Tag Archives: dorchester

Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath

Mistaken marriages, passionate affairs, tragic deaths, richly interwoven with folklore and superstition.  This is the complex concoction contained in The Return of the Native, one of Thomas Hardy’s great novels.  Hardy set his narrative on the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a “vast tract of unenclosed wild” that assumes a claustrophobic, controlling influence on his characters.  Hardy’s Egdon Heath has many of the features of the heath landscape that once filled the space between Dorchester and Bournemouth.  I wanted to experience Egdon so, on a warm, humid day towards the end of July, I went to Winfrith Heath one of the surviving fragments of this Dorset heathland.

Winfrith Heath 1
Looking across the heath showing the subtle colour effect of the heather flowers

 

I followed a sandy soil track on to the heath, descending gradually between borders of gorse and low trees.  As I gained distance from the road, long views opened up across the gently undulating terrain surrounding me and an eerie quiet descended, broken only by trains passing on the heath-edge line.  Apart from the occasional stunted tree and a few drifts of pale green bracken much of this part of the heath appeared featureless and barren.

Closer inspection, however, revealed some of the heath’s special wildlife.   Near the path edge, the cheerful purples, pinks and violets of the three common species of heather showed well.   These heathers flourish across the heath alongside rough grasses and gorse, and their bright pastel-coloured flowers lend a purple-pink tinge to long views at this time of year, the colour augmented by sunshine but lost in a mass of dull browns and greens when cloud covers.   Large, metallic blue and green emperor dragon flies, the size of small birds, were attracted to the ponds scattered across the heath.  They swept back and forth across the water making repeated, aerial, hairpin turns in a constant search for insect food.  Heather spikes dipped momentarily when yellow-striped bumblebees moved among the flower-bells collecting pollen and nectar.

The sandy path levelled out. Heathland now spread extensively on both sides and, together with the grey cloud cover, created a claustrophobic feeling.  Ahead of me was a band of trees with a gate and standing water.  The trees mark a drainage ditch feeding into the Tadnoll Brook, a chalk-stream tributary of the River Frome.  I crossed the ditch on a very solid brick bridge, and was transported to a different world, one of damp meadows and thick rushy grass.  The wet meadow, soggy underfoot, was dominated by untidy stands of shoulder-high marsh thistles with multiple, prolific, spiny stems.  Each stem was topped by a starburst of flower heads, a mixture of shaggy purple flowers and brown and white fluffy seed heads.  Between the thistles, the lemon-yellow cushion flowers of bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the undergrowth and, as I walked, pale brown grasshoppers soared in long arcs from the rough grass, seeking safety away from me.

Butterflies danced around the unruly thistle flowers like confetti caught in the breeze, pausing occasionally to take nectar.  Small tortoiseshell, marbled white and peacock resembled colourful modernist stained glass and a pair of gatekeepers performed an airborne ballet.   This enclosed wetland felt like a land of plenty, a land of unconstrained, fulsome growth.  Even in high summer, however, the meadow was wet and marshy so that after winter rain the area will become boggy and treacherous.  A group of cows lurked in a corner of the meadow watching me; they help to control growth of vegetation but create further hazards for the unwary walker.

These two very different habitats, the larger lowland heath and the smaller wet meadow make up the majority of the Winfrith reserve as we see it today but the area hasn’t always looked like this.  Until the Bronze Age, this land was covered with forest (birch, pine, hazel, elm, oak) but 3-4000 years ago trees began to be felled exposing the underlying soil.  Nutrients were gradually washed away from freely draining soils leaving behind a relatively acidic surface where heathers and gorse flourished, eventually creating the heath we see today.  This landscape was maintained and scrub encroachment prevented through a combination of grazing by cattle and ponies and by heathland practices such as furze, turf and peat cutting.

Heathland once stretched from Dorchester in the west to the Avon Valley in the east but much has been lost following changes in agricultural practices or through building; a large part of Winfrith Heath was swallowed up when the nuclear research facility was built in the 1950s and still lies behind forbidding fences.  Today, only 15% of the original heath is left but what remains is a very important and rare landscape and part of Dorset’s history.  Its importance as a special habitat supporting rare species such as the Dartford warbler and the nightjar is recognised by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest but the heathland is still threatened directly or indirectly by development.

But did I get any sense of what Hardy’s Egdon Heath was like from my visit?  Even on a small area like Winfrith, there was a definite sense of isolation in the central part of the heath, and that feeling was only partially lifted when the sun shone and the heath took on some colour.   So, if it’s solitude you are after, then it’s a perfect place.  One person’s solitude is, however, another person’s loneliness and it’s not difficult to see how Egdon might have depressed some of Hardy’s characters.  Neither is the heath a benign environment; care is required in all seasons but in winter, it is bleak, brown and very windy with boggy areas dangerous especially after wet weather.  Having said all that, the heath does have an undeniable grandeur but its very rarity as a landscape nowadays means that we may not know how to react to it.  Perhaps like Hardy’s “survivors” we should simply accept and embrace the heath for what it is, foibles and all.

Winfrith Heath lies to the west of Gatemore Road in Winfrith Newburgh and a Dorset Wildlife Trust information board marks the entrance. 

 

Bell heather and ling with gorse on Winfrith Heath
Bell heather, ling and gorse on Winfrith Heath

 

Cross-leaved heath.
Cross-leaved heath

 

 

Emperor dragonfly on Winfrith Heath
A pond on the heath with an emperor dragonfly

 

 

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle

 

Peacock butterfly on Winfrith Heath
Peacock butterfly on marsh thistle with bumblebee

 

Nuclear research centre Winfrith Heath
The former nuclear research facility seen through trees and behind forbidding fences on the other side of Gatemore Road.

 

 

This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Dorset’s big farming experiment

The village of Briantspuddle lies near tranquil water meadows in the valley of the River Piddle, some eight miles to the east of Dorchester in the south-west of the UK. Nowadays, Briantspuddle is all pretty cottages, thatched roofs and peace and quiet. The village was far from quiet in the first half of the 20th century when Briantspuddle became a centre of agricultural and social innovation.

River Piddle at Briantspuddle
The river Piddle near Briantspuddle (doesn’t look like a piddle to me)

 

The Bladen Estate: Ernest Debenham’s vision for a new agriculture

Ernest Debenham was an educated and practical man, an innovator, always keen to try new ideas. He was, after all, the grandson of the founder of the Debenhams drapery and department store empire. By 1900 he was in charge of the company and became very wealthy. Around this time, he decided that agriculture would benefit from being organised as a business. He developed the idea of self-sufficient farming where centralised processing and selling directly from the farm would “cut out the middle man”, reduce costs and boost rural employment. In 1914, he purchased several farms in the Piddle Valley around Briantspuddle where he intended to test these ideas. This land became the Bladen Estate, named after the old form of Blagdon or Blackdown, the hill above Briantspuddle.

Houses for workers

Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle
Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle – one of the houses present before Debenham started building. It shows the “Dorset” style he tried to emulate.

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Briantspuddle was a sleepy hamlet of about a dozen houses. To realise his vision of self-sufficient farming, Debenham planned a substantial expansion of the village although, because of the outbreak of war, new building did not start until 1919. He believed that good housing led to good work, so his first priority was to provide new houses for the estate workers. These were built in the traditional, Arts and Crafts style with thatched roofs, designed to blend sympathetically with the local environment. The new cottages were equipped with a bathroom and inside lavatory, and with self-sufficiency in mind, a quarter acre garden and a pig pen. Debenham also encouraged tree planting as a means of harmonising the new development with the surrounding countryside.

Cottages in Briantspuddle's Bladen Valley
Some of the “new” houses built by Debenham for estate workers in Briantspuddle’s Bladen Valley

 

Scientific agriculture

Dairy Ring 2
Part of the semi-circular dairy complex, now private housing

 

The Bladen Estate was established as an experiment to test how centralised processing and the application of recent scientific discoveries in agriculture might improve food production. Many aspects of farming were examined but perhaps the most innovative development was the central dairy in Briantspuddle. This was a purpose-built facility for collecting, testing and packaging milk from Estate farms. The new buildings were intended to be functional, the semi-circular design allowing easy access for transport. They were also meant to be aesthetically pleasing, imparting a special character to the area and, of course, they had thatched roofs. A unique aspect of the dairy was a bacteriological laboratory capable of testing milk for bacteria as well as fat content. Bonuses were paid to workers from farms supplying milk with the lowest bacterial count, so encouraging cleanliness in the milking parlour. The central dairy processed 1000 gallons of milk each day in to Grade A milk, butter, cheese and pig food. Milk was transported in covered motor wagons to a depot in Parkstone where it could be on sale within an hour of leaving Briantspuddle.

Old dairy buildings Briantspuddle
Some buildings I found at the back of the dairy complex, now private housing but looking like they once had an important function on the farm.

 

Animal husbandry was also approached systematically and scientifically. For each cow, detailed records were kept of weight, health, food consumed etc. Twice a year, the estate Veterinary Service examined animals for tuberculosis; cows testing positive were vaccinated. Similar intensive approaches were tried in relation to sheep, pigs and poultry and there were 70 bee colonies. Livestock were fed arable crops grown on the Estate; also balanced rations supplied by a company established by Debenham. The Estate had dedicated power and water supplies and its own transport depot, contributing to self sufficiency.


The end of the experiment

At its peak in 1929, the Bladen Estate farmed 10,000 acres of land in and around the Piddle Valley, including many individual farms, providing employment for 600 people. These were difficult times for business, especially for farming and the Estate required continual financial input to stay afloat. Eventually the funds required to subsidise the venture ran out, the Estate went in to decline and the individual farms were sold.

Ford over the river Piddle at Turner's Puddle
One of the constituent farms of the Estate at Turner’s Puddle, seen across the ford on the river Piddle

 

Despite the apparent failure of his experiment, Debenham should be seen as one of agriculture’s pioneers. His ideas for self-sufficient farming were ahead of his time. Many “modern” farming practices were tested on the Bladen Estate but at the time the tools to make them work were unavailable e.g. antibiotics to control disease under intensive conditions. Debenham was, sadly, wrong in one of his beliefs: increased production and centralisation have not allowed more people to live on the land; in fact the opposite has proven to be true.

21st century Briantspuddle

The contemporary visitor to Briantspuddle will encounter an attractive village with a remarkably consistent architectural style, a legacy of Ernest Debenham’s experiment and vision. The best place to experience this is the Bladen Valley, a small coombe populated by substantial, white-washed, thatched cottages originally built for estate workers, most still retaining their original look.

Bladen Valley 2
Cottages in the Bladen Valley, Briantspuddle – originally built for estate workers from 1919 onwards

 

At the foot of this valley lies the unusual War Memorial commissioned by Debenham to commemorate seven local men who died in the Great War (six names of WW2 fatalities have since been added). The memorial, sculpted in Portland Stone by the controversial artist Eric Gill, was dedicated in 1918, one day after the armistice had been signed.

War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
Madonna and child on War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle
Commemorating the names of the WW1 dead

 

In the main part of the village, there is the semicircular former dairy complex, now private housing, and the fine thatched Village Hall based on a converted 18th century barn which, together with the Social Club, provides a focus for village activities. Next to the Hall is the Village Shop and Post Office. This was once a granary but in 2002 became a community shop run by volunteers, “by the village, for the village”. It seems that in Briantspuddle, social experiments continue to the present day.

Dairy Ring 1
Another view of the semi-circular former dairy complex

 

Village Hall and shop Briantspuddle
The Village Hall (left) and Community Shop (right) in Briantspuddle

 

This article appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

 

When I visited the area, I came across the now-disused church at Turner’s Puddle a little way along the Piddle from Briantspuddle and was surprised to see snowdrops in profusion at this time of year (January 13th).

Turner's Puddle church with snowdrops
The disused church at Turner’s Puddle – to the left of the steps you may be able to see snowdrops in flower in January