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Winterborne Clenston

Clive Hannay in a hamlet in the lower Winterborne Valley

The church of St Nicholas, Winterborne Clenston, designed by Vulliamy, dates from the 1830s

The church of St Nicholas in Winterborne Clenston sits alone in a wonderfully bucolic backdrop. It is arguably Dorset’s most beautifully situated church.

Winterborne Clenston is the sole survivor of three hamlets that once huddled in the lower Winterborne Valley. Winterbornes Philipston and Nicholaston began to decline at about the time of the Black Death and have long since disappeared. Winterborne Clenston’s parish church stands in what was Winterborne Nicholaston and is dedicated to St Nicholas.
At least the derivation of the names of the two vanished hamlets is clear; Clenston took its name from the Clench, or Clencheston, family, who held it until about 1230. It then came into the possession of the de Winterburn family. Most remarkably, the manor has passed by inheritance ever since, although the family did not prove very adept at producing sons and on several occasions it has passed down the female line. Thus the owners’ name has varied: from de Winterburn to Heryng to de la Lynde to Milborne to Morton to Michel to Pleydell – and its variants, Morton Pleydell, Mansel-Pleydell and Pleydell-Railston – to, most recently, Carlyle-Clarke. Mansel-Pleydell lives on in the name of the prize awarded annually by the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society for the best essay on an aspect of Dorset’s local, cultural or natural history.
During most of the eight centuries of continuous family ownership, Winterborne Clenston manor house has been let to tenants because the family preferred to live at their seat at Milborne St Andrew and later at Whatcombe, built by Edmund Morton Pleydell in 1710 a couple of miles down the Winterborne Valley from Clenston.
Parts of the present manor house date from the 15th century but most of it is Tudor. Like all the major buildings of Winterborne Clenston, it is built of alternating bands of flint and stone. Its most notable feature, just visible from the gate, is a staircase turret built in a half-octagon shape, which at the top flares out to give headroom for the staircase that leads to the upper floor. In the earliest days of the house, this storey housed the Great Hall, under an open timber roof; Wolfeton House, near Dorchester, similarly had its Great Hall on an upper floor.
Next to the manor house is a barn built in the 16th century, again in flint and stone. Apart from its evident antiquity, its most curious feature is the 19th-century chequer-board arrangement of its roof tiles, which can still be made out. Inside is a hammer-beam roof which is thought to have been brought from one of the domestic buildings of Milton Abbey following the Dissolution. Sadly, the roof today is supported by metal scaffolding poles and signs on the outside of the building warn against entering what has become a dangerous structure. Yet this is designated as a Grade 1 listed building by Historic England; given the powers that they wield via local authorities to compel the owners of listed buildings to keep them well maintained, one wonders how this splendid barn has been allowed to fall into such a parlous state.

The brick-and-flint banded barn at Winterborne Clenston is not in as splendid a condition as its equivalent in Higher Whatcombe

The brick-and-flint banded barn at Winterborne Clenston is not in as splendid a condition as its equivalent in Higher Whatcombe

The other notable building in Winterborne Clenston is much younger. The church of St Nicholas was built on the site of a demolished earlier church by Mrs Michel of Whatcombe House in the 1830s. The architect was Lewis Vulliamy, who also designed the workhouse at Sturminster Newton as well as a large number of parish churches, mainly in London and the North. As well as its characteristic bands of stone and flint, the church is notable for its spire – a comparatively unusual feature in Dorset – and for its position in the fields between Whatcombe and Clenston. The churchyard is dominated by three Mansell-Pleydell graves on the left of the path leading to the church. On the outside of the tower is a coat of arms in Coade stone. Some authorities suggest that it was inspired by the Eglinton Tournament, which took place in Ayrshire in 1839, but there is no evidence for this and it seems rather a remote connection. Inside, the most notable features are an unusually thin font and the arms of Queen Victoria in stained glass in the north transept.

A walk of about 2¾ miles takes in Winterborne Clenston and Higher Whatcombe and runs through the beautiful ancient woodland of Oatclose Wood (where the paths can be muddy, so stout footwear is recommended). It has no option but to use part of the road that runs through the Winterborne Valley: be very vigilant, stay tightly on the right-hand side of the road and use the verge where there is one.
From Winterborne Whitechurch, drive north up the Winterborne Valley and soon pick up the flint wall of Whatcombe Park on the left. The road eventually bends sharply to the left and crosses the stream. As it then bends to the right, park on the left, by a post box.
Retrace your steps by heading south on the road, with the wall on the right. In about 350 yards, opposite a squat, square lodge to Whatcombe Park, turn left and immediately left again on a track which heads back in the direction you have just come. At the top of the rise, the track bends to the right, but continue straight ahead to a stile. Follow the left-hand field-edge to another stile,
beyond which continue in the same direction, heading gradually downhill and closing with the road on the left.
Pass to the left of a conspicuous clump of trees with an ivy-clad trunk towards its right-hand end and a gnarled stump at its left-hand end. About 100 yards after that, reach a kissing gate in the fence on the left and turn right. Walk up the road to the track on the right that leads to St Nicholas’s. After inspecting the church, return to the road and continue up to the barn and manor house.
Just past the drive to the manor house, turn left up a track and follow it uphill, round to the left and past Clenston Lodge. Where it bends to the right, continue straight ahead on a path that itself bends to the right and enters Oatclose Wood. Follow the path, which is easy to see and bends only gently, all the way through the wood. Where a track comes in from the right, continue straight ahead. At a cross-tracks, do the same, and shortly after that, follow the path as it bends to the right and leads down to a gate on the edge of the wood.
Take the path that passes to the right of the gate, turns right and leads steeply downhill between a wire fence on the left and the wood on the right. At a track in the bottom of the valley, turn left, then at the first cross-tracks, turn left again. This track eventually becomes a paved drive which leads through Higher Whatcombe (with its ancient barn: flint and stone bands again but rather better preserved than its equivalent at Clenston) and back to your car.



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