On the edge of Cranborne Chase, off a stretch of the blank, straight-as-a-die road between Salisbury and Blandford, a lane leads north-westward for three quarters of a mile to a wooded hollow. Here lies the lovely village of Chettle. Its seclusion is total: during the two hours I wandered round it, no car drove by. The stillness was extraordinary. Only the cawing of rooks, an occasional dog’s bark or the cries of children playing broke the silence. Up a tree-lined track beyond the church, a great wood shelters the village from the western weather, while two Neolithic long barrows stand sentinel at each corner. ‘Ceital’, the village’s Saxon name (meaning ‘the deep valley between hills’), has harboured some form of tribal settlement since around 1700 BC. The present village is a mere spring chicken in comparison, but its settled feel is as old as the hills.
Across the thistled park, where Guernsey cattle graze, the glamorous red-brick manor house stands tall against huge trees. A long row of picture-book thatched cottages with kempt gardens before them lines the lane and faces out towards the park. Further on, past an old orchard full of sheep under leaning apple trees, is the village shop: ‘Purveyors of Provisions to the Chase Benefice… If it is not in stock we will try to get it for you.’ The small, white-painted corrugated-iron hut, which also acts as the post office, is as opposite to a supermarket as anywhere in Britain. It might not stock avocados and balsamic vinegar, but it has everything I need: chocolate, cheddar cheese and postcards; long wooden shelves sag with the weight of tinned peas and peaches. The cheery shopkeeper knows everything there is to know about Chettle. The whist drives in the village hall are once a fortnight, the Carol Service this year is going to be better than ever and, ‘Yes, it’s a beautiful village, isn’t it? There’s no weekenders, only people who live here full-time and work locally. That’s the rule. You know it’s all owned by one family.’
The Chafins of Chettle were here for three centuries. Thomas Chafin famously commanded a troop of horses in defence of the crown at the Battle of Sedgemoor. (He later sent an account of the battle to his wife at Chettle. ‘I hope to be home on Saturday sennight,’ he wrote from London on 16th July 1685. ‘The late Duke of Monmouth’s head was severed from his body yesterday morning on Tower Hill about 10 or 11 forenoon. Lord Grey will soone be there too. Blessings to the bratts. Soe farewell, my dearest deare Nan.’) In 1710, the next generation of Chafins commissioned Thomas Archer to design a curvaceous gem of a Baroque house in place of the old one. It took 25 years to build, its front steps made of stone taken from a cave under the sea beside Portland Bill, its timbers cut from its own woodland, its bricks fired in the local kiln. The last of the Chafins died in 1818 and the house was left empty. When a rich Wimborne banker, Edward Castleman, bought the derelict house in the 1840s, he modified it but managed to retain Archer’s exuberant spirit. Castleman’s practical descendants have divided the house into flats, retaining one for themselves and turned the former dower house on the village street into a hotel.
Across the road from a handsome granary in a state of romantic disrepair and a weed-choked pond stands St Mary’s church with its perpendicular tower and its shining bands of flint and whitish Tisbury stone. St Mary’s boasts the rare luxury of a priest in residence: in church terms, a Rural Peculiar.