I spy with my little eye – Cerne Abbas
Cerne Abbas is full of interesting rooftop details, hidden corners, mysterious markings and odd goings on, discovers Joël Lacey
Published in October ’16
It isn’t terribly often that there is open competiton between women in one-piece swimsuits and trainers on the one hand and women in ball gowns on the other, but on the second Sunday in September of this year, on the roads around Cerne Abbas, as the Weymouth Ironman competition closed half of central Dorset’s roads, that was the case.
The road closures robbed Cerne Abbas of one of its more unusual annual sights: a double-decker bus full of revellers, sharing their bounty with tourists who’ve just come to goggle at the giant. Yes, 2016’s Layby Party may have been ‘cancelled’, but it takes more than closed roads and a missing bus to get in the way of a party tradition that dates back decades.
However, as unexpected as the sight of a dozen beaux in black tie (with ages ranging from low double digits to, well, significant double digits), ascending Trendle Hill to sit in the evening sun on the Giant, these are not the only strange sights to see in Cerne Abbas on any day of the year.
The privately owned abbey may be visited on certain days, as may St Augustine’s well, which, depending on which version of Ecclesiatical tradition one cares to believe came to be in one of the following ways: St Augustine met some shepherds grazing their flocks and asked them whether they would prefer beer or water to drink. The temperate shepherds replied ‘Water’, whereupon St Augustine struck the ground with his staff, crying ‘Cerno El’ as the water gushed out. The words were, supposedly, a pun on Cernel, the old name of the village and meant ‘I perceive God’.
Lovely as the idea of a Latin-punning miracle worker roaming the hillsides of Dorset is, it is thought that this story was invented by the Benedictine monks of Cerne Abbey.
The alternative story is that St Edwold (brother to St Edmund, the Martyr of East Anglia) one day had a vision of a silver well. He went wandering through the countryside, and when he came to Cerne he gave some silver pennies to a shepherd in return for bread and water. The shepherd showed him a well which St Edwold recognised as the well of his vision. He built a small hermitage by the spring and lived there until his death in 871.
At the other end of Abbey Street one sees a Grade II listed house called The Old House (which was refronted in the 18th century), ironically next to a pair of Grade I listed houses that look much, much older and indeed date from the 16th century. There are few houses around where the phrase half-timbered extends to the guttering. The cottages (The Pitchmarket and Abbey Cottage) are former Abbey tenements and were at one stage shops, though now are private residences. They are surprisingly easy on the eye though, which is more than can be said of the six grotesques on St Mary’s church that are almost (although fortuitously perhaps, not quite) within touching distance of the pavement.
A little further up Abbey Street and one reaches the former Methodist chapel, whose dark grey louvred windows hide a dark secret. Rather, according to the charming owner, it is unclear what lies behind them – except perhaps the unsightly moment that the ceiling of the ground floor and floor of the first floor cross what would hitherto have been an uninterrupted ecclesiatical window – and she is loath to uncover that. Some things are easier to see, like the covenents on the deeds, which, owing to the former purpose of the building, rather limit the atcivities of its currrent owners. Invited guests will be presumably simultaneously cheered and disappointed to discover that these covenents preclude the sale of alcohol or the running of a house of ill-repute.
The main street in Cerne Abbas is Long Street and it literally goes around the houses (and indeed all the way around the Royal Oak). Back Lane, unsurprisingly perhaps, runs along the back of the houses on the south side of Long Street.
Duck Street goes from Long Street, past the first school up towards the aforementioned Giant’s viewpoint and, beyond it, the former poorhouse of the parish, now a residential home. Coming back more slowly along Duck Street, one glimpses (on the left in the hedgerow) a double warning sign: one for the upcoming left turn, of which more in a moment, and one indicating pedestrians in the road ahead. The latter has not so much been vandalised as augmented, with the addition of goggle eyes for the adult and child returning from looking at the giant from the viewpoint.
If one turns left off Duck Street towards Kettle Bridge, just as one reaches the bridge one sees an odd assemblage of gabions on the left, which is not installation art, but the Cerne overflow reservoir: an anti-flooding measure.
Turning right down the path next to the bridge is a footpath which follows the stream through the village and, after passing a pair of trees that have grown together in a loving embrace, eventually leads down past a mill race and indeed Mill Cottage and back to the village.
There is much that is charming about Cerne Abbas, not least its people, but there is also a real village with real businesses at work here too and, above all, long after the tourist charabancs have gone, there is an achingly beautiful village with a fascinating architectural heritage with items of interest around every corner.