assess how isolated they really are compared with the residents of West Chelborough. For Dorset at least, this really is remoteness; one road in and a no-through road at that, a few houses, maybe two or three more than Treves saw. The nearest pub; the Fox at Corscombe (more of which later) is a mile or so of cross-country walking away or a convoluted six mile drive. The church of St Andrew is exquisite; the steps into the building and throughout the church are well-worn by the footfall of hundreds of years’ visitors. An interesting addition is the two-decker pulpit by Sir Charles Nicholson made in 1935. The Kymer monument is, according to the British listed buildings website, early 17th century; it may be exceptional but not unpleasant.
Corscombe is next on Treves’ agenda: ‘Corscombe church is placed high up on the side of the hill at the foot of which lies the village. This handsome building is among the many locked churches of the county. Its situation is exceedingly fine. At Corscombe lived the eccentric patriot, Thomas Hollis, who called himself “a true Whig”, while his friends dubbed him a republican. He lived at Corscombe in absolute seclusion. He named his farms and fields after men whom he considered had been defenders of liberty. In the middle of one of these fields he was buried in 1774. According to his own directions, no mark of any kind indicates the spot where he lies.’
The fact that Treves found Corscombe church locked, meant he didn’t get a chance to look inside – something that must have irritated him; he found churches enormously interesting. Corscombe’s ecclesiastical gem is situated in a beautiful spot, commanding extensive views. In 1746 the building was badly in need of attention, the vestry was rebuilt and the whole building repaired at the sole expense of Thomas Hollis, Treves’s ‘eccentric patriot’. Unfortunately, during the winter of 1963 (one of the worst of last century), fire caused damage to the church; the repairs must have been exceptional, as it is not easy to see any evidence of the event. The Fox Inn, a long established hostelry, once had a mahogany fox carved by Don Potter on its frontage, regrettably, this no longer graces the building but seems to have gone missing comparatively recently. The current owners, who purchased the inn three years ago but have resided in Corscombe since 1959, would love to know of its whereabouts. Potter, who lived to the age of 102, was for 44 years a teacher at Bryanston School. Responsible for numerous carvings, some in Dorset (such as Durweston Church), he is perhaps best known for his statue of Baden Powell located outside of Baden-Powell house in London.
Treves now finds himself on the extreme western border of Dorset at Forde Abbey: ‘As is known to all men, the object of greatest interest on the west frontier of Dorset is Forde Abbey. This exquisite monastic building stands in a secluded valley by the River Axe……[there are] a set of tapestries woven at Mortlake from the Raphael Cartoons which are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. These were given by Queen Anne to Sir Francis Gwyn, Secretary of State at War, in recognition for his services in the Netherlands. In the chapel are memorials to members of the Prideaux and Gwyn families, and high on a “perch” or bracket is a late 16th-century helmet bearing the Prideaux crest, a moor’s head.’
The famous Mortlake Tapestries remain one of the treasures of Forde Abbey, likewise the memorials Treves mentions including the crested helmet. The current incumbents, whose family have lived here for over a hundred years, open the house to the public, maintain the fabric of the place and allow access to the immaculately kept gardens. The place is effectively run as a business, something that such ventures need to do nowadays to survive – Forde Abbey it seems is thriving.
Treves continues: ‘The great building, situated as it is in a glorious garden, is a wonder to see. Grey with age, yellow with lichen, green with ivy, it presents a long stretch of ecclesiastical windows, of embattled walls, of decorated buttresses, of turrets and towers, of steep grey roofs, and of quaint fancies in carved stone. Over the gateway is an oriel window of much dignity and beauty, although worn and rugged with age. In the chapel dating from the time of Stephen are windows of early Tudor days. The great hall and the vaulted cloister were built by Thomas Chard, Inigo Jones being responsible for the grand staircase and state apartments.’
Treves was clearly enamoured with Forde Abbey and rightly so; this must be amongst England’s foremost mediaeval houses – it is a magnificent building set amidst glorious gardens. The structure is remarkably well preserved, all that Treves mentions is still extant and interestingly, some things he did not see – Forde Abbey’s website states that in 1991, when work was being carried out in the North Undercroft, a wall painting was uncovered of the crucifixion, dating to between 1270 and 1320, this is the earliest Cistercian figure painting to survive in England.
That discovery notwithstanding, when following in the footsteps of Sir Frederick Treves over a century later, it is clear that surprisingly little else has changed in this part of the Dorset since then. ◗