An American in Dorset: The Continuing Saga, or A Seven Day Slice of English Country Life
by Joanne Paul
It was 9:05 in the morning in the Dorset Village with two names--Iwerne Courtney and Shorton--and I had been standing by the bus stop across from the post office in Iwerne Courtney for only a few minutes when the little country bus, making it's weekly Tuesday round trip between Blandford and Salisbury, came into view. When it was still a hundred yards away I could see the curly haired head of the driver in the front window. A few feet more and I could see his smiling face as he waved. I waved back and said good-bye to the pleasant gentleman I had been chatting with while we waited for our buses. He was going to Blandford just a few miles away and I planned to travel in the opposite direction to Salisbury.
Going to Salisbury for a spot of shopping is a common occurrence for Dorset folk but not for residents of California's San Fernando Valley. For me it was a major event. Strolling through Cathedral Close and visiting charming old buildings like Mompesson House and Malmesbury House, as well as the great cathedral that has been standing since the middle ages, are treats unavailable in the San Fernando Valley.
I loved passing through the medieval gateway into the Cathedral Close and a fascinating part of English history, but for me the best part of the trip was the ride on the country bus and the best part of the ride was the part while we were still in Dorset. I can think of nothing more agreeable than slowly traveling through the Dorset countryside in a cozy country bus. Not just any bus will do. The big coaches and buses run by large national companies have none of Dorset's special magic. It's the little rural buses run for the convenience of the villagers that are special.
With a few exceptions, I can usually tell when we pass over the border into a neighboring county. The landscape is still beautiful but not in the same way. Dorset magic is very special. The soft and gentle countryside cast it's spell during my first visit in 1982 and has compelled me to return every year since. I knew when I boarded the Blandford Company's bus that it was one of the special magic buses because all of the passengers looked happy and contented and the driver looked happiest of all. Small wonder, he had the enviable job of driving from one charming village to another in England's most beautiful countryside. He greeted each passenger by name as they boarded and exchanged local gossip as he took their fares. Of course he didn't know my name but he seemed genuinely pleased to have me aboard. The other passengers gave me welcoming smiles as I found my seat.
The first thing I noticed was that the windows were clean! Then I realized that the whole vehicle was immaculate. This was very unusual; I've always been tempted to carry a bottle of Windex along when I go bussing. Next I realized that there was no rattle and bump! This, indeed, was a special bus even for Dorset.
We had experienced showers earlier in the morning but as we passed through lwerne Minster and Sutton Waldron the sun began to send shafts of golden light to enliven the already lovely countryside. By the time we reached the Milestone Tea Room in Compton Abbas the sky had become a John Constable sky: the kind with both blue and gray patches and silvery gray clouds as well as those that are snowy white. The varying shades of light made everything seem more interesting than when the sky is totally blue.
We arrived in Salisbury at 10:38. Our driver reminded us to be back in the square no later than 1:30 PM for our return journey. I had nearly three hours to spend enjoying Salisbury. While my fellow passengers rushed off to do their shopping I had plenty of time to take the Guide Friday Tour on one of their double deck buses. I sat on top and listened to the very scholarly guide explain the history of all the fascinating places we were seeing. After the tour I had a Ploughman's Lunch at an attractive pub with outside tables in the center of town where I could watch all the bustling activity. After a slow walk in the cathedral close it was time to return to the square.
My fellow passengers and I met our Magical Bus at precisely 1:30 as instructed. Our driver carefully counted heads and realized we were one short. He searched the pavement crowded with busy shoppers and tourists until he saw the missing passenger hurrying along with her arms full of bundles. He got down from his seat to help her board and tucked her shopping bounty carefully away in the baggage rack, smiling and chatting all the while. On our return trip I was again treated to the lovely scenery seen through my sparkling, clean window but this time the sky was mostly gray and threatening. I didn't see any county signs but I'm sure I could tell when we reentered Dourest. It was as if someone had pulled the switch and on came the magic.
The magic didn't prevent torrents of rain descending on Dorset as well as on Wiltshire so, since it was still early, it seemed a good idea to stay fifteen minutes more on the bus when it passed through Iwerne Courtney and ride on to Blandford. There I could browse around the shops, have a Dorset cream tea and catch a regular bus back to Iwerne Courtney at around 5:00 p.m. I told the driver my plan and had the extra money in my hand ready to pay but he wouldn't hear of it. He insisted that the extra miles would be his treat. It was a very ordinary bus that I caught in front of the bookshop at 5:00 PM. No greeting from the driver, no smiles as I found my seat, there was much rattling and bumping and again I found myself wishing for a bottle of Windex. However, it did deliver me safe and sound in front of the post office in Iwerne Courtney twenty minutes later.
My Salisbury trip was on Tuesday, the fourth day of my week long stay at Courtney Cottage. When I arrived on the previous Saturday the seventeenth century cottage, that once saw duty as the village school, made a very good impression. The weathered brick with it's white trim had a lovely mellowed look which beautifully complimented the red tile roof. When I stepped inside I became immediately aware of a cozy, intimate ambiance in the blue and gold sitting room with its log fire, bay window and attractive family heirlooms. My favorite B & B guide, "Staying off the Beaten Track", said that Courtney Cottage had "superb cooking, wonderful views and walks on the very doorstep." I've never been disappointed with any of Elizabeth Gundrey's recommendations so I was expecting something nice but this was more than nice, this was delightful.
My friends, Joyce and Hugh, joined me for dinner the first night. All three of us were amazed when we saw the lovely candlelit dining room. Our amazement increased as the meal progressed. We started with cheese aigrettes, then came paupicttes of beef in red wine, and we finished with raspberry and almond iced bombe. It was served by Emma Smith's husband on exquisite dinnerware. Emma, our hostess, once cooked for the British minister in Paris. "Superb cooking" is an understatement. It was terrific! The fresh roses on each table were real and so was the beautiful silver.
While we were having our after dinner coffee and home made chocolates in the sitting room we admired the portraits on the wall of Emma's ancestors. Her resemblance to her great, great, grandmother is astonishing. There is an uncanny resemblance among all of the women on her side of the family. In one of the paintings a young woman in eighteenth century dress is standing by an elegantly made table. We were told it was the same table we had recently been sitting around as we enjoyed our elegant dinner!
My bedroom was in the attic suite under the eaves. I could see a huge stone and thatched barn from my window. It seemed to me that it is as large as the more famous tithe barn at Abbotsbury. On Sunday morning, after Emma's tasty breakfast, I started my tour of the village. I found a pleasant mixture of the old and the new. There are stone cottages along one side of the church and thatched cottages throughout the village that blend nicely with the more recent development around a large village green.
The dominant building material is red brick, some mellowed with age but most newer and more uniform. The church of St. Mary is very unusual because it was rebuilt in 1610 in the true Gothic manner rather than in the more revived style of the eighteenth century. The monument to Thomas Freke, who paid for the rebuilding, is decorated with angels, not very angelic angels but rather fat and awkward angels, but charming even so. The village position, standing apart from the A350 on its own little looping road in a wide valley with many trees, is ideal.
I started to play the game I play in every Dorset village: choosing the cottage I would most like to live in if I could have any one I wanted. The only rule is that it would have to be one we could reasonably afford, that is if I could ever persuade my husband to give up his desire to retire in Hawaii. This time I couldn't make up my mind between one of the stone cottages near the church with loads of character or one of the recently constructed and beautifully cared for houses around the village square.
Iwerne Courtney, or Shroton, the name the villagers prefer, is tucked under the Northeastern side of Hambledon Hill, the many-ramparted British hill fortress that eventually fell to Vespasian during the Roman Invasion. I attempted to climb Hambledon Hill last year from Child Okeford on the other side, but my husband was along on that trip and didn't quite get into the rambling, climbing spirit. We turned back when the going got a little steep. This year I was determined to reach the top and this Sunday afternoon seemed the ideal time to try. Staying off the Beaten Tract's promise of "superb cooking and wonderful views" had been more than fulfilled and now I found that "walks on the very doorstep" was an accurate statement as well.
Directly across from Courtney Cottage was a sign reading "Hambledon Hill Public Footpath." It seemed to be a nice open track, not too steep, so I estimated that it would take about fifteen minutes to reach the top. It seemed easier than the Child Okeford side. That impression changed when I came to the top of what was to be only the first of several ramparts. Each new rampart was invisible from the one below because it was set back a considerable distance.
I huffed and puffed up one substantial rampart only to find another waiting a few yards in front of me. The fifteen minute climb took nearly an hour, but when I finally reached the top of the last rampart I was well rewarded. My trusty Minolta had been clicking away during my climb and now it gathered speed. The views were magnificent! I used a whole roll of film and started another. I noticed that several other ramblers had made it to the top. They must have started from the Child Okeford side because I didn't see anyone as I made my climb. Perhaps Child Okeford was the easier route after all.
That Sunday on Hambledon Hill was the last sunny day I was to see during my stay at Iwerne Courtney. The sun peaked in and out on most of the other days but for the most part the Dorset Magic was of the damp and misty kind. That's not to say it wasn't still magic, but some days it took a true believer to trust in its existence. Tuesday's ride on the magic bus to Salisbury restored my faith but on Monday I would have liked to spend the day making further rambles around the village and exploring the site half a mile to the North were General Pitt Rivers started his excavation of Roman buildings in 1897. He found pre Roman broaches and coins as well as artifacts indicating that the same site had been used at three different times from the early Iron Age to the fourth century AD.
Interesting as this might have been, I wasn't ready to attempt it in pouring down rain. Instead I hopped on a regular bus to Shaftesbury where I caught another to Bournemouth and spent a fairly pleasant afternoon browsing through the shops. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday saw no let up in the gloom. I bused to Shaftesbury on all three days (on magic-less buses, wishing for my Windex) and can now claim to know Harding's Bookshop as well as the locals both upstairs and downstairs! I also became well acquainted with all the tea rooms and had great, difficulty limiting myself to just one cream tea per day. One time the rain did let up long enough for me to take my annual picture of Gold Hill and to catch a shot of a little boy and his dog admiring the view of the Blackmore Vale.
These days were not filled with Dorset Magic but the evenings were. The superb meals that started on Sunday continued throughout the week at Courtney Cottage and now I had the added pleasure of a charming new English Couple to enjoy them with. John and Allison arrived on my second evening and stayed through until the end of my visit. No matter what the weather was during the day it was bright and cheerful in the dining room and around the log fire in the sitting room during the evenings. The main reason I enjoy planning my own itinerary for my English trips rather than taking one of the many guided tours offered is because I've learned how to choose small hotels, inns and country houses that are mostly frequented by English people on holiday. I rarely run into another American. That's the whole idea!
At Courtney Cottage I met John and Allison, ideal companions for a good meal and a cozy evening around the fire. You might think that a dyed wood English couple wouldn't have much in common with a refugee from the San Fernando Valley, but Allison and I certainly did have something in common. That something was Laurence Olivier! We both adored him. We reminisced for hours about his illustrious career. Allison had a definite advantage over me. She was lucky enough to have seen almost every one of his stage performances starting in the thirties when he and John Gielgud were both acting in what might be called 'dueling Hamlets' because these great actors were alternating in the title role. I'm limited to only Olivier's filmed performances so of course I had to bow to Allison's superior familiarity. I doubt if any Americans I might have met on a guided tour originating in the States would have had Alison's enviable experience.
The sun was trying valiantly to overcome the mist on Saturday morning when Joyce and Hugh arrived to take me to my next stop. Maybe now the magic would be switched on during the day as well as in the evening. Even with this possibility in sight my last act on leaving Iwerne Courtney was to make my decision as to which house I would most like to live in. The modern red brick house across the village green won hands down. It looked as if it already had central heating and double glazing. I wasn't too sure about the little stone cottage near the church.