Stour to the sea, part 4: White Mill to Christchurch
Dorset Life’s own Old Man River, Roger Guttridge, concludes his journey down Dorset’s main waterway
Published in May ’16
After leaving the historic White Mill and White Mill Bridge at Sturminster Marshall, the Stour meanders south-east to the fringes of Corfe Mullen, where the old mill beside the A31 enjoyed 20th-century incarnations as a tea room and restaurant. It is now an idyllic holiday cottage, complete with running water in every sense and an island garden. Nearby is the equally historic Coventry Arms and beyond that the tall-chimneyed Court House, one of the finest to be found on the Stour’s banks, albeit now only a surviving wing of a once grand manor house built over 400 years ago.
When Sir Frederick Treves visited for his Highways and Byways of Dorset in the early 1900s, he likened it to a ‘dainty satin shoe found on a rubbish-heap’ – a ‘little old manor-house of faded brick’, by then reduced to a farmhouse that stood ‘derelict in a bald waste’ and ‘overlooking a dismal pond’. Its fortunes had already improved spectacularly when Monica Hutchings arrived in the 1950s for her book, Dorset River. Owner Mrs St John Kneller told her: ‘On most maps we are designated as “Court House, Remains Of”. I have half a mind to put that on my letter-headings.’
The river veers across the floodplain towards Cowgrove, where almost 2000 years ago Roman soldiers forded it on their way from their Lake Gates base camp to the Iron Age hillfort at Badbury Rings. The ford was still used by cattle until recent times. Nearby Eyebridge is at least the third footbridge to straddle the Stour here and probably the least aesthetically pleasing. The writer H S Joyce, born at White Mill in 1882, described its immediate predecessor as a ‘Meccano-looking affair’, which eventually collapsed due to erosion. That in turn was preceded by a rustic timber structure, attractive if a trifle rickety and painted by local artist Lionel Ward in 1890.
As it skirts Wimborne to the west and south, the Stour passes under two historic bridges. Henry VIII’s topographer John Leland referred to the first as ‘Julian Bridge’, indicating that its name was already established 474 years ago. The late historian, A Lindsay Clegg, believed that it relates to Walter Julian, whose name appears among the muniments of St Margaret’s Hospital.
Responsibility for Julians Bridge, as it is now known, was taken over by the county in 1633 and within three years it had been replaced by an eight-arch bridge to which three small flood arches were added later. The 1636 bridge survives – albeit in modified form – as Wimborne’s only grade I listed structure. From 1840, the Puddletown and Wimborne Turnpike Trust used Julians Bridge as part of their route into Wimborne and widened it in 1844. The 1844 builders commemorated the dates of their work and that of their 17th-century predecessors on two stone shields, which can still be seen outside the downstream central refuge.
The 1844 improvements, designed for horse-drawn traffic, proved inadequate for the age of the combustion engine. Since World War 2 it has sustained a constant battering from careless drivers, especially in the pre-bypass days, when it was part of the A31 trunk road and many motorists ended up on the riverbank below. Even today, the bridge requires regular repairs.
After approaching Wimborne from Poole in 1542, Leland wrote: ‘A half-mile before I reached the town, I passed over Allen Bridge, a twelve-arched bridge across the Stour.’ This was the forerunner of Canford Bridge, which connects Oakley Hill and Poole Road. This approach to Wimborne has always been prone to flooding and the old bridge needed its twelve arches to span the floodplain. Major repairs were carried out in 1733, but within sixty years Allen Bridge was again in disrepair and a committee was formed to sort it out. In 1793 work started on the bridge we still use today. It boasts just three main arches and six flood arches. An overhanging footpath was added in the early 1970s and has since given way to a more stylish replacement. The River Allen joins here, having been fed by the natural chalk reservoirs to the north before cutting through the centre of Wimborne.
Wimborne has a boating tradition dating back to Victorian times. Newman’s Boat Yard, immediately downstream from Canford Bridge, flourished in the middle decades of the 20th century and inspired Dreamboats, launched in 2000, where you can hire a rowing boat from the riverbank.
The Victorian railway viaduct over the river was demolished in 1978 but a little further downstream today is the Wimborne bypass bridge, followed by the suspension footbridge just before Canford weir. It is made of cast iron and steel and was built by the Guest family, who bought Canford Manor in 1846 after making their fortune in the South Wales iron industry. The nearby Kingfisher Riverside Platform was opened in 2015 to make this attractive stretch of the Stour accessible to artists, photographers, bird-watchers and nature lovers, including the disabled. The old mill is now part of Canford School, founded in 1923, where historic buildings sit comfortably alongside the modern.
After skirting Hampreston, the Stour reaches Longham, where an array of pipes, bridges and other paraphernalia indicates that this is a pumping station to supply water to much of the nearby conurbation. Below another battered road bridge, a jungle of brambles and nettles adjoining Millhams refuse tip provides a riverside haven for wildlife.
After Longham and Dudsbury, the Stour – defining Bournemouth’s northern boundary – passes between West Parley and Redhill, formerly the site of Riddle’s Ford and a ferry service before World War 1. Throop Mill, long since closed but with a history dating from Norman times, still bears the name of its last millers, ‘Parsons and Sons, Throop Flour Mills’. The millstream and pond are a backwater, as the main watercourse passes a field away, where a 64-yard steel footbridge supported by concrete pillars spans an impressive weir and the Throop Gauging Station, where the Environment Agency monitors river flow.
Four hundred yards downstream is the site of the ford where Sir Walter Tyrrell is supposed to have crossed the Stour on his way to Poole and exile after allegedly murdering King William Rufus in the New Forest in 1100. This ford survived until 1940, when fears of a German invasion prompted the removal of retaining posts and the gravel was allowed to wash away.
The Moors River, last of the Stour’s main tributaries, joins at Hurn, where there was a mill 200 years ago and where smugglers often passed on their way inland from the coast. The third Earl of Malmesbury (1807-89) was a young boy when he stumbled upon smugglers hiding contraband in the woods. They let him go after an hour in exchange for a promise of silence. His predecessor at Hurn Court, Mr Hooper, the Chairman of Customs, habitually dined with his back to the window so he could not witness any smugglers who might pass. A guest told how ‘The smugglers had dashed through two deep fords in the Stour close by, which the [pursuing] soldiers refused, and so lost their prey’.
Downstream from Hurn and the historic village of Holdenhurst, where the A338 Spur Road passes over the river, is the site of the old Blackwater rope ferry, a picturesque spot in Victorian and Edwardian times, when it was overlooked by the ferryman’s thatched cottage. ‘A cottage and an old punt is all you will see,’ sneered the Bournemouth Graphic in 1904 before adding more graciously: ‘It sounds uninteresting but if you are thirsty you can get, within that tiny cot, a nice tea for 4d or 6d or even a bottle of ginger beer.’
As it skirts between Bournemouth and Christchurch, the Stour passes under the old and the new Iford Bridges, the former happily reduced to the grandest of footbridges as the traffic streams continuously over its modern neighbour. The very name Iford implies there was a ford here once, as does Tuckford – the old name for Tuckton. There was yet another passenger ferry at Wick in the 19th and 20th centuries. At nearby Stanpit 200 years ago, the tobacco smuggler John Streeter had a snuff factory to process some of his cargoes.
And so the Stour has reached Christchurch, a town steeped in history. Since leaving its source at Stourhead, it has flowed more than a hundred meandering miles across sixty miles as the crow flies, all but the first two in present-day Dorset. It has fertilised its flood plains and provided the first breath of life for many villages and several market towns. It has drawn water from forty-eight direct tributaries, which together add another 700 miles to the total watercourse. Finally it teams up with the Hampshire Avon as these two famous rivers together deposit more than two-and-a-half million tons of water a day in the harbour around which Christchurch itself grew up in the distant past. ◗