Wool and Woolbridge Manor
Clive Hannay visits the village where Tess of the d’Urbervilles spent her wedding night
Published in January ’17
At first sight, few place-names in Dorset could have a more obvious origin than Wool. But the flocks of sheep grazing the meadows surrounding this large village have nothing to do with it: rather, the name derives from ‘welle’, the old word for a spring. In addition to the River Frome, many streams flow around Wool, and those surrounding meadows are as often as not old water meadows. ‘Drowning’ them by a system of channels and hatches to produce rich early grazing was a highly skilled job.
Wool is a model of ecumenicalism, being the centre of the Roman Catholic enclave of south Dorset. For this it has to thank the Welds, one of the leading recusant families in the country after the Reformation, who bought nearby Lulworth Castle in 1641. The Anglican church of the Holy Rood, mostly 15th-century with some earlier survivals, is notable in its own right for a very unusual triple chancel arch and for a remarkable painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the style of Murillo.
The area’s religious connections go back even further: to 1172, when the Cistercians of Bindon Abbey decided that the slopes of Bindon Hill above Lulworth Cove, where they had first founded their daughter house of Forde Abbey in 1149, were too inhospitable, and moved to a mellower location just east of Wool. It was a large and important monastery, whose abbot paid Henry VIII £300 in 1536 not to dissolve it – he took the money and dissolved it anyway three years later. Little remains of the abbey; what can be seen today is a 17th-century house built on the site (used as a ‘wellness centre’) and its gatehouse.
The village’s most notable building, though, is the handsome and historic Woolbridge Manor, originally built in the 12th century and owned by the Turberville family. Under the pen of Thomas Hardy it becomes Wellbridge, where Tess Clare (née Durbeyfield) spends her disastrous wedding night. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Hardy refers to a tradition that a phantom coach drives up to Woolbridge Manor by night, but can only be seen by members of the Turberville family. The story is thought to be linked to the elopement of John Turberville with Anne, daughter of the 1st Viscount Howard of Bindon, in the 1580s. Anne’s step-brother, Thomas, was the builder of Lulworth Castle.
In the grounds of the manor stands Chapel Barn, so called because it was used as a place of worship by the monks of Bindon Abbey. A strong local tradition persists that a secret tunnel linked the manor and the abbey, but given the high water-table hereabouts, even a phantom coach may be a more likely tale.
To reach the abbey, one crosses handsome Wool Bridge. Its stone arches have spanned the Frome since the 15th century, but it has been closed to traffic for almost twenty years, despite – or perhaps because of – carrying tanks from nearby Bovington Camp across the river throughout World War 2. Since its establishment during the Boer War, Bovington has been an important neighbour to Wool. There was a branch line, partially built by German PoWs during World War 1, from the main line at Wool straight into the repair workshops at Bovington. It closed in 1936. Wool itself was one of the original stations, opened in 1847, on the Southampton & Dorchester Railway.
During the 20th century, Wool grew substantially, not least because of the establishment of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Winfrith in the 1950s. While the modern housing is far from distinguished, the village escaped most of the worst excesses of the architecture of that period. Currently, the local council’s proposal to take advantage of the surrounding wide open spaces by building 1000 more houses is being met with understandable alarm at the inevitable change to the character of the village.
Most of the features mentioned can be seen on a stroll of about two miles. Park considerately in Bindon Lane, which is reached from the Dorchester direction by coming straight through Wool – and from Wareham by turning left immediately after the level crossing – and driving past the station to where the main road bends to the right and Bindon Lane goes off to the left.
Walk on down the lane, on the right-hand side of what can be quite a busy route. The lane bends sharply to the right by the drive to Bindon Mill, then passes Bindon Abbey on the left. Directly opposite the drive to the abbey, turn right over a stile and bridge. Turn left after the bridge and head across what can be rather a soggy stretch to another stile and bridge about 70 yards up from the left-hand corner of the field.
Head for the far right-hand corner of the next field, cross a stile and walk through a few yards of undergrowth to another stile. Cross the next field diagonally to its far corner. Here go through a gate and in a few yards reach a paved area. Go through a gate on the left and turn right to follow the field-edge round to a gate into the churchyard of the Holy Rood. Continue in the same direction across the churchyard and leave it by a metal gate on the far side. Walk down the path to a paved track, on which continue straight ahead. Turn right at the main road and walk past the primary school.
Take the first turning on the right after the school – the stream running alongside gives a clue to the origin of its name, Spring Street – and follow it up to where it bends to the left. Here turn left along a narrow alley just past Peppercorn Cottage, and follow it to the High Street. Turn right for a few yards, then left along a path to the right of The Old Coach House. Reaching a road, turn left and follow it round to the right to reach a T-junction, where turn left. In a few yards turn right on a path between the houses to reach another road, where turn left.
Take the first on the right, which leads onto a playing field. Go almost straight across, heading just to the left of a single large oak tree on the other side. Walk through the doctors’ surgery car park to a road and turn right. Pass the RC primary school on the right and, where the road bends to the left, turn right. Walk in front of St Joseph’s RC Church on the right to reach Dorchester Road. Cross carefully to a new footbridge over the railway, cross it, turn right and walk down to a T-junction opposite a petrol station.
Turn left here and take the first turning on the left to cross the ancient bridge and admire Woolbridge Manor. Retrace your steps to the main road, turn right and walk back to cross the railway at the level crossing. Turn left and walk past the station and yet another church – Methodist this time – to reach the bend in the road where Bindon Lane is the turning on the left.