For the last two days, we have been travelling through the beautiful rolling hills of Dorset. We left our hotel in Salisbury and drove through some lovely country roads and lanes and by late morning we had reached the village of Cerne Abbas. One thing really surprised me. I have always associated red double decker buses with London, yet just out of Salisbury, we saw one on a country road. It was part of the local transport network.
Cerne Abbas is a delightful little village that grew up around a significant Benedictine abbey (Cerne Abbey) which was founded there in AD 987 and dominated the area for around 500 years. The narrow streets are full of old buildings. Few of them have straight angles and 90 degree corners. I spent a little while wandering through the streets taking photos and felt grateful that we were not there a few months ago when the tourist season was at its peak. It’s hard enough to find a parking place now, let alone when the town would have been full of tourists.
On a nearby hill is the Cerne Abbas Giant – a figure cut out of the turf on the hillside. We were here some years ago and then the giant was quite distinctive. Now, the chalk that outlined the figure has washed away and it is a bit harder to make out. It depicts a large naked man with and is typically described as a giant wielding a club. The figure is listed as a scheduled monument and the site where he stands is owned by the National Trust. The origin and age of the figure are unclear. I read that it is thought of as being an ancient figure, perhaps the Roman god, Hercules, but the earliest mention of it dates only back to the late 17th century. It’s just another ancient British mystery.
We decided to head to the southern coast and have lunch somewhere in one of the towns there. By accident, we came to Abbotsbury – a delightful town with stone houses that formed a very picturesque streetscape. It also had a good pub where we could not only eat, but also take advantage of their car park to enable us to have a short walk around the town.
We were a bit stymied on the next leg of our trip. The major road that led to Exeter (our next stopovre for a couple of nights) was blocked and we couldn’t find how to allow the assigned detour. In the end, we succeeded in getting round the roadworks by successively plugging one village after another into our GPS until we estimated that we were past the section that was closed. This took us, by chance, past another National Trust property – The Hardy Monument. It struck me as having a large tower shaped like an inverted telescope on the top of a hill as being a little strange. It wasn’t until I Googled it that I found out its purpose. Vice Admiral Hardy was the man in whose arms Lord Nelson died and said those famous words “Kiss me Hardy”. Everyone thought it would be fitting that a memorial to him should be visible from the sea and potentially be used as a navigation aid.
In the afternoon, we explored the seaside village of Lyme Regis, looking for a view along the coast. The village was very busy and we couldn’t find a road that led to the beach. As an alternative, we drove around to Charmouth where we found a hill owned by the National Trust that gave us something of a view over the cliffs. Eventually, we found a street that led to the little harbour and we could see some way along the Jurassic Coast. This area is renowned for not only its natural beauty, but also for the fossils that are washed out of the cliffs. They are very popular with amateur palaeontologists.
We had a free day in Exeter today and rather than visit the city and see another cathedral (which I’m sure is very impressive), we headed back a little way along the coast to a gorgeous village called Branscombe. This village straggles along a series of narrow roads through a steep-sided valley and ends at a shingle beach, There is a cafe at the beach and a voracious parking machine that charges one pound per hour. I begrudgingly entered our car registration number into the machine, along with a one pound coin so that I could go for a little walk along the beach. It was nothing but stones although it was a pleasant area, but very different to the beaches that I am used to walking on.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, this little village of Branscombe was a source of hand-made lace, and Branscombe Point is a style that I understand is still practised by lacemakers worldwide. These days, the village’s principal industries are farming and tourism. The village contains three National Trust properties – The Old Bakery, Manor Mill & Forge. The church is in a very attractive location. It appears to have been extended and altered over time. Inside is board that shows the names of every vicar since 1269. I noticed that the first female vicar took over the parish in 2001.
Next, we drove about 20 miles to Killerton, another National Trust Property where there was a restaurant (for lunch) and the chance to see a grand farm property. Killerton is an 18th-century house with an estate that covers some 25.9 square kilometres. It had been in the same family for 400 years. They married well, stayed out of politics and made a lot of steady money. The house is comfortable, but not grand.
We probably stayed at Killerton a little too long as we also wanted to see another National Trust property called Knightshayes in the town of Tiverton, a little further north of Exeter. We got lost in the town and didn’t actually reach the property until after admissions to the house had closed. All I could do was to take a couple of photographs of the house from the outside and get a quick view across the property.
This house was owned by the Heathcoat-Amory family. John Heathcoat was born into a Derbyshire farming family in 1783. He was the ingenious inventor of a machine that revolutionised the production of lace. His original factory was destroyed by Luddites so he moved his factory and a large number of his workers to Tiverton, and established a lace-works which, by the later part of the nineteenth century, was the largest lace-producing manufactory in the world. By the late 19th century, the Heathcoat-Amory family owned much of the manufacturing and land around Tiverton. Sir John Heathcoat-Amory, 1st Baronet chose the site of Knightshayes, because from it, he could see his factory in the distance. He left it to the National Trust in the 1940’s as he had no mail heir who could inherit it.
Our dinner tonight was in the pub next door to our hotel, The Barn Owl. We had good food in a pub that is more recent than it looks. It’s made out of recycled materials, so it has the atmosphere of a very old establishment, even though it was built only relatively recently.