CHAPTER VI. WEST DORSET
The branch line of the Great Western from Maiden Newton makes a wide detour northwards to reach Bridport, passing through a very charming and unspoilt countryside where old "Do'set" ways still hold out against that drab uniformity that seems to be creeping over rustic England. In this out-of-the-way region are small old stone-built villages lying forgotten between the folds of the hills and rejoicing in names that makes one want to visit them if only for the sake of their quaint nomenclature.
The first station is laconically called Toller. It serves the two villages Toller Fratrum and Toller Porcorum. The Toller of the Brothers is charmingly situated on the side of a low hill. It once belonged to the Knights of St. John, whence its name. The Early English church has an old font sculptured with the heads of what may be saints, a possible relic of Saxon times; some antiquaries have declared the work to be British of the later days of the Roman occupation. In the church wall is a curious tablet representing Mary Magdalene wiping our Lord's feet. The manor house was built by Sir James Fulford, the great opponent of the Puritans. It is a delightful house in an equally delightful situation and the beautiful tints of the old walls will be admired as well as the admirable setting of the mansion.
Toller of the Pigs may only mean the place where hogs were kept in herds. The village is of little interest and has not the fine site of the other. In the church is a font that is supposed to have once served as a Roman altar.
Over the hills to the south-east is the little village of Wynford Eagle, so called from the fact that it once belonged to that powerful Norman family, the de Aquila, who held Pevensey Castle in Sussex after the Conquest. The church is an exceedingly poor erection of 1842, but preserves a Norman tympanum from the former building. The carving represents two griffins or wyverns facing each other in an attitude of defiance. Wynford Manor House is a beautiful building of the early seventeenth century. Under the stone eagle that surmounts the centre gable is the date 1630. This was the home of the great Thomas Sydenham, the founder of modern medicine. He was wounded while serving in the army of the Parliament at the battle of Worcester and, probably in consequence of the ill success that followed the bungling treatment he received, determined to practise himself and adopt rational methods for the treatment of disease and injury. He died in London in 1689, aged 65, and lies in the churchyard of St. James', Piccadilly.
Three miles or more to the north of Toller are the villages of Wraxall and Rampisham (pronounced "Ramsom"). The former has near it two interesting old houses - the Elizabethan manor of Wraxall and an old farmhouse that was a manor in the reign of King John, though the present building was not erected until 1620. Rampisham is in a lovely situation at the bottom of a wooded and watered dingle. Here is another picturesque old mansion and an interesting stone cross in the churchyard with a platform for open-air preaching. The base of the cross is carved with representations of the martyrdoms of St. Stephen, St. Edmund and St. Thomas a Becket, though they are so worn that one must accept the identification on trust. Another carving is of St. Peter and the cock, with figures of monks, knights and fools. Within the church are some brasses worthy of inspection.
Hidden away among the hills of Western Dorset is Beaminster, a little town so placed that it may be visited from several different railway stations without much to choose in mileage or roads; possibly Crewkerne on the main line of the South Western Railway is that most used. It is about six miles from Toller, Bridport and Crewkerne, and therefore as quiet as one would expect it to be. But "Bemmister" is not by any means a dead town and is, for all its want of direct railway transport, of some importance as the centre of a rich dairy country. The situation at the bottom of a wooded amphitheatre is delightful: -
"Sweet Be'mi'ster that bist abound
By green and woody hills all round,
Wi' hedges reachen up between
A thousan' vields o' zummer green
Where clems lofty heads do show
Their sheades vor hay-meakers below
An' wild hedge-flowers do charm the souls
O' maidens in their evenin' strolls."
The Perpendicular church has a remarkably handsome tower of yellow-brown stone with sculptured figures showing the chief events in the life of our Lord. Part of the interior is Early English. Monuments of the Strodes, a great local family, will be noticed, and also some good stained glass. The church, and the old "Mort House" attached to it, were fortunately spared in the several disasters by fire that, as in Dorchester, have removed almost everything ancient. The present smart and modern appearance of the main street is the consequence of the last conflagration in 1781, though this was not so serious as two others in the seventeenth century. The first of these started during the fighting between the forces of King and Parliament.