Cranborne, Dorset

By yew trees scattered among the hedgerows and beyond the near-perfect village of Martin, the rolling chalk uplands of Cranborne Chase stretch to the skyline. May and nut bushes grow on patches of tussocky sheep pasture between the wide expanses of oatmeal-coloured plough. Once mostly forest, these chalk uplands lay bare their ancient earthworks – barrows, castles and dykes. By the 1820s the hunting rights on the Chase and the restrictions they imposed on private property made the laws almost impossible to enforce and resulted in pitched battles between keepers and poachers, encouraged and sometimes joined by the local gentry. One nearby clump of beech on a hilltop (or ‘hat of trees’, as they are known locally) is called ‘Bloody Coppice.’  The village of Cranborne lies in a hollow beside towering beech trees. It has a sleepy, small-town air with its square and its ordered streets of redbrick and whitewashed houses and jumble of tiled roofs. In Castle Street red geraniums swing in hanging baskets outside the village stores, and along Church Street sedums and fig trees flourish against the thatched cottage walls on the way to the churchyard.

Cranborne_Manor_gardens_and_Church_-_geograph.org.uk_-_373156The size of the flint-faced church tells of the important market town which Cranborne once was. Inside, remnants of terracotta-coloured wall paintings still cover the 13th-century nave walls. Over the churchyard wall rise the clustered brick chimneys of one of the most romantic manor houses in England. The weather-stained turret embedded in its west wall is evidence of its former life as a royal hunting lodge, which it was from the time of King John.

Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury, then bought it from Queen Elizabeth I, to whom he was chief minister. A small hunchback, he maintained his position as the most powerful man in England with her successor James I, and proceeded to transform the hunting lodge into his own flight of Jacobean fancy. Building was his favourite hobby, and though his primary residence of Hatfield House near London remains overwhelmingly grand in comparison, his manor in Dorset, enhanced by succeeding generations, remains an essay in the picturesque.

The gardens were laid out by John Tradescant in the 17th century and have been much embellished during the last by the Cecils, who still live here and own much of the village. Passing out of the churchyard through a different gate into Swan Street, I talked to a lady who was hoeing between ferns and love-lies- bleeding in a garden surrounding the small telephone exchange. Tradescant’s spirit is everywhere – the spent hollyhocks along the wall in Swan Street are 12 feet tall and the Fleur de Lys public house in the middle of the village is so swamped with Virginia creeper on its front and wistaria on its back that few of its windows remain visible.

I walked up the high-hedged lane to Castle Hill, where on the very summit is a chalk-capped earthwork, grown over with sweet chestnuts and oaks. The ascent is steep but glimpses of the Chase between the trees make the climb worthwhile. Up here is unadulterated Dorset, and I was glad that there were no notices or explanations about this strange tump. They say that in the days of early Britain it was a meeting-place where the hundred court was held; the judge sat at the summit and when all were assembled he would open the session with the cry, ‘Truth against the world, and in the face of the sun.’ Two miles to the east, Bokerley Dyke, a great defensive bank thought to have been built by the Romano-British, forms the Dorset/Hampshire border and the terrain changes dramatically into sandy rhododendron country running on down to Bournemouth and another world.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Simon Barnes

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