The Dorset Walk – Bere Regis & Piddles Wood
Teresa Rabbetts visits a once-royal place, now keeping itself to itself
Published in September ’16
Thomas Hardy referred to Bere Regis as ‘a little one-eyed, blinking sort o’ place’, which seems a harsh description despite the highs and lows that this popular village has seen over the centuries.
Edward I made Bere Regis a free borough in the 13th century and King John, who stayed here whilst on hunting trips, granted a charter for a weekly market in 1215. Sheep-rearing was important to Dorset and, as the nearby ancient hill fort of Woodbury Hill was one of the biggest fairs in the South, the week-long fair was the social and economic highlight of the year for the area and ensured that Bere Regis was a town of standing, at least for seven days. Thomas Hardy, renaming it Greenhill, immortalised the importance of the fair by declaring that ‘Greenhill was the Nijni Novgorod of South Wessex,’ a comparison to the greatest trade centre of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century.
As well as the economic benefits of the sheep trade, the fame and fortunes of Bere Regis were tied to the Turberville family, lords of the manor from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Cardinal Morton, whose mother was a Turberville, left the Church of St John the Baptist in Bere Regis with what is today an incomparable legacy.
Morton, born about 1420 at Milborne Stileham, then part of the parish of Bere Regis, was educated at Cerne Abbey and later Balliol College, Oxford. Edward IV sent him as ambassador to the French court and on his return appointed him Bishop of Ely. Under the Tudors, Morton experienced a meteoric rise of power as Henry VII swiftly promoted him to Archbishop of Canterbury and a year later, in 1487, Lord Chancellor of England; the royal estate had been much depleted by Edward IV but under Morton’s charge the treasury was replenished. By 1493 he was a cardinal and in 1495 he became Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘father of the Inland Revenue’, Morton is remembered for a devilish piece of reasoning known as ‘Morton’s fork’ in which (according to The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase & Fable) he postulated the idea that a ‘man who was living modestly must be saving money and could therefore afford taxes, whereas if he was living extravagantly then he was obviously rich and could still afford them’.
Morton was thus responsible for the restoration of the Royal purse and also played a significant role in ending the Wars of the Roses by bringing about the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. From about 1485, in memory of his parents, he financed a magnificent carved oak nave roof in the Church of St John the Baptist, something quite out of proportion and unique for such a small
Hutchins, in his seminal 1774 work History of Dorset, refers to the six pairs of figures on each truss as the apostles and certainly many of the carvings are clearly recognisable with symbols relating to the disciples.
The central bosses narrate the successes of Morton’s career with the first one at the eastern end of the roof depicting a man’s head considered to represent Cardinal Morton himself. There are a further ten carved heads on the wall plates which, now unknown, are presumed to have represented biblical or national figures.
The preservation of the roof over 500 years has been a considerable undertaking; repair and repainting were undertaken when the church was sympathetically restored by George Street in 1875, and in 1939 the roof was treated for death watch beetle, but maintenance of small parish churches relies on donations and St John’s is in need. Recent attempts to shore up leaks have exposed lead above the nave that is irreparably perished – due to the inflammable horse hair insulation, repairing sections is not viable so the entire nave will require replacement lead. St John’s will launch ‘Apostle Appeal’ in the autumn.
Ultimately history saw a decline in the Turberville fortune: Sir John Turberville (born c1614) saw his wealth depleted when, as a staunch Royalist during the Civil War, he was forced to pay hefty fines to Parliament. Matters worsened further thanks to the overspending of Thomas Turberville, heir to Sir John. Through a combination of depleted assets and a lack of male heirs, the Turberville name becomes extinct, best remembered today through the fiction of Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
1 Begin the walk by heading south on Southbrook which turns into Rye Hill (Bere Regis to Wool road). Passing Manor Farm on the left, take the turning on the right marked Southbrook and follow the road to a right bend where it becomes Egdon Close. The path begins on the bend – leave the road and follow the green lane which rises uphill to the right of the cemetery.
2 Continue uphill, pass through the gate and bear right where the track forks. The path is difficult to make out, but keep right and rise up through the wooded area. At the junction at the top, the route continues straight on and over the top of Black Hill – the track now becomes clear and opens up to heath-land. The path runs by old sand and gravel pits and to the right of a boundary stone nicknamed the Devil’s Stone. The route crosses over another path before descending Damer Hill to Turners Puddle.
3 Turners Puddle is physically a dead end – not a place that you would ordinarily pass through – so it is worth taking a few minutes to enjoy one of Dorset’s hidden gems. The Church of the Holy Trinity is a small, magical stone-and-flint building that was deconsecrated in 1974 and is now used only as an occasional venue for concerts. In the 19th century, the church was united with Affpuddle and then declined as the population of the hamlet waned. The condition of the building has deteriorated and nature has claimed the churchyard as a wildlife haven. In the porch is a short guide that tells the tale about the two church bells which were stolen in the 1950s: ‘They turned up at the gates of the farmhouse, covered in soil, with note inscribed: “Sorry Xmas”.’
4 On leaving the church, continue straight along the track until reaching a ‘Y’ junction where there is a sign-post. Follow the route indicated to Kite Hill. The path gently ascends between two fields and eventually divides below the tree line – take the left fork and rise up to Kite Hill, which is a conifer plantation. Work has recently been carried out in this area and it is very muddy.
5 Walk through Piddle Wood, with sounds of traffic on the A35 to the left. Eventually the track splits to go downhill; take the right fork (blue markers at this point) and follow the path. This stretch has trees on the left and an open field to the right.
6 When the track descends to a T-junction, turn right and rise up a slight hill past farm buildings. Continue straight ahead on the wide gravel track, which opens out with views towards Shitterton. Keep straight on with Bere Regis on the left until reaching a Jubilee Trail signpost on the left. Turn down here and follow the route which is clearly heading towards Shitterton. Follow the road through Shitterton and up to West Street. From there you continue into Bere Regis.
How to get there: Bere Regis is next to the A35 and at the junction with the A31 approximately 11 miles east of Dorchester.
Parking & start: Car park in Turberville Road or roadside parking.
Terrain: Varied – steady climb in some stretches, with mixed tracks, some very muddy.
Distance: 5 miles.
Maps: OS Landranger 194 Dorch’r & W’mouth, OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck & South Dorset.
Refreshments: Tea Room at Rye Hill Farm Shop, Rye Hill, Bere Regis, BH20 7LP and two pubs in West Street – The Drax Arms & The Royal Oak.
Information: Guided tours of the Church by arrangement May to September Tuesdays at 11am and Thursdays at 3pm –