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In the Footsteps of Treves: Sturminster Newton and Hammoon

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick to the green fields of North Dorset

The manor house, Hammoon, a century after Pennell's picture

The manor house, Hammoon, a century after Pennell’s picture

Sir Frederick Treves’s book, Highways and Byways in Dorset, was published in 1906 and, in researching for the book, Treves cycled over 2000 miles around Dorset during 1904-05. His first glimpse of Sturminster Newton is looking down upon it from the nearby village of Hinton St Mary, where ‘a gracious river winds round about it [Sturminster Newton], its water-meadows are ever green, while behind it rise the bare heights of the Dorset hills from Hambledon to Bulbarrow. The view of the minster town from the near village of Hinton St Mary is excellent indeed. In that uninteresting hamlet, by the way, lived one William Freke, who published A Dictionary of Dreams, and died in 1744.’
Treves may have dismissed Hinton St Mary as ‘uninteresting’; it has, however, an attractive manor house, an interesting church and an excellent pub, the White Horse. Moreover, in 1963 a Roman mosaic pavement with one of the oldest surviving depictions of Christ was uncovered. Now in the British Museum, it figured as number 44 in BBC Radio 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, first broadcast in 2010.
Treves now visits Sturminster Newton – somewhere he seems to approve of: ‘Sturminster is a pleasant town enough, a quaint admixture of the would-be-very-new and the needs-be-very-old. It is approached from the South by an old stone bridge with pointed arches, which opens on an avenue of trees and a causeway edged with white posts and rails to mark the road in times of flood. At the end of the vista of trees there comes into view a comfortable medley of thatched roofs, buff walls, outjutting gardens, and moss-covered sheds. No two houses on the way from the bridge are alike, nor are they in line. Some are on the level of the road, while others mount up behind a raised path, bounded by a railing from which a child is commonly hanging head downwards like a bat.’
If Treves travelled the same route today, he would recognise much of what he wrote about some 110 years ago; there has of course been considerable development over the past century, but Sturminster Newton has retained the feel of a traditional Dorset market town, in fact it is probably the epitome of such. The old houses, the railings and the white posts and rails, all add to the essence of this experience, although health and safety fears have done for children hanging like bats in today’s traffic-rich world.
Reaching the centre of Sturminster Newton, Treves continues: ‘In the centre of the town is the semblance of a square, to which all roads lead. Here are an officious gas standard carrying aloft the latest pattern of lamp, the stump of an ancient stone cross, and the town pump. The latter is of wood, is small, black and vixenish. On it is a notice spitefully warning the passer-by that he will be prosecuted if he does it hurt, and further that no children must use the exclusive structure. There is a sourness in this, for all children delight to play with pumps.’

Hammoon's manor house, with its thatched roof, as seen by Joseph Pennell a centruy ago

Hammoon’s manor house, with its thatched roof, as seen by Joseph Pennell a century ago

The base of the stone cross is still here, now precariously close to passing traffic. Of the ‘vixenish’ pump, however, nothing remains. An elaborate water pump erected in 1907 (so a plaque on it states) can be found in its stead, suggesting that the wooden pump that Treves so disliked disappeared very soon after he saw it. Treves seldom made references to inns, but Sturminster is an exception: ‘There are two picturesque old taverns in the town. The more imposing of the two has walls of faded red and grey brick, while the other is a low building, covered by a thatched roof with dormer windows in it. A gateway leads under this house to the stable yard, and over the passage is a little chamber where those who lie within can hear the occasional rumbling of a cart under the floor and the ceaseless twittering of birds above the eaves. The upper windows of the inn have the sleepy look of half-closed eyes, but the lower windows are modern, glaring, and alert. Near the church is the Boys’ National School, where William Barnes was educated. As the schoolhouse was in his day so it is now—a small drab building with a stone-mullioned window and prominent buttresses, which, with the red brick chimney, save it from being mistaken for a barn.’
Unusually in an age of constant pub closures, the two town-centre taverns still supply the people of Sturminster Newton and a midweek midwinter lunchtime found them both busy. Both are ancient buildings while being structurally completely different. Now part of the Hall and Woodhouse group, they have kept their original names. The thatched White Hart Hotel would be equally at home hidden down a country lane in a small Dorset village with its chocolate box appearance and yet it fits well in the centre of this bustling town. The ‘little chamber’ above the passage that passes under the pub is still used as a bedroom; though residents may hear the birds, it is doubtful that they now hear the rumbling of carts. Just up Market Coss is the Swan Inn, a now-tiled building which still has its roots in medieval times.
Over the bridge in Newton is the Bull Tavern, oldest of all Sturminster Newton’s pubs, which also boasts a thatched roof. Barnes’s Boys’ National School building has changed little externally since Treves’s time. It is now a domestic dwelling and the current incumbent, who moved in after the interior had been converted, was unable to say when the building ceased being a school. Arthur Mee’s Dorset, published in 1939, says that when visited, the building was ‘a school for little carpenters’.
There was another inn on this side of the river when Treves was here. Now a house, the place has a facsimile of a red lion above the porch. The original red lion effigy from the pub, which closed in 1995, is now kept at the museum in the centre of town. There was a story that late at night the red lion would take a stroll down to the Stour for a drink, but it was only seen by those coming back from a night at the pub, never by those going to the pub – strange, that.
Sturminster Newton has had to deal with a number of major challenges during the century or so since Treves’s time. The aforementioned Arthur Mee tells of a disaster that befell the town in 1935. Foot and mouth disease was discovered at a nearby farm when an auction was about to take place in the cattle market. The Ministry of Agriculture ordered the destruction and disposal of all livestock at the market; some 2000 animals, worth about £30,000 (in 1935) were slaughtered and burned in a huge bonfire pit. Mee states that into that pit with the animals was placed 60 tons of coal, 50 tons of brushwood and 400 gallons of paraffin. The cattle market, at one point the largest in Europe, closed on 9 June 1997. The town also had a large creamery for most of the last century, a major employer in the town, but this closed down in late 2000. The railway station, which had a large goods yard and siding used by the creamery, fell under the Beeching axe in March 1966. Although Sturminster Newton is still a bustling market town, with new housing, industry and community-cum-arts centre, the Exchange, the past century has not been an easy one.
Treves now comes to an enchanting nearby hamlet: ‘Hammoon – the “ham” or dwelling of the Mohuns, its ancient lords – is a little oasis of orchard and cottage in an expanse of water-meadows about the Stour. In one old house in this delightful hamlet it is possible to see to what an exquisite tint of pale rose common red brick may change after half a century or two of sun and rain, and how well that colour blends with the velvety brown of an ancient thatch and the green of a lusty creeper. Here also is a manor house which is, I think, the most picturesque of its kind. It is a long, low building of ash grey stone, with a thatched roof and fine bay windows with stone mullions. In the centre is a graceful stone porch, with a small chamber over the pillared doorway. The beauty of this dignified old homestead is enhanced by contrast, for close to it is a modern villa of the usual suburban type.’
In Hammoon, time has practically stood still; a few additional farm buildings here and there have done little to spoil the place. The church of St Paul, though much modified by the Victorians (who added the unusual bell cote), sits near the manor house with the thatched roof. This thatch has recently been replaced: some undertaking considering its considerable size. Much work has been done to the structure by the owners, who have only been here for around five years. A small extension has been sympathetically built onto the rear while an ugly Victorian addition was removed. Such is the quality of these renovations that an award has been presented in acknowledgment. Clive’s picture shows the manor house a century after Joseph Pennell’s picture from Highways and Byways. The tree still stands guarding the house, as it has for hundreds of years.

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