Clive Hannay visits a compact West Dorset village
Published in October ’16
Symondsbury was for centuries primarily an agricultural village, growing particularly flax and hemp for the use of the makers of ropes and nets in neighbouring Bridport. It is almost certain that the same industry provided out-work for many of the women of the village. Its name comes from ‘Sigemund’s burh’ – the hill belonging to Sigemund. The name of the River Simene is derived from the village name: an unusual back-formation that coincidentally also applies to the River Brit, into which the Simene flows and which took its name from the town of Bridport. Water from a spring in the village was said to be a cure for sore eyes, like the more famous St Wite’s Well in nearby Morcombelake.
The Colfox family have been associated with Symondsbury since the 13th century, at which time it was owned by Cerne Abbey. They were gentlemen farmers in the area, but it was not until the 19th century that they purchased significant land in and around the village and brought together what is now the 1500-acre Symondsbury Estate. Sir Philip Colfox, the 1st Baronet, was a Conservative politician between the wars; his son, Sir John, is fondly remembered in the area and gave his name to Bridport’s comprehensive school. Today, Sir John’s son, Sir Philip, actively promotes the estate, and especially its showpiece, Manor Yard, which is home to shops, artisan workshops, a café and a functions venue converted from a tithe barn.
The Manor itself actually belonged to the Colfox family for quite a brief period, between 1922 and 1975, when it was sold to Peter Hitchin. A local entrepreneur and former owner of Bridport’s Electric Palace cinema, he has used the Manor as a base for courses in art and other subjects but now lets it as self-catering accommodation for parties of up to 22 people and as a wedding venue.
The Manor was for many years the home of the Udal family, and J Symonds Udal (who was also a first-class cricketer and Attorney-General of Fiji) published in 1922 Dorsetshire Folk-lore, the most comprehensive work on the subject. He drew on Symondsbury for a number of his examples, including the ‘whooping’ ceremony at harvest-time. This involved lots of cider and ale and the thrice-repeated cry of ‘We have en!’ Udal suggests that this had its roots in a pagan ceremony celebrating Woden, partly because it sometimes involved the participants kneeling with their heads to the ground, like Muslims at prayer. Tempting though this theory may be, the practice perhaps had more to do with mowing a field from the edges to the middle; when only a small area was left, men with guns, sticks and stones would chase out the rabbits and other animals that had retreated there.
The village school’s solid air of authority means that it could only be Victorian. It was opened in 1868 and in the following year attracted as its headmaster William Kennett, who took the job only as a stop-gap after returning from Australia, where he had been a missionary. Almost forty years later he was still there, retiring in 1908. The standard of education in the village was woefully poor before the school was built and he instituted evening classes in reading and maths. A village legend has it that he brought from Australia an aborigine, who is buried in the churchyard, and a kangaroo, which lived in the school orchard and is buried there. With no evidence of either import, the story probably owes more to someone’s clichéd ideas of Australia than it does to truth.
The feature which defines Symondsbury for many people is the conical, tree-topped Colmer’s Hill, named after a local family, one of whose members was rector in the early 1800s. The trees were planted during World War 1, and it is good to see that new planting is being done to replace them as they come to the end of their natural lives.
Most of the parish church of St John the Baptist dates from the early 14th century. Its striking barrel-vault roof was built by shipwrights from West Bay in the 15th century but concealed behind plaster for many years. The church was restored not once but twice, once in 1818 and once in 1920. The 1920 restoration was notable because much of it was undertaken by the parishioners themselves, including the uncovering of the ceiling, the installation of a heating system and the carving of the choir stalls.
Earlier, in the 1880s, the church acquired a stained glass window that was important in the Arts and Crafts Movement. The stonework was designed by Edward prior, who also built Holy Trinity at Bothenhampton and restored Burton Bradstock parish church, as well as designing Pier Terrace, the most prominent building at West Bay; he was the son-in-law of Symondsbury’s rector. The glass itself was the work of William Lethaby, who was a friend of William Morris and co-founded the Art Workers Guild. A memorial to the Udal family, the window shows the four evangelists, ‘whose seemingly pain-wracked faces are the complete antithesis of the usual placid Victorian stained glass saints’, to quote the church’s guidebook.
A short and simple walk of not much more than a mile takes in all the main features of the village (except the village pub, visible from the start/finish, barely 100 yards away), plus Colmer’s Hill. The climb up the hill is quite steep, to compensate exercise enthusiasts for the shortness of the walk!
Just to the left of the church is a triangle of grass with a tree planted by Thomas Colfox in 1913, according to a plate in front of it. To the left of the triangle is a no through road. Park in this road and walk up it in the same direction, passing on the left Shutes Farm, a 15th-century hall house. The road becomes a sunken track and continues to climb. As it levels out, go through a large gate on the left and turn right to walk along the bottom of the field.
About 100 yards from the end of the field, bear left to an opening into a large open area covered with bracken, through which the path ascends, turns to the left, then climbs to the top of Colmer’s Hill.
Having admired the stupendous view from the top, the only permissible way down is to retrace your steps as far as the gate on the track up which you came from the parking place. Here, instead of turning right, go straight across and through another gate. Turn immediately right, down the right-hand field-edge.
In the first corner, go through a gate and bear left, gradually closing with the right-hand field-edge. Go through another gate, then ahead onto a track which descends into the car park and buildings of Manor Yard. Walk down through the buildings and turn right on a lane.
Walk past the entrance to the Manor on the right, the school on the left and the church on the right to return to your car.