CHAPTER IV. DORCHESTER AND ITS SURROUNDINGS
The railway from Wareham to Dorchester runs through the heart of that great wild tract that under the general name of Egdon Heath forms a picturesque and often gloomy background to many of Mr. Hardy's romances. These heath-lands are a marked characteristic of the scenery of this part of the county. Repellent at first, their dark beauty, more often than not, will capture the interest and perhaps awe of the stranger. Much more than a mere relic of the great forest that stretched for many miles west of Southampton Water and that in its stubborn wildness bade fair to break up the Saxon advance, the heaths of Dorset extend over a quarter of the area of the county.
Wool is five miles from Wareham and is the station for Bindon Abbey, half a mile to the east. The pleasant site of the abbey buildings on the banks of the Frome is now a resort of holiday-makers, adventurers from Bournemouth and Swanage, who may have al-fresco teas through the goodwill of the gatekeeper, though it would appear that they must bring all but the cups and hot water with them. The outline of the walls and a few interesting relics may be seen, but there is nothing apart from the natural surroundings to detain us. The old red brick Manor House, close to the station, and in plain view from the train, was a residence of the Turbervilles, immortalized by Hardy. Of much interest also is the old Tudor bridge that here crosses the Frome.
At Wool the rail parts company with the Dorchester turnpike and soon after leaves the valley of the Frome, traversing a sparsely populated district served by one small station in the ten miles to Dorchester, at Moreton. Here a road runs northwards in four miles to the "Puddles" of which there are several dotted about the valley of that quaintly named river. Puddletown, the Weatherbury of the Wessex woods, is the largest and has an interesting church, practically unrestored. The Athelhampton chapel here contains ancient effigies of the Martin family, the oldest dating from 1250. The curiously shaped Norman font, like nothing else but a giant tumbler, will be admired for its fine vine and trellis ornament. The old oak gallery that dates from the early seventeenth century has happily been untouched. Athelhampton Manor occupies the site of an ancient palace of King Athelstan. Though certain portions of the present buildings are said to date from the time of Edward III the greater part is Tudor and very beautiful. Affpuddle, the nearest of the villages to Moreton Station, has a perpendicular church with a fine pinnacled tower. The chief object of interest within is the Renaissance pulpit with curious carvings of the Evangelists in sixteenth-century dress. Scattered about the heath-lands in this neighbourhood are a number of "swallow holes" with various quaint names such as "Culpepper's Dish" and "Hell Pit." At one time supposed to be prehistoric dwellings, they are undoubtedly of natural formation.
Bere Regis, rather farther away to the north-east, is the Roman Ibernium. This was a royal residence in Saxon days and a hunting lodge of that King John of many houses; very scanty remains of the buildings are pointed out in a meadow near the town. Part of the manor came to the Turbervilles, or d'Urbervilles, of Mr. Hardy's romance. The church, restored in 1875 by Street, is a fine building, mostly Perpendicular with some Norman remains. Particularly noteworthy is the grand old roof of the nave with its gorgeously coloured and gilt figures, also the ancient pews and Transitional font. There are canopied tombs of the Turbervilles in a chapel and some modern stained glass in which the family arms figure. Bere Regis is the "Kingsbere" of Thomas Hardy, and Woodbury Hill, close by, is the scene of Greenhill Fair in Far from the Madding Crowd. Here, in the oval camp on the summit, a sheep fair has been held since before written records commence. These fairs, several of which take place in similar situations in Wessex, are of great antiquity. Some are held in the vicinity of certain "blue" stones, mysterious megaliths of unknown age.
It is doubtful if any town in England has so many remains of the remote past in its vicinity as Dorchester. Probably the Roman settlement of Durnovaria was a parvenu town to the Celts, whose closely adjacent Dwrinwyr was also an upstart in comparison with the fortified stronghold two miles away to the south; the "place by the black water" being an initial attempt to establish a trading centre by a people rather timidly learning from their Phoenician visitors. The great citadel at Maiden Castle belonged to a still earlier time, when men lived in a way which rendered trade a very superfluous thing.