The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the footsteps of Treves: Athelhampton & Puddletown

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick Treves to a stunning house and garden


Sir Frederick Treves, as he was getting toward the end of his travels for his Highways and Byways in Dorset book, came to a place close to his heart: ‘On the North-east side of Dorchester,’ Treves writes,’ is the great Blandford road, which, after climbing the steep hill through Yellowham wood and skirting Troy Town, comes to Puddletown. On the outskirts of this curiously named place is Athelhampton.’
Ignoring the fact that Puddletown is probably the least curiously named placed of the four places he just reeled off, Treves turns his attention to Athelhampton Hall: ‘The ancient home of the Martins is one of the most glorious relics of the Dorset of bygone years. The oldest lords of the manor were the Londons and the Pideles. Then came the FitzMartins, the first of a family being Martin of Tours, who was one of those who crossed to England with William the Norman. At Athelhampton the Martins lived for four hundred years – from the early part of the thirteenth century to the end of the sixteenth – a gallant company of Dorset squires.
‘The house is without question the most picturesque in the county,’ asserts Treves, rather boldly given the competition. ‘The greater part of the building belongs to the fifteenth century, whilst a wing described as “new” was added by the Martins in the reign of Henry VII. The exquisite gate-house of two floors, with its great oriel window and gabled roof was pulled down in 1862, in which year the chapel was also sacrificed.’
Treves was nine in 1862, so it’s possible he saw Athelhampton first-hand, both with and without the chapel and gate-house, before his mother moved the family up to London in 1867, a year after being widowed, which might explain his fondness for the place. Certainly Thomas Hardy – thirteen years older than Treves and whose name appears in the leadwork on the lantern at the top of the dovecote – was a regular visitor.
‘The mansion contains a grand banqueting hall with an oak roof, a state bedroom and fine panelling of the time of the first Tudor king, much old window glass and certain remarkable staircases,’ Treves adds. Modern estimates of the Great Hall’s age date it to 1585, the same year as the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Henry Tudor defeated Richard III to become Henry VII.
Treves continues his description of the hall: ‘Athelhampton Hall, standing by the water meadows of the river [the River Piddle] is a low building of grey stone, covered in chocolate coloured tiles. It is an irregular, rambling structure of many gable and many roofs, much given to dormers, to stone chimneys and stone-mullioned windows with from three to sixteen lights. Over the front porch is a little chamber surmounted by battlements.
‘In the wall to the side of this are Gothic windows of strange proportions, and heavy buttresses whose stones are concealed by a mantle of ivy. Over this part of the house also a beautiful magnolia is growing. Where the stone is not covered by creepers it is bountifully cared for by moss and lichen. Around the house are terraced gardens, trim lawns, formal flower beds, and fountain pools; while in one corner is an ancient Culverhouse, or dove-cot, in which no doubt many generations of ladies of the Martin household took kindly interest.’
The dovecote (whose roof was put back on 45 years ago this year) is now thought to have been built in the early 16th century and as the last of the Martins, Nicholas, died in 1595, it is unlikely that that many generations of Martin ladies would have used the dovecote.
As the Treves’s visit for the purposes of researching Highways and Byways in Dorset, would have come a dozen years after the hall had been bought by Alfred Cart de la Fontaine in 1891, who not only started a much-needed restoration of the house, but also commissioned Inigo Thomas to lay out the formal gardens over the following eight years. Either Treves wasn’t a gardener, or the gardens hadn’t fully established themselves. Certainly the twelve (now thirty-feet-tall) yew pyramids, with which the house is now so closely identified, were not impressive when they were not as tall as the bowl in the fountain that they now surround like a Close Protection Detail around a royal schoolchild.
As interesting as the house is, and it is, one cannot help but feel Treves did not get the most out of his visit in terms of the gardens. Joseph Pennell, the artist who illustrated Highways and Byways in Dorset, clearly felt differently, dedicating one of the three drawings he did of Athelhampton to the garden alone, one to the garden and house and one of the house alone.
Treves moves along the road to Puddletown: ‘the “Weatherbury” of the Wessex novels,’ which, he says, ‘affords an agreeable mélange of the old and the new, of the semi-pretentious house [a bit rich from an author who has unironically just used the word “mélange”] and the humble thatched cottage. The ill-named river runs through the streets, the houses of which are much scattered and broken up by delightful orchards and gardens’.

It is fair to say that Puddletown is perhaps slightly more developed than it was in Treves’s time, but his next statement still rings true: ‘The feature of greatest interest in Puddletown is the church, one of the few in the country which has been happy escaping the hand of the restorer. There is in the nave a beautiful ceiling of Spanish chestnut, the beams of which are bare alike of varnish and paint. There are old oak pews of past days still in use, a handsome singing gallery for the village choir, bearing the date 1635, an ancient wood pulpit with a clerk’s stall below.’
According to the Historic Churches Trust: ‘In 1634, following a meeting of parishioners, it was agreed that there should be new seating throughout, repair of the defective pillar and arch, a new pulpit and prayer desk, communion table and rails, a western gallery and a new font cover. So it is from this period that we have been bequeathed the superb church furnishings seen today. The triple-decker pulpit with tester above is a particularly fine example and the box pews are a delight. Until Charles II (1679) men and women sat separately and scholars and little boys had to sit right under the rector’s pew!’
Treves, meanwhile, gets a little misty-eyed with such evocative descriptive as to make it unclear if he is reporting what he has just witnessed or expressing Proustian regret for a childhood memory reawakened: ‘On these very benches sat the farmer’s men in drab smock coats and their womenfolk in homespun. In this actual gallery, the farmer’s young wife led the singing – a prim woman in a poke bonnet and an ample flounced coat, with a white tippet over her shoulders and mittens on her wrists. In this very porch the villagers bobbed and curtsied as the squire of Athelhampton and his lady swept by to the manorial pew. No church in the county can compare with his in human interest, and nowhere can one come into closer communion with the homely spirit of the Dorset of the past.’
‘The most picturesque corner of the church is the south chapel or Athelhampton aisle, so called because it is devoted to memorials to the Martins, the ancient possessors of Athelhampton. This little chapel is guarded or walled in by an altar tomb, on which lies a armed man carved in alabaster. It is entered through a quaint archway as if it would withdraw itself from the church. Buried in this chapel are the Martins of many generations, the first of the race in 1250, the last in 1595. Many of their effigies are grievously mutilated, but they make together the dramatis personae of a pathetic old world story in stone.’

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