Lyme, Bridport, Dorchester and the Outer Hebrides

The A35 is the major highway in southern Dorset, starting from Honiton in Devon and ending in Southampton in Hampshire. At least partly a highway as it still passes through the centre of numerous villages. Previously, the building of bypasses was a hot political issue with some inhabitants longing for the restoration of peace and quiet in their villages, while the pub and restaurant keepers feared the loss of the passing trade. But I didn’t see much evidence of strife this time.

I’ve travelled the road many times but still have much to learn. Part of it is Roman but the transport route is probably older than that passing through a landscape with many tumuli, barrows and standing stones, including the Broad Stone and the Nine Stones near Winterbourne Abbas from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. When I’m done with Dorset churches (probably rather late in the Anthropocene era..), I shall look at these early remains, but also travel the road with a historian’s eye, a farmer’s eye, a geologist’s eye and whatever other eyes I can think of, observing the field patterns and the lie of the land, paying careful attention to the place names, great and small, not satisfied with just noting that Dorset is a beautiful county but continually struggling against false familiarity.

Every time I come to Dorset, I learn more. This time I found out about Sir George Somers, a seventeenth century privateer (“state-licensed pirate”), the so-called “discoverer” of Bermuda, which used to be called Somers Island. In those early days, there were many links between the West Country and the colonists in Virginia and elsewhere in North America. Like other formerly officially respected figures from that time, accusations of slavery have been raised against Somers (and denied). His statue in Lyme where he was later mayor has been under threat and I believe his statue in Bermuda has been moved to a more discreet location.

His heart and entrails are buried in Bermuda but the rest of him was shipped back to Lyme and ended up in the graveyard of the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross at Whitchurch Canonicorum just off the main road to the east. Dorset has many villages with “double-barrelled” names and quite a few with a Latin tag. The genitive Latin plural “Canonicorum” indicates that the tithes of the parish were shared between two sees, Salisbury (Sarum) and Bath and Wells. The Whitchurch might originally have been just the colour of the church but is now associated with the relics of St Candida (Wite), referred to variously as a Saxon saint and as being from Breton. I’ve seen the shrine dated to the thirteenth century, which might support the colour being the original determinant of the name (or that the relics were there before the shrine).

It’s one of the two churches (the other is Westminster Abbey) that has a shrine of this kind, most of them being destroyed during the reformation. Perhaps Dorset was such a backwater that the destroyers of idolatry couldn’t find their way through the lanes.

I didn’t go inside the church this time; I’m not enthusiastic about shrines (not just because I’m not religious but also on aesthetic grounds. I don’t want to be disrespectful to the hopes and agony of believers and sufferers but I find the apertures for messages and pleas to the saint for intercession tawdry and unpleasant.

The churchyard is also famous for grave of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian who was given a fatal jab of ricin at a London bus stop.

I visited another church closer to Dorchester, Winterbourne Steepleton (often spelt “bourne” in contrast to nearby Winterborne Martin, for reasons lost in the mists of English inconsistency). What little there is of a steeple is of later date so the name probably derives from the steepness of the valley location rather than the architecture (supported by a tendency to write “stupelton” in old documents (stupian being slope in old English). There is still some Saxon work at the church, the most striking being a stone angel from before the conquest. It’s hard to see what the angel is up to – it appears to be flying backwards. I’ve seen the explanation that it represents St Michael, the archangel whose remit included vanquishing evil: perhaps the unusual posture is because St Michael is destroying various pagan leftovers. The dating disturbs me, however, as it took time for Anglo-Saxons to conquer Dorset and they must have been Christian for quite some time by then (and the remaining Celtic population had probably been Christian from the Roman period onwards) so the question arises of what Pagan leftovers?

The history of church dedications is interesting although I haven’t found many works or articles about this topic.

Further along the road from Whitchurch (but before the Winterbourne turning) is the small town of Bridport, once an important centre for the rope industry and with an unbroken tradition of small industry of various kinds from the eighteenth century onwards (and craft activities before that). Like many places with early industrial activity, the non-conformist denominations were important and still have a presence in Bridport with former and extant churches. I didn’t have my Pevsner on architecture with me but still visited the very pleasant garden of the Friends Meeting House, admired a spectacular blue flower, which I think was one of the cranebills and learnt about the shape of Quaker gravestones and avoidance of the martial month names July and August.

The eastward trek along the A35 ended in Dorchester, a town I’m very fond of.

I passed briefly through Poundbury, Prince Charles creation inspired by the principles of New Urbanism.

It was larger than I remembered it from my previous visit but I don’t like it. Even ignoring the royal association, which doesn’t please me, I find the mix of large urban and small residential buildings visually disturbing. I like some of the individual buildings but not the overall impact. I’m unsure whether I’m in a town or a village. The number and type of retail outlets seemed about the same as last time – an estate agents, a bank or two, a shop selling bridal/marriage wear, among others so maybe I was wrong about the negative impact of Poundbury on the traditional town centre (there are a lot of closed shops but perhaps for other reasons than a drain of resources to Poundbury). I don’t either like the feeling of being cut off from the ancient and rather wonderful surrounding landscape.

Poundbury seems like a dormitory suburb, lacking the interactions of an established village or town. And this is perhaps one of the flaws of New Urbanism. You can reproduce traditional architecture but you can’t artificially reproduce the activities (and quirks) of a population. However, as a taxi driver remarked it’s there now. It would be interesting to read what academic articles are available about the development, who lives there and what they feel about it.

Now I have to forget about Dorset for a while as I will soon be leaving for the Outer Hebrides. I’m re-reading James Hunter’s book, “The Making of the Crofting Community” (unfortunately I have the “popular” edition without footnotes and a bibliography but I shall try to track down one of the more comprehensive editions). I want to get to grips with the pronunciation and meaning of Gaelic place names and look at the distribution of Scandinavian names along the coast of the islands (it’s curious to suddenly come across a settlement called “Bostad” (the Swedish/Scandinavian word for home or place to live, although “bo” is related to many similar words in other languages, perhaps even “bauer” in German (a settled rather than nomadic activity) and “bothy” in Scots).

There’s much of interest in the history of the crofting communities and in Hunter’s work (with references for example, to E.P. Thompson’s work on the English working class). Hunter makes a sharp critique of some (revisionist) academic authors wishing to present the actions of the landlords in the highland clearances and forced emigration as being economically necessary and progressive. In fact, economic forces were creating a framework that strongly encouraged the landlords to make brutal choices. Individual landlords may have made efforts to organise the emigration in a more humane way but they were a drop in the bucket and, while perhaps making the passage less hazardous for a few individuals, did not alter the fact that the landlords, both more and less repressive, largely dismantled the highland communities and destroyed their homes.

The passage of the crofting legislation (in the early twentieth century I believe) gave the crofters greater security of tenure but was hardly a “happy ending” (any more than the abolition of serfdom was in nineteenth-century Russia). Most of the problems of crofting remained unsolved (and currently insoluble). The only approach is to analyse the activities of the various participants – the landlord class, the crofters, and the UK government (who were prepared to make some concessions to the crofters at the expense of the local landlords as they had enough on their hands with the situation in Ireland without fighting on a new front against militant crofters trained in the use of firearms in WW1). I shall check and see what’s available – I might be lucky as Uppsala University is the most important centre in Sweden for studying Celtic languages and societies, including Gaelic.

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