Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Review – Lesser Known Weymouth

By Michel Hooper-Immins, Editor of the Society of Dorset Men Newsletter

Weymouth and Melcombe Regis have a long and distinguished history, once warring boroughs on opposite sides of the River Wey and forcibly united by the 1571 charter of Queen Elizabeth I. One of the less happy dates in the history was 1348, when the Black Death arrived in Melcombe Regis, apparently carried ashore by fleas on rats that fled the ship they had arrived on. Lesser Known Weymouth begins as a guide book to the modern resort’s facilities, then goes on to look at some of the intriguing historical parts of the combined borough.

Greenhill Gardens

Being Weymouth born and bred, I found Julie Musk’s book a warm view of my home town, answering questions I had often wondered about. For example, along Nothe Parade, I have noticed the steep steps which have railway lines set in the balustrades. The book says, “they were put in place to transport ammunition to and from Nothe Fort with boats serving the breakwater forts.” So some sort of military railway must have been there, lowering trucks by ropes.

The King’s Statue is in many ways the centre of the modern town, built to mark the 50th year of King George III’s reign. “The King is dressed in his coronation robes, a lion and unicorn at his feet.” The Grade I listed monument is built of Coade stone.

This fascinating book picks out a number of buildings, like the 1816 Masonic Hall, “based on a Neo-Palladian Grecian temple”.

A useful feature of this brightly written book is that it invites readers to observe features as they walk round. “What is unusual about two of the windows of the Globe Inn?” asks the book. The answer, shown upside down on the page, is that two are shaped like portholes.

Many people don’t look up and one example is the Gothic facade, dating only from 1924, above Meech the outfitters. Dragons sit over the window corners and over the rainwater heads.

Brewing around Hope Square has a long history and the story of Devenish and Groves is well told in this informative book. The handsome Devenish brewery still stands. “Hope Square is built on what was once an opening to the sea known as Ope Cove or Black Hole, before the land was reclaimed in 1781.”

Many local people have great affection for the Old Town Hall, the centre of government for Weymouth before the charter of Queen Elizabeth I.

On the other side of the river is the Old Fish Market, built from Portland stone in 1855 – “some of the weathered surfaces clearly show the fossils of shells.” Today, this handsome building is still used for its original purpose, by Weyfish and their excellent fresh products.

This excellent 152-page book brims with useful information and historic stories, some of which were a revelation to me. The reader would do well to take the book on an outing around Weymouth, exploring the back streets as well as the main streets, equally fascinating.

Lesser Known Weymouth by Julie Musk is published by Roving Press. 
£10.99 from local bookshops or direct from the publisher (postage free) at or telephone 01300 321531.

© Text by Michel Hooper-Immins
All photographs © Roving Press, taken from the book

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Our Hidden Heritage

The other week, I spent a fascinating morning at the HiddenHeritage Conference 2016. The venue was the lovely Town Hall room in the CornExchange, Dorchester.

Dorchester's historic Town Hall.

Various speakers talked about our ‘hidden’ heritage. The first speaker, Tristan Boyle, explained the term ‘hidden’, suggesting something forgotten, unknown or simply boring. He stressed that archaeologists need to engage with the public to make heritage less so. 

Ruined St Andrew's Church at Church Ope Cove on the Isle of Portland.
(Photo taken from 'The Spirit of Portland' by Gary Biltcliffe.)

“History is questionable, and it’s OK for us to use terms like maybe, sometimes and possibly, as the past cannot be truly known. Each new discovery changes something else, and so archaeology is dynamic. As we learn things, the past informs the present. Archaeologists should not just be interested in the past; they also need to be interested in the present and future. Indeed, history is used to promote current political ideas. But history is always changing.”

Corfe Castle.
(Photo taken from 'The Magic of Purbeck' by David Leadbetter.)

David Bruce then gave us the example of the High Cross of Bristol. This was originally a symbol of Bristol’s free city status. The Cross used to be at the centre of the old city, but it was removed, and without it, Bristol lost a sense of where its old centre is. It now stands in the gardens at Stourhead.

The High Cross at Stourhead.

Trees are part of our everyday heritage, though often overlooked. Andrew Hoaen spoke about Veteran Trees and Ancient Woodlands. “Some oaks in Britain are more than 6000 years old, and there are many examples of yews aged more than 1000 years old, especially in churchyards. Britain is alone in Europe in having so many old trees.”

Old yew tree, Broadwindsor, Dorset, overshadowing the church.
(Photo taken from 'More Secret Places of West Dorset' by Louise Hodgson.) 

“Human interaction with trees is interesting – trees can tell us a lot about human activity. There are particular trees of special interest; for example, meeting oaks, where people met at crossroads, and  offering trees, often with ribbons tied to their branches, which still happens today. Any tree with a girth of at least 5 m is a tree of interest.”

“However, old trees have no official status and no statutory records exist, so they are largely ignored by historians. The main organisations concerned with them are the Woodland Trust, Ancient Tree Forum, Natural England, Forestry Commission, Historic England, and local government. A Tree Preservation Order is the best way to protect a tree, or if they are part of an SSSI or Scheduled Ancient Monument or garden. Indeed, gardens are recognised for their cultural interest, but not so woodlands and agricultural land.” He suggested that we have become too monument-centric focused, and the living vegetation at a site, including trees, contains important information about our landscape history.

James Wright gave a fascinating talk about ritual protection in old houses. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a strong belief in witchcraft, Satan and Hell. “This was a general fear felt by the entire population, and buildings were often marked to ward off spirits. Burn marks were made by holding a candle steadily against the timber for up to 45 minutes to scorch the wood in a linear fashion – quite a dedicated job.”

Courtesy of James Wright.

“There was a fear of witches’ familiars and spirits entering wherever air flowed into a building. So chimneys, windows and doors were especially targeted, with protective marks placed on liminal portals (roof trusses, the queen post above doors, etc.). Carpenters used a special tool, a braze knife, to carve interlocking V marks, and other marks were put on by tradesmen, occupants of the building and servants. Marks were also made for healing, prayer, purification (e.g. in order to purify a particular room or space, such as a former prison room), and Candlemas rituals.”

Looking through the doorway into the old garderobe
at Wolfeton House near Dorchester.

Spiritual middens are sometimes discovered in old houses, in which broken human rubbish was placed (animal bones, broken tools, pots, pipes, old shoes and so on) in the hope that such rubbish pits would distract spirits from entering the main rooms of the house.

Today we still place horseshoes over doors and hang stockings around our chimneys at Christmas, relics of these old cultural anxieties and ritual protection of the home. 

Thanks to Mark Watson for organising a great Hidden Heritage conference.

© Julie Musk/Roving Press 2016

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rooting Around the Ridgeway

What a wonderful culmination to the South Dorset Ridgeway (SDR)Landscape Partnership, bringing together musicians and literary lovers at Broadmayne Village Hall on 20 March 2016.
The Ridgeway on Bronkham Hill near the Hardy Monument
                Fanny Charles of the FTR kicked off the event by introducing James Sharpe, Manager of the SDR Partnership. He explained that this cultural heritage partnership has at its heart art, literature and music, and is about ‘exploring creativity, continuity and social change in the South Dorset Ridgeway area’. The project was run in association with Artsreach, AONB Dorset and Heritage Lottery funding.

St George's Church, Reforne, Portland (photo taken from The Spirit of Portland
by Gary Biltcliffe -
The Ridgeway Choir and Band treated us to some wonderful music. Phil Humphries explained that the inspiration for this came from the tradition of ‘West Gallery music’. In local churches up and down the Ridgeway, such as at Winterbourne Steeple, Winterbourne Abbas and Abbotsbury, a choir and instrumentalists comprising men, women and boys, of mixed abilities, would come together to sing and play, not only in support of church services but also at dances and other occasions. This is described by ThomasHardy in some of his novels, especially vivid in Under the Greenwood Tree.  West Gallery music was popular from the 1700s to the mid-1800s, after which it petered out, replaced by the organ and more formal choirs.

Water meadows and River Frome at Stinsford near Hardy's Cottage
Dr Alan Chedzoy then performed renditions from William Barnes’ poetry. An expert on both Barnes and Hardy, he explained how Barnes wrote more than 500 poems in the Dorset dialect, painting a picture of village life, before the coming of the railway. For over 300 years, village living had changed very little, being very isolated, with people from neighbouring villages often only coming together on special occasions (at harvest, feasts, fairs, and so on). Yet, in those days, work was a communal thing, not solitary as so often today. There was communal feeling and strong village opinion and politics. But this began to be eroded away with the coming of the railway. Barnes recorded a complete and valuable repertoire of manners, words and sentiments of those times.

Part of the SDR project involved fifteen local writers coming together to find inspiration, under the guidance of poet and writer Greta Stoddart. This Creative Writers Group would meet at different village halls along the SDR, walking the Ridgeway, making notes and working on poems. Greta explained: “The Ridgeway is an evocative place. ‘Evocative’ means to call out, rouse or summon, in the sense of calling spirits or being called by them. It conjures up presences from the past. The act of walking is also physical, allowing the mind to switch off and the consciousness to let go, welcoming other thoughts in. With a meditative stride, in such an alert yet relaxed state, thoughts are allowed to flow.” Listening to the inspired poems read by members of the Group, you certainly grasped this sense of inspiration and emotion.

Chalbury hillfort above Preston
(photo taken from Preston, Bowleaze and Overcombe by D. Joan Jones -

Maiden Castle
Greta feels that the Ridgeway affords height and length, thus offering a different perspective. “Seamus Heaney is good at conjuring up the sense of being in the present and past at the same time (for example, in his poem ‘Bone Dreams’, inspired by Maiden Castle near Dorchester). 

Thinking about stones, bones and time, we become aware of the natural transience of all things. This provides an understanding of our mortal place in the world.” The poets went on to write a communal poem, strung out along the route of the Ridgeway – and we were treated to part of this as an inspired group reading.

 Christopher Nicholson was the last speaker of the afternoon. He has written three diverse novels, but spoke mainly of his love of the countryside and Hardy, which inspired his latest novel Winter, a story based on Thomas and Florence Hardy. He explained: “The old place name ‘Wessex’ was rescued by William Barnes when he referred to it in a Foreword to a book. Hardy picked this up and developed it as a semi-fictional place, ‘partly real, partly dream country’. He later included a map of fictional Wessex in his novels, such was its romantic appeal to him and his readers.

Hardy was interested in ‘deep history’ – an archaeological idea but also psychological. Wessex offered him a sense of Old England, stretching back, evoking folklore, myths and legends, the old stories of his grandparents. It was important and valuable to Hardy and gave him a unifying idea for all his novels. It also acted as a get-out in case anyone accused him of making a mistake: it’s Casterbridge, not Dorchester, after all!. It became an effective marketing tool, still used today in names like Wessex FM, Wessex Alarms, and so on. Indeed, the red burglar alarm installed by the latter at Max Gate would have raised a Hardy smile.
Hardy's home Max Gate, now owned by the National Trust

His novel The Woodlanders is particularly atmospherically rich, yet Hardy’s view of the countryside remained ambivalent; he wrote about the tension between city and countryside very well. He succeeded because he invented this part real, part dream country, which many of his readers (town people) loved. In other narratives, the countryside is variously described as poor but virtuous; a place of boredom that you must escape from; nostalgic (not as beautiful of it once was); full of secret violence and nocturnal skulduggery (Sherlock Holmes had this anti-romantic view of the countryside).

Hell Lane linking North Chideock and Symondsbury
(photo taken from More Secret Places by Louise Hodgson -

Top o' Town, Dorchester (photo taken from She Opened the Door
by Peter John Cooper -
All views contain a certain truth, but it is what you make of it. Hardy was very good at offering us these various views and different notions. For instance, contrast Eustacia Vye with Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native. Hardy was a sort of returning native, an oddity to local people, having left his birthplace, living the high life elsewhere, then returning to write, with some humour, of local places and characters. There was a lot of mistrust and suspicion of him locally.”

As a final thought, Christopher concluded that biographers are constrained by the facts, while novelists can get inside people’s heads and say what they might have been thinking. In his book Winter, he offers a personal view of Hardy, as exists in his own head, mixing fact with fiction.

To sum up the SDR project, it is about being in the past and present at the same time. It invokes lots of voices: singers, historians, poets (ancient and contemporary), readers and writers. I hope there’s more to come, maybe even a book to celebrate the project, people and places involved.

© Julie Musk, 2016