An American in Dorset
Harry Ashley tells us in The Dorset Village Book that if he were a salmon making the hazardous journey upstream from Poole to spawn, he would struggle until he reached a quiet pool somewhere near the village of Sydling St. Nicholas. He concurs with the salmon: Sydling St. Nicholas is a corner of Old England at its basic best.
My own journey to Sydling may not have been quite as hazardous as the salmon's and it wasn't upstream, but it wasn't exactly easy either.
On the morning that I arrived in Sydling St. Nicholas I felt particularly proud of myself This trip had been a real challenge. I decided I must see this friendly, happy village after reading Roland Gant's description in his book Dorset Villages. It was one of several of my 'must sees' in the Dorchester area.
My plan was to stay at a small hotel in Dorchester, the Casterbridge, and radiate out and back each day making loop bus trips like the petals of a daisy, until I had visited all of my ,must sees', then move on to my next base and start radiating again. From Dorchester, so far, I had been to Wareham, Corfe Castle, Wimborne Minster, Shaftesbury, Wool, Portesham, Abbotsbury, and Beaminster.
These had all been delightful journeys, fairly simple to plan because they had several buses coming and going each day. But I ran into trouble with Sydling St. Nicholas. I couldn't find a bus that went directly from Dorchester to Sydling except the one on Wednesdays that left Trinity Street at 12.15 p.m. and arrived at 12.50 p.m. That wasn't any help because the only bus back to Dorchester left at 13.01. (1 do wish timetables would say 1.01 p.m.)
Surely Sydling was worth more than a ten minute visit. After carefully studying the Pearce, Darch & Willcox timetable I realized that on Saturday I could catch an 8.32 a.m. bus on Trinity Street and arrive in Cattistock at 9.00 a.m. I could look around for thirty minutes and then catch the 9.31 that would arrive in Sydling at 9.40, giving me a little more than three hours to explore before catching the 1.01 p.m. back to Dorchester.
Obviously the independent operators do not run their buses for the convenience of tourists. They exist for the convenience of the villagers and are scheduled to meet their needs. Sometimes they run only once a week and at times more suited to the village housewife's schedule than the traveller's. But, using a little ingenuity, I have found them to be a delightful way to see the best of Dorset.
The drivers are friendly and courteous and call their regulars by name. More than once I've seen a driver get out and help a young mother board with her baby's push chair. Sometimes they will drop an elderly passenger off right at their own front door. Most of the passengers know each other and engage in friendly conversation. Once in a while I have been included.
On the way to Sydling St. Nicholas one kind lady invited me into her cottage for scones and tea. Everything doesn't always go smoothly. More than once I have been stranded because I failed to check my timetables carefully. I couldn't believe that in the middle of June there would be no bus back to Wimborne from Shaftesbury after 6.00 p.m. I stood by the bus stop for more than an hour before it dawned on me.
Another time I hopped a Mid Dorset coach at 12.00 noon in Dorchester and arrived in Milton Abbas at 12.55 p.m. to find there was no return coach at all. But these slip ups on my part did not develop into catastrophes because each time it was a simple matter to call a taxi and within minutes be speeding back to my guest house. The A Line service from Dorchester rescued me more, often than I care to admit.
Of course the fare was considerably more than the bus fare but still much less than car rental for a day. The independent buses are my favourite means of travel in Dorset but I found Southern National and Wilts & Dorset to be useful as well, if not quite so friendly. I've 'even used British Rail on short hops a few times, just like a regular tourist.
That Saturday morning in Sydling I found the ground covered with bright primroses and white violets. Roses were climbing on many of the walls. The village is in a valley high on the downs of South Dorset surrounded by gentle, soft, green hills.
The stream known as the Sydling Water runs through the village and divides into three. Many of the ancient cottages of stone and flint or brick and flint are reached by way of tiny connecting bridges.
I saw a large spreading chestnut tree where High Street and East Street meet, but, it is not here but further down the road that the village smithy stands. His establishment is not an Olde Smithe Teashoppe selling plastic lucky horseshoes, it's the genuine article. In fact I found all of Sydling to be the genuine article. It is full of the feeling that villages used to have when they were units in which people lived and worked together for long periods of time. I loved being there.
As I wandered down Church Lane on my way to visit the Parish Church of St. Nicholas, the peace and quiet generated thoughts of the Saxons who settled there in the seventh and eighth centuries. Their strip farming "lynchets" can still be clearly seen along the sides of the hills. Was it as peaceful then?
The only noise to be heard now was the soft bubbling of the streams and the voices of a few children playing soccer. One boy hit a ball that bounced close to me and rolled into my leg. "Look out Brian," his friend yelled, "you hit the tourist".
How did they know? I wasn't carrying any luggage and I had my camera hidden away in my handbag. I had hoped to be taken for someone from a neighbouring village. I hadn't had a chance to talk to anyone since leaving the cottage of my friend from the bus, so it couldn't have been my accent. I was devastated, but only for a moment.
There was so much to see and I only had three hours. I started with the Old Vicarage which has grown up around an old Tudor house, then visited a bakery with mullioned windows and a datestone reading 1733. Isaw a yew tree a villager told me was 800 years old and a tithe barn nearly as ancient. Then of course there was the church.
I learned from a beautifully written booklet I found inside that it stands on the site of at least two previous buildings believed to date from the earliest Christian times in England. An authority on trees has estimated that the Yew in the churchyard is over 1000 years old. As this species was commonly planted on church property, there is little doubt that the present building stands on an original site.
The tower (1430) is the oldest part of the existing building and the Sacrament has been administered here from the same Chalice the 'Sydling Cup' for at least 400 years. There is a splendidly practical fireplace built to warm parish council meetings of the past proving that some of our church going ancestors were not averse to at least one creature comfort.
I vividly remember the scene in the film Far from the Madding Crowd, when the downpour drenched Fanny Robin's 'grave'. The film makers used one of the fine gargoyles which carry the rainwater from the roofs.
I spent quite a while inspecting the memorials to the twenty six Smithsthat lie beneath the chancel floor. I remembered that Roland Gant said that the Smith family had lived in the manor house beside the church for 150 years. I looked for the figure of the mourning woman standing over her husband, Sir John Smith. It was there just as he had said: a late eighteenth century work in marble. The hands and.feet are delicately carved, but the hand at the end of the extended arm has broken off, and Sir John's gesture has been reduced to a two fingered salute.
The Church Records make interesting reading, sometimes happy, more often sad. The harshness of the 19th century is reflected in the Baptismal Registers 26th April 1829, William Henry, son of William and Susan Smith father (shepherd) transported to Botany Bay; mother resident in Sydling."
Burials are also mentioned 30th of December 1832, 'John Webber, abode Broadmain, aged 15.' "This boy was shot by the Coast Guard having been employed by his master, a glazier, to assist the smugglers to carry away their tubs." Could that have been the boy I remember reading about in the novel Moonfleet?
As I stood in the church that I read about at home in my den in California, I thought how lucky I was to have come alone with no bored companions to hurry me along. Noticing fascinating little details doesn't appeal to everyone. When I left St. Nicholas its clock was striking. It has no face but it can still strike the hours. I counted twelve.
Just one hour left before catching my bus. I had to decide if I wanted to stop at the centuries old Greyhound Inn or follow the footpath that leads to Breakheart Hill.
A woman inside the church (whose husband was yawning beside the door) told me that Breakheart Hill had the prettiest view in Dorset. I only hesitated a moment before taking off up the beckoning path, the woman looking wistfully after me as she and her husband headed for the inn.
I decided to have lunch back in Dorchester at the Napper Mite where they serve those marvellous jacket potatoes dripping with melting cheddar cheese, the kind my husband would have lifted his eyebrows over and then said: "aren't you worried about all those calories?" On that day in Sydling St. Nicholas I wasn't worried about anything. I was having the time of my life.
All I had to do was decide if, after lunch, I wanted to catch the Air Camelot service that went to Cerne Abbas or take the Dorset Queen line that stopped at Durdle Door. Either choice would bring me back to Dorchester in plenty of time to change for dinner and try that intriguing looking restaurant across from the Casterbridge, the Bridge Between. I think it refers to the bridge between vegetarians and carnivores.
After exploring all day I was sure I would be in the carnivore category. I opted for Cerne Abbas* and the rude giant carved into the chalk hills. The villagers are annoyed because this giant fertility figure is their main source of fame. Cerne is a very old and beautiful place with fine old world streets a joy to film makers, but as I rode back to Dorchester, after a lovely afternoon topped off by fresh strawberries and thick clotted cream at the Singing Kettle Tearoom, it was the memory of the morning's trip to Sydling that dominated my mind.
I think it was because Sydling has the air of a working village with its people going about their business with little regard for the tourist who might wander through (although they sure S~ydling St Nicholas has some typical Dorset thatch on offer. spotted me) while Cerne Abbas is all tarted up. It's a show piece village for overseas visitors with excellent inns and cafes to entertain people who come to see this fine example of an old world town. But it was the 'genuine article'
I was after the 'real' England, the England I had seen that morning in Sydling. Its present population is only 325 compared with 675 in 1859 when the community was nearly self supporting. It had bakers, boot makers, carpenters, thatchers, grocers and a butcher as well as farmers and those directly connected with agriculture.
Today the occupations of the residents are quite diverse, many travelling a great distance to their various employments; but most of the land is still given over to agriculture and large flocks of sheep look just as at home as they did in 1550 when 2,700 sheep were kept on one farm alone. The magic is still there.
It's just as L.W.G. and G.M. Hudson said when they wrote the little booklet I found in the church a "lively, friendly and happy village, so snugly tucked away in our beloved Sydling Valley, in the soft round hills of Dorset."
*Actually, Cerne Abbas is only a few miles from Sydling. If I had been Dorchester The Napper's Mite. travelling by car I could have reached it in a matter of minutes but then I would have missed my chat with the little lady on the bus and wouldn't have had a chance to sample her delicious scones, see her beautiful garden or had an excuse to eat those jacket potatoes at the Nappers Mite.