Sunday in Dorset – Dorset, England

Sunday in Dorset
Dorset, England

It was Sunday and I knew something special was going on at the Church of St. Lawrence next door to the Old Vicarage. I was staying in Affpuddle, which is near Tolpuddle, famous for the Tolpuddle Martyrs and George Loveless who formed “A Friendly Society of Agricultural Laborers” which grew into Robert Owens’ “Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.” Less than a mile down the lane was Ernest Debenhams’s model village with its charming cottages built in the arts and crafts style. I was staying in Anthea and Michael Hipwell’s handsome red brick Georgian house with fine doorways, windows and fireplaces surrounded by smooth lawns and rose beds within tall clipped hedges of yew. Alcoves in the dining room housed Anthea’s beautiful collection of turquoise glass.

Blessing of the animals

Annual blessing of the animals

Anthea’s black Labrador seemed particularly alert this morning when I came down to breakfast in the pretty all-blue dinning room. When she served my boiled eggs and soldiers she explained the reason for her dog’s keen interest in the usually quiet churchyard next door. The annual blessing of the animals would take place today and already the parishioners were gathering with their family pets, dogs making up the largest contingent. As soon as I finished by second cup of coffee I dashed upstairs to get my camera and snapped away through the hall window.

What a nice way to start the day. My friend Joyce was due to arrive at 10AM and we planned to call in at Athelhampton Hall which was just a short ride down the road from Affpuddle, and then take advantage of Open Garden Day at the village of Cerne Abbas a few further miles away.

It was the middle of June and I had been in Dorset for two weeks. I’m a raging Anglophile and Dorset addict but even I had to admit that the weather, so far, had been less than obliging – rain every day with only brief glimpses of the sun. Downright foul would be a fair description.

Even so, I had high hopes for this Sunday because the sun always shines on Cerne Abbas’ Open Garden Day. That’s what the locals say and they have always been right so far; at least they have been right since the summer of 1987 when I paid my first visit. Joyce wasn’t so sure, she warned me to be prepared for rain. Her faith in Dorset weather was weaker than ever since last February when she visited me in California. She left a rainy, freezing Dorset to arrive in sunny LA and couldn’t understand why I was always so eager to come to Dorset. She grumbled as she put on the windshield wipers on the way to Athelhampton.

Athelhampton House

Athelhampton House

I’ve been there several times and have always loved this beautiful old house that has survived for more than 400 years. Eric Delderfield’s book on West Country Houses describes its turbulent history in detail. Sir William Martyn received a grant from Henry VII to enclose 160 acres of deer park along the Piddle River and began to build his battlemented house in 1493 while he was Lord Mayor of London. Much of the original structure still stands, although there have been many additions. His lifetime spanned the 30 long years of the Wars of the Roses and he and his heirs were closely involved in much of that intriguing part of English history. Eric Delderfield tells us that the hall is the earliest part of Athelhampton and that much of the heraldic glass in its graceful oriel window is original. As I looked through it I tried to imagine all of the prominent figures in English history who must have, in their own time, looked through it as well.

Throughout the centuries the hall has echoed with plots and counterplots of fascinating episodes, some of which I probably studied in school far away in California. The House was standing during the time of the Spanish Armada, the Babington Plot (one of the Martyn daughters married a man who was executed in 1586 for his complicity in the plot), the Civil War, the Restoration, the Monmouth Rebellion and the invasion scares during the Napoleonic War. Athelhampton survived them all.

Is it only Americans who’s heads fill with romantic notions when they see oak panels carved in the days of Elizabeth I and get all in a tizzy when they look at a roof with curving timbers molded in place before Elizabeth’s father was on the throne? Joyce didn’t seem nearly as impressed as I was. She seemed more concerned because it was starting to rain. We were still carrying on the “grass is greener” dialog we started during Joyce’s visit to California.

Formal Garden

Athelhampton formal garden

“We wouldn’t have to be concerned with rain in LA in the middle of June,” she said.
“No,” I said “but we wouldn’t have anything like this lovely house with all these beautiful furnishings painstakingly collected for centuries to visit. We couldn’t stroll through a formal garden with ancient walls and stately terraces with fountains and fishponds.”

“The garden isn’t really ancient,” she said, “most of it was created in Victorian times. And if we want to do any strolling we had better hurry back to the car and get our umbrellas.” I mumbled something about Victorian times being ancient enough for me and hurried to take my obligatory snapshots before the raindrops became a problem.

When we left Athelhampton it was a little too early to go on to Cerne Abbas, the gardens weren’t due to open until 2:00PM. The light shower was over and although the sky still contained some very ominous black clouds, there were large patches of blue. I was hopeful that by the time the gardens opened we would have the sunny afternoon Cerne’s residents always bragged about. Joyce was not as hopeful. She did, however, consent to indulge in my favorite Dorset pastime; “traveling” as Frederick Treves said, “the
highways and byways in Dorset.” The byways are the most fun in my opinion. The venerable Sir Frederick did his traveling by bicycle at the turn of the century, covering 2,000 miles as he recorded the country scene for his still respected book. I’m sure that each spring when I visit Dorset, Joyce and her partner Hugh and I, cover nearly as many miles in their car. Quite an accomplishment even if we do have the advantage of four wheel drive that Sir Frederick never had.

This Sunday, as the sky alternated between sun and shadow, the countryside seemed particularly appealing. It’s foolish to think it’s only at its best on sunny days. Two chestnut fillies grazing beside the Piddle River on the winding road to Affpuddle, others on the road to Evershot or the view into Somerset from Chedington are just as enchanting on an overcast day as they are in full sunlight.

I’ve always admired the hard working Dorset sheepdogs; they seem so earnest and determined to do a good job. Today we saw one hard at work near Rampisham, only his charges were not sheep, he was herding pigs! And this self-important fellow was taking himself very seriously. Of course, I made Joyce stop so I could snap a picture.

My favorite cottage

My favorite cottage

When in Dorset I always play a game that involves pretending I can have my pick of any house or cottage I choose. The only rule is that I can’t pick a grand manor or stately home that I can’t possibly afford. Through the years I’ve accumulated a long list of charming and cozy homes all over Dorset. This Sunday with Joyce I found the best one of all. The sky was momentarily blue over its thatched roof. I felt very smug when I returned to the car and excitedly told Joyce that I had found my ideal cottage! “But,” she said, “I thought you always wanted to live in Dorset.” “I do. I do,” I said. “But this cottage is not in Dorset it’s in Somerset. We’re in East Cocker.”

“How can that be? We’ve just passed through Yetminster and Ryme Intrinsica. I know they’re in Dorset.” I pulled out my trusty Ordnance Survey map to prove my point. Oops! I saw that when we crossed over the A37 near the Sutton Bingham Reservoir, we drove into Somerset. “OK, so I don’t know Dorset as well as I thought. Nevertheless, I’m going to think of some way for that dream cottage to qualify for my game. It really is the best one of all.”

By now it was time to cross back over the border and head for Cerne Abbas. When we reached Minterne Magna Joyce had to turn on her windshield wipers again. I tried to ignore her I-told-you-so look and didn’t answer when she wondered aloud what my husband, Stan, was doing back in sunny California. We parked by the New Inn on Long Street and almost made it to Abbey Street before it started to pour. It seemed a good time to pop into the cafe by the church for a cream tea. We weren’t the only ones with this idea, the place was packed and we were lucky to find the last seats available. There was hardly enough room to squeeze in because everyone had to make room for wet umbrellas and raincoats. It was much warmer inside and the atmosphere was rather steamy, but that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.

There seemed to be a good turnout for the garden day in spite of the rain. Many of my English friends have told me that if they stayed home every time it rained they would never do anything, so they just carry on as if the day were fine. I’ve seen this English nonchalant attitude in the face of inclement weather many times but never as clearly illustrated as it was that Sunday in Cerne Abbas.

Open gardens in Cerne Abbas

Open gardens in Cerne Abbas

When we finished our tea Joyce and I, along with all of the other visitors, had a splendid time ducking in and out of doorways and sheltering in the garages left open by their owners to provide shelter, as we explored this picturesque old village with its handsome houses dating from the 15th century. Most of the homes on Abbey Street have Tudor half-timbering and upper stories that jut out over the street. One still has an elaborate original door surround. The New Inn has tall stone mullions dating around 1700 and many shop fronts from the 19th century still line the high street. There are buildings of banded flint and stone as well as lovely Georgian brick homes set back from the street. A little rain couldn’t spoil the fun of being allowed to explore the intriguing gardens at the back of these rare survivals of another time.

Occasionally the sun would peep out for a few minutes and the resulting rainbow would give the scene a fairy-like appearance. While hovering for nearly twenty minutes in an ancient gatehouse on Abbey Street we had a pleasant chat with a couple we remembered from a previous visit to Cerne on a day when the women were wearing straw hats to keep the sun off instead of foul-weather head gear to keep dry.

Since I have so many pictures of Cerne on beautiful days I foolishly left my camera in the car and so missed a perfect “photo opportunity.” In one of the larger gardens the organizers had arranged to serve tea. They had provided dozens of little tables and set them out on the lawn with perky red and white check tablecloths. Joyce and I reached this garden during a really heavy cloudburst. We were huddled under an overhanging roof when we saw a middle-aged couple sitting at one of the tables out on the lawn, its red and white cloth, no longer perky, was soaking wet. They gallantly held their umbrella high as they sipped their tea, little fingers cocked in the proper manner. Their devil-may-care attitude let the world know that nothing was going to interfere with their Sunday out. If only I had my camera. But then I really don’t need a picture – I can close my eyes and still see them.

I do have one new picture to commemorate the day. During another shower we took refuge in the art gallery at the top of Long Street. When we returned to the gardens a short while later my wallet was considerably lighter. I had purchased a wildflower print, one for June, my favorite Dorset month featuring buttercups and cow parsley. There seems to be a bit of mist in the background – even though it represents a June summer day one could almost say it seems about to rain.

Alfpuddle cottage

Alfpuddle cottage

I considered the whole day a great success. Joyce felt it would have been better if it had been dryer. I thought it would be a good idea to top it off with a good meal on our way back to Affpuddle. Earlier I had noticed an inn near the railroad tracks in Moreton. This was not one of my better ideas. We arrived close to 7:00PM and had no trouble finding a table in the pretty glass conservatory, but it was well after 8:00PM when we were finally served. I don’t remember what we ordered except that it was something simple. I had to admit to Joyce that a similar meal in LA would have been served in fifteen minutes tops.

All right, so we usually have faster service in our restaurants. But what’s that compared to wandering in a delightful medieval house in the morning, and exploring the intriguing hidden gardens in a village where time stands still, in the afternoon? I thought I was still ahead on points in our “grass is greener” dialogue”. Joyce did pick up a few points after dinner on the way back to the Old Vicarage when her windshield wipers couldn’t work fast enough to give a clear view through the pouring rain. This was only the second week of my holiday. I would be in England for four more weeks. Surely it wasn’t going to rain for my entire holiday…was it?