Corona Diary, Day 23

Tuesday, 7 April

After having pursued my Dorset church project on and off for a couple of years, it’s time to make an overview of what I’ve done and what remains to be done.

I’ll start before the Norman conquest with the Anglo-Saxons. With the exception of Sherborne Abbey where the Anglo-Saxon influence is more substantial, most of the remnants from that period are small. They can be found at Melbury Bubb, Melbury Osmund, Wareham and Winterbourne Steepleton with smaller bits and pieces elsewhere.

Melbury Bubb is south of Sherborne, the church being dedicated to St Mary. Much of the church has been rebuilt but it has a spectacular Anglo-Saxon font, which Pevsner describes as “barbaric..wild, entangled strands and animals all upside down” but which I rather like (we’d better start get used to barbarism, it’s all the rage). They are upside-down as the font was probably originally a preaching cross recycled into a font. Apparently, early on in the Christian Anglo-Saxon period, congregations may have gathered around these preaching crosses before a church was built so that the presence of Saxon work in a preaching cross is not necessarily an indication that there was a Saxon church at a particular location (you’d need to look at the dating of objects fairly carefully).

Melbury Bubb is an intriguing name. There are a number of Melburys. The Bubb is probably a family name either from the Anglo-Saxon period (Bubbo) or a Norman family. There are various theories about Melbury (several other villages have Melbury as the first part of their name). The “bury” is simply a fortified place but the “Mel” is variously thought to have originated from the Old Celtic (Brythonic presumably) “mailo” meaning Bare (by Zachrisson) or from Anglo-Saxon “maelo” apparently meaning “variegated” (of many colours?) (by Ekwall, among others). Neither of these derivations seems immediately obvious. The hills around the Melburys are certainly bare but were they so denuded of trees in Anglo-Saxon times? And why call several neighbouring villages by a joint name of many colours? Anton Fägersten in his “The Place Names of Dorset” gives an account of the discussions. A lot of studies were made on Dorset place names by researchers at Lund University, which explains the Swedish names; these are still important works of reference on Dorset place names. Knowing Swedish gives you a better grasp of the meaning of many English place names than the English have themselves.

The area around Melbury Bubb also has literary associations being the assumed location of Thomas Hardy’s “The Woodlanders”. It’s one of my favourites set in this area, verdant and softly sylvan beneath the limestone uplands. Hardy’s locations are not crystal clear. I’ve seen Melbury Bubb referred to both as Hardy’s Great Hintock (odd given the tiny size of the place) and Little Hintock. And it’s very possible that Hardy’s inspiration was from a couple of other nearby villages, not the Melburys. But the atmosphere of the area is very Woodlanders.

Melbury Osmond is to the north-west a bit towards Yeovil. St Osmund’s church has a Saxon “bust seen from the top and enmeshed”. I haven’t visited that church and am not sure what Pevsner means here by “bust” in this context or indeed “enmeshed”. But I must put it on my list of things to see.

Melbury Osmond is named after St Osmund who was a Norman nobleman who came over with William the Conqueror and became Bishop of Sarum. My book of saints tells me that his hobby was copying books and binding them, which sounds more sympathetic than clanking around in armour.

According to Wikipedia, Melbury Osmond was the home of the Dorset Ooser during the nineteenth century, a wooden mask brought out during “Rough Music” ceremonies (described by historian Ronald Hutton as “a terrifying horned mask with human face, staring eyes, beard and gnashing teeth”). This was probably used in so-called Skimmity Rides, processions around the village when some person or persons who had offended the morality of the community were publicly mocked and harassed.

 Then there is Wareham, a small market town towards the east of the county. I’ve been there but never stayed in the town but I want to as I find it attractive, calm with its two swan-strewn rivers, the Frome and the Piddle, its old town walls, its ancient cinema and two churches St Marys and St Martins. St Martins, dedicated to the patron saint of beggars among others, has clear Anglo-Saxon work, including a window which may be from that period or possibly later. St Mary’s Anglo-Saxon origins are less obvious; most evocative are the collection of early inscriptions from the fifth or sixth to the ninth century. I’ve seen these but I’m not sure whether they are Romano-British (which the fifth century would be as this area was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons rather later) or Anglo-Saxon (which the ninth century would be) or perhaps both. I want to know more about these ancient stones – the thought that they might have been in this location since shortly after the Romans left is rather stunning.

Wareham was more important in the past, invaded on several occasions by the Vikings. It’s now a very peaceful place but within easy reach of Dorchester to the west, Purbeck to the south and Bournemouth to the east.

Winterbourne Steepleton (spelt “bourne” and not “borne” but meaning the same) has a very small church with a very fine carved tenth century Anglo-Saxon flying angel at the steepled church of St Michael in this small hamlet just a couple of kilometres west of Dorchester. I think I walked back into the city last time I was there.

And finally, Sherborne Abbey with its ochre-coloured ham stone, a building I’ve been familiar with, at least since 1956 when my mother and I stayed at an inn on Greenhill Sherborne to look at houses in the area when my parents were about to retire to the West Country from Sussex.

I know Sherborne well as it was the closest more substantial town to where we lived at Templecombe across the Somerset border. I used to cycle to Sherborne, both for more mundane activities such as getting my hair cut and my cycle fixed and to visit its second-hand bookshop, at that time filled with Victorian and post-Victorian novels. The town has a public school and with the abbey, something of a cultured air. It’s a place I’m fond of the town but know few people there as schools were organised on a county basis and Somerset boys went to Somerset schools, while Sherborne was in Dorset.

I’ve been in the abbey many times but I want to go there again and study the building, now I know more about architecture.

And this is what I have done today which has been enjoyable. I’ve also prepared Anglia’s accounting material for March to send to the accountant, a bit early but I’d like to get it done just in the postal service gets chaotic. And a customer came to collect a translation from the lobby of the building, not wanting him any closer. Weird times…it’s rather nice to think about Dorset instead. And also a boon that I’m so well-equipped with works of reference about the county and can do research with my own resources (and, of course, the net); the best collection of books on Dorset going east until you get to California, I imagine (although Vladivostok was probably always a weak competitor on this front even before my bibliomania intensified).

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