F. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) Darton.

The marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England online

. (page 4 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

teller has a new standpoint. He has to show what man
made of the earth, and of himself, rather than what the eartii
inflicted on man. Man's life and progress are continuous
henceforth.

It i« at Dorchester, perhaps, more definitely llian at any
other place in ICngland, that this continuity is visible. It
is a town which has been a town ever since towns first were
in England. Here every race that has lived in IJrifaiii has
lived ; and when you stand near where now the two rail-
ways join one another, you are standing u])on a spot than
which no j>l,icc in this island has been for a longer time
continuously iniiabited.

39



40 THE MARCHES OF WESSEX

It is beyond doubt, it seems, that either Maiden Castle
(the Celtic Mai Dun, the High Fort) or Dorchester itself
is the Dunium spoken of in Trajan's day by Ptolemy the
geographer. Dorchester is a palimpsest. Its walls are
Roman : in them the Roman bricks still inhere. It is full
of Roman pavements. Maumbury Rings, the amphi-
theatre, is in its present form Roman. But recent excava-
tions have shown that its circle was first cut in the Neolithic
Age, and that even before that, in the dimmest antiquity,
it held a deep Palaeolithic shaft.*

Close to the present cemetery is a crowded Roman
burial ground. And Poundbury Camp — " round Pummery "
— is said to be Danish : on little evidence, for Celtic and
Roman remains have been found in its now rather confused
lines : but the Danes once wintered there during a prolonged
raid. One other race also inhabited Pummery. From
1914 to 1918 it was filled with German prisoners of war.
It v/as curious to come across the hills of the dead round
Dorchester, in the utter dark, and see this old fortress of
the ravaging Danes blazing with search -lights ; curious
also — to me, in the company of an official propagandist
cinematographer — to see sturdy Germans in bizarre patched
uniforms laughingly loading sacks into waggons, with the
shopkeepers of the eighteenth -century street looking on,
and cheerful farm girls in breeches helping them.

Dorchester was a Saxon town after the Romans went,
and had a mint under Athelstan. It was sacked by Sweyn.
It was Norman ; there is a most gentlemanly Norman
knight sculptured in Fordington church. It was the homo
of men of worship and good lineage in the Middle Ages.
The Archduke Philip lay at Sir Thomas Trenchard's house,
just outside the town, in 1506. It aided the Puritan settlers
of Massachusetts, whose Dorchester, so to speak, is our
Dorchester. It had the plague as constantly as most

* It is not creditable to our national knowledge and traditions that only
the most strenuous exertions at the last moment prevented a railway
company from cutting clean through this meeting-place of the generations,
and also from demolishing part of Poundbury Camp.



THE IITLI.S OF THE DEAD 41

towns, heard the drums and tramplings of the Civil War,
and suffered more terribly than any other phice under the
Bloody Assize. Defoe found it a place of singular dignity
and charm. It was the scene of a peculiarly horrible exe-
cution in tlie eighteenth centiu-y. It bore a part in the
Napoleonic wars. It tried those poor " conspirators "
who are known (not quite accuratel}') as the Dorchester
Labourers, and it housed the judges who in 1831 examined
the heroes of the last peasants' revolt in England. William
Barnes walked its streets, and it is the home of Thomas
Hardy, If you seek continuous history, here, as Mr.
Squeers said, is richness. The town and its doings will
recur constantly in these chapters.

I shall deal later with the different stages in that long and
still unended romance. It begins with man of the Old
8tonc Age. A journey from Dorchester to Abbotsbury and
the hills round it shows us the lost kingdoms of the Iberian
and the Celt : a kingdom that still can sway the mind of
man.

It is when you set out for ^laiden Castle, and begin to
draw near to that immense stronghold, that the spirit of
things very far off, very powerful, falls upon you. There is
no time of j'car, no condition of light and shade, when the
vast ramparts do not call up awe and wonder, and even
pity : for the people who dug those trenches were a great
race, and their power and their glory are utterly gone.
But they live in soul. Maiden Castle, a thought made
visible for ever, has still almost the strong power of a thought
newly uttered into the world. To this day it dominates and
}iyj)notizes.

I remember a certain winter's day when I walked out
over the High Fort and was led, it seemed to me, very close
to the mighty dead. Snow liad fallen, a rare thing in .South
Dorset, and when I left (he broad street where Rome's
Koldicrs once marched, and took the footpath past where
they lay asleep, the ico and thin crusted snow crackled
under foot like artillery, so clean was the silence. The air



42 THE MARCHES OF WESSEX

was clear, with the lowering dull glow of storm ; and indeed
before my journey's end I was to suffer many fierce sudden
showers. Now and then pale sunshine flickered for
a moment, but the light nearly all that afternoon
was sombre. There was little wind at first : the
atmosphere was wet and bitter, inimical to the blood of
man. The snow had ceased at midday : there had not been
enough to cause deep drifts, or cover the hills uniformly
with white. But all the corrugations were chalk- white,
and only a few peaks stood out dark where the snow had
not rested.

The northern escarpment of Mai Dun, a mile distant,
rose up like a low strong wall from the smooth-scooped
valley of Fordington Field. The valley itself was full of
mist, a faint luminousness exhaled from the ground after
the storm. It hid everything all round except a tall building
or a tree. Even so the Weald of Kent, seen from a height
on a favourable autumn morning, appears a grey sea with
little clear rocks emerging above it here and there. But
whereas the churches and trees of Kent recall the kindly
habitations of articulate-speaking men. Maiden Castle,
at that magical distance, seemed a very citadel of evil
wizards. Dark and sharp rose the fortified edges : the
streaks of white on the slopes marked out the labyrinthine
dykes with a plainness that was a threat. The fortress had
a personality, a strength not of this world. Even now, I
thought, in that grey stillness (for hardly a farm-hand was
abroad on such a day), strange races, our blood kindred
but the uttermost antagonists of our minds, might be
celebrating there their obscene rites, islanded by the mists
in their cold fortress, and cut off from knowledge of the so
changed world in which I was. They could live there easily
enough, and we in the street of to-day none the wiser.
Their beasts, their households, their j)risoners (prisoners
of this century ? were there really no changelings now, no
witches, no demoniac possessions ?) — all alike would be
hidden in that vast arena, secure. The well in the midst



THK HTLT.S OF THE DEAD 48

perhaps was frozen : but the slopes, frost-bound, would be
unassailable, so that no enemy would come, and daring
men might scurry down the steep southern wall to the stream.
Only from one quarter, the western spur with its more
gradual fall, could foes approach the hill from nearly its own
level ; and there, maybe, the royal dead who lay in Clandon
Long Barrow would put forth their grim and ghostly might,
and give protection.

It is impossible not to feel a sense of awe and even of
reverence in this amazing stronghold. It may be simple-
minded to be impressed by mere size. But the huge size
of Maiden Castle— it is the largest and finest Stone Age
earthwork in the world — is a genuine part of its appeal.
When the first little group of men who worked upon it
began — 5000 or more years before Christ — to chip the hard
chalk with stone axes, they chose this site because it juts
out like a promontor}' from the higher ridges into the river
valley. They had a sure strategic eye. They looked out
from the height on to fuller rivers, wider and wetter marshes,
through a damper air. Beasts no longer found in England
— the wolf, the wild cat, the beaver, the aurochs — were in
those marshes. There were forests in many places where
now the tamed cattle pasture.* Only in Mai Dun was
safety.

There is little doubt that the fort was begun by the
Iberian, perhaps in Late Palaeolithic days. Generation
after generation must have toiled at it ; thousands of hands
must have been needed to cut five miles of trenches that for
a great part of their three circuits of the hill are sixty feet

• Gen. Pitt-RivoPH found a ouriouH oxanipio of tliLs on tho county border,
in extHvating Uh« Hokfrly J)yko (whidi, li()w«v»>r, Is not a Stono Ago rolic,
but a Komiin-HriliHli dofonco agairiHt tlio Saxonw). IIh wcstorn ond i.s
" in tbo uir," as tho Holdiorx wovild nay. WIkti it wiw iliig, howcvi^r, it
n»Ht<Ml on tlif Hlicltoriiig tliickots known as Sclwuud ForoHt, now no longor
existing except in Hmuli patches : it fillod tlio gup U^twoon tho Forent and
Cranbomo Chivso. Those ancient fon-Hts histcd long in Hotne cases. Only
five hundn-d yours ago, it in said, a Hrpiirrol could travel all tho five miles
from SlmftcMbury tf) (jillinghum, by bin own airy track from lnMi to tree,
wjtlioul over touching thc< groun<l (horo 1 us*' " forouL " in tho coUocjuiul
BOiiMO — a wooded place — not in tlio toclmical boium)).



44 THE MARCHES OF WESSEX

deep. Very possibly even the eight-fold cross trenches at the
main entrance were the separate thoughts of successive
chieftains. We know from the gradual betterment of the
stone weapons that man was slowly growing into the mastery
of mechanical things. But we do not know exactly when or
where some unknown Bessemer forged the bronze that was
to overcome the stone and give the Celts dominion in
England. We know that there was trade with distant
lands : amber from the Baltic has been found in Dorset
Neolithic graves, and gold (perhaps from Wales) in Clandon
Barrow hard by Maiden Castle. Man was beginning to
live in society, therefore, not in small hostile units. We
know that he could weave flax : linen still adheres to an
axe-head found near here. But we cannot guess how
quickly or slowly these changes came, nor how they spread,
nor what stir they caused in our forefathers' time. We can
only look at Maiden Castle, and see, in its symbolic green
walls, the age-long wonder of man. " The number of the
dead long exceedeth all that shall live."

From Maiden Castle on to Blackdown there are two
ways — one by road, through Winterborne St. Martin
(Martinstown), the other along the hills, past countless
barrows, by a glorious track on soft close down turf. On
that winter day I chose the road : the other way, however,
is the better : it is one of the three best walks in Southern
England.

Martinstown was utterly frigid and desolate. In summer
it is very warm, and the little stream that runs along the
main street is almost dry. That day the stream was truly
a " winter bourne " : squadrons of ducks struggled with
its flood. But bare though the wide comely street was, it
was more human than the utterly lonely road beyond it.
I seemed to be walking alone out of life into — what ? It
was just as the stillness became most oppressive that I
came upon a strange answer to the half-unasked question.
I turned the corner of a high hedge and saw a little black
wooden shed. In front of it were two figures standing by a



THE HILLS OF THE DEAD 45

rough table. They were short dark hairy inoii. in ragged
clothes. They liad knives in tlieir liands, and they were
bending over a third tigure stretclied upon the table : a
naked pink tigure.

For the moment I was back in the Stone Ages, looking
on the horror of human sacriticc : a natural thing in that
kingdom of the dead. But the two peasants were only
scraping and cleaning a little pig.

The interminable gritty road seemed emptier than ever
after that. Heavy clouds were coming up, and the air grew
darker, as the cold wind increased in violence. I came to
the last steep stretch up to the summit of the hill, as bare
and bleak a place as you could find, where the earth itself
is dark and stony and the green turf has almost ceased :
only heather and bracken, briars and bilberries, will grow
there. At the most exposed point the earth was all at once
blotted (Hit by a grey wall of hail.

I ran, battered and wet, to what shelter I could get in
the lee of the great column set up in memory of Admiral
Hardy. In a few moments the storm was over, and the sun
shone suddenly at full strength. I looked out over sea and
cliffs and meadows alight with peaceful happiness. I had
come back from the dead past into life.

Life — that is what, by some curious inversion of feeling,
the hills of the dead round Abbotsbury have always meant
to me. The beauty and loneliness of them are informed
with some spirit of human continuity, of the splendour and
endurance of human effort.

Blackdown, however, is not so full of that spirit as the
lulls westward. It gives a spectacle of sharp contrasts,
natural beauty, and comparatively recent history. The
view is magnificent. All Devon down to Start Point can
bo seen on the clearest day : Dartmoor standing on the
very far horizon. Eastward on a few days I have seen the
white clitTs of the Isle of Wight, beyond Uingstead Cliff
and the hump of Swire Head. North, the view is limited
by the ecpially higli ridge wliidi is the backbone of Dorset,



46 THE MARCHES OF WESSEX

some ten or twelve miles away. South, Portland Harbour
and its warships, eight miles off, seem on a clear day to be
at your feet.

There is something Italian about this part of the coast.
Tropical plants grow in the open : azaleas bloom in March :
there is an infinite stretch of very blue sea with a very white
thin fringe of foam for miles. The lower foothills stand up
absurdly like the hills in an early Italian landscape, and the
few trees are dark like olives against the bright green fields.

If you look back, you look upon death and desolation.
They are still there as you walk westwards from the curiously
impressive monument. But now they are directly parallel
with country bearing that appearance of bright life which the
sudden sunshine gave me on this winter walk : and in
summer the contrast is stronger. On your left still lies the
brilliant coast and the fertile land behind the Chesil Beach.
On the right, as you go westwards from Blackdown, is the
dark Valley of Rocks : a singular avenue of stones (I do not
know whether they are a natural outcrop or not) which
curves all along the floor of a noble valley, leaving a green
path in the midst, up to the top of the hollow. They have
a look of symmetry, of purposeful arrangement. They lead
from a very city of tumuli and prehistoric remains, directly
up through the curve (ceasing, however, at its end), towards
the stone circle strangely named the Grey Marc and her
Colts : and further, if you ignore modern plantations and
fields (which here, in practice, I have found it to be difficult
and painful to do, not to speak of illegality), to Abbotsbury
Camp.

Past the Valley of Stones, you continue, as so often in
Dorset, on a high ridgeway, with the same enchanting
view, the same contrasting hills and valleys, on either side.
You come above Portisham to a vast natural amphitheatre
— one of the largest scoops in a chalk ridge I have ever seen.
The road then curves down into Abbotsbury. But it is
better to leave it and continue by an almost disused track
along the southern edge of the ridge. This brings you within



THE HILLS OF THE DEAD 47

sight of (and finally bej'ond) Abbotsbury village and that
beautiful Tudor seamark, St. Catherine's Chapel, and leads
eventually to Abbotsbury Camp.

The Camp is an irregular triangle, following the contours
in the main. A road has been cut at one end which may
possibly have obliterated some of its original line : east
of this road there are confused trenches and hummocks
which lot)k as if man might have shaped them. The lines
of trench are fairly clear still, but their true depth and
strength are hard to determine. Heather, bracken, and gorse
have here had unlimited power. There is little turf. The
rabbit is incredibly plentiful. My Bedlington once spent six
hours continuously in chase : one down, t'other come on :
to my great content. I say this without shame: he was
doing national service. It is wrong that so splendid an
earthwork should be let decay so heedlessly. The Camp is
simply a rabbit warren with a covert or two planted just
below it. The rabbits are mining it to atoms. The neglect
can serve no useful purpose. There is no production here.
The two or three hIojks which look as if they might once
have been cultivated have been allowed to revert to wilder-
ness (one is a l:)lue sheet of wild borage in the summer).
It is true that a farm a little westward, close to the shore,
on the lowest slope is called Labour in Vain. But at
Abbotsbury Camp there can have hcvn no labour, vain or
fruitful, for long past, except for a little digging of flints.

Here, by the way, I was once granted the privilege of
Bceing and hearing the cuckoo sing both at rest and in (light.
I testify that f»no did so before my eyes, perching in the
copse north of the Camp and Hying south-west over my
head, all the time garruh^us.

The Camp itself is to me almost (he hest-loved place in
Dorset. Here one can lie in a nest nf hracUcn and heather
and dream all day in uttci' li;ij)piness. Even in winter
there is a gentleness about the rough worn walls of the fort.
In summer, when ihc wliolr West Ha}' sleeps in the sunshine,
tiie loveliness and peace \sould bring rest to the most



48 THE MARCHES OF WESSEX

troubled mind. Even if you look inland, instead of at the
glorious curve of foam from Portland to Devon, the citadels
of the Iberian and the Celt, the hills covered with trenches,
tumuli, monoliths, stone and earthen circles, seem less grim.
You can see from here almost the whole extent of the chief
domain of the fort-building Durotriges, with whom even
Vespasian (only a sub-commander then) had to fight many
pitched battles before victory. But the hills arc no longer
menacing. The battles are over, the old races vanished save
in our bodies and souls. Bexington and Labour-in-Vain
farms, the white-walled coastguard station, the tower of
Abbotsbury Church are what we have reached after the
centuries of strife and toil.

Yet are they after all greater and more stable achieve-
ments than this ruinous citadel that looks down on their
apparent prosperity ? Anywhere between here and Swyre
you can trace the outline of fields once rich with crops, now
conquered again by gorse and bracken : and likewise on
the steep road down into Abbotsbury. In Abbotsbury
itself there are a hundred emblems of stranded pride. The
church has a Saxon carving of the Trinity : where is the
Saxon Church ? Where is its predecessor, the Celtic
Church that the priest Bertufus, " in the verie infancie of
Christianitie among the Britains," built at the bidding of
St. Peter in a vision ? Where is the monastery that when
it was surrendered in 1539 was valued at over £400 a year ?
Some of it is visibly built into the cottages of the village.
Part is used as a stable. Only the stone coffins of the Abbots
and the noble Tithe Barn and the carp pond testify to its
former greatness. Even its customs are obscured. The
Barn has a chamber over the great door with windows
looking both inwards and outwards — obviously for an
overseer or clerk to tally the incoming tithes and keep the
accounts. " That's where the Monks starved themselves,"
I was told.

Where again to-day are the uses of St. Catherine's Chapel ?
It is a seamark, true. But who pays for masses for sailors




f^




ai




t-j




a




CO


c^


H


o


O






2


^


»>




«


J


c^


0-.


O'


-»1





m


•<i


o






S




§


55








M


e


a


e


|T^


S




^


O




H




CC





THE HILLS OF THE DEAD 49

in it ? Wlio ill Abbotsbury knows anything now of the saint
whose face sliines so gravely and graciously in a piece of
old glass in the church ?

There must have been among the Durotriges eager
builders, fervent priests, fighting men who violated holy
places as Abbotsbury Church was violated during the
Parliamentary wars. There must have been humble
toilers, happj' lovers. Were they relatively (and that means
absolutely, too) less happy, less prosperous, less comfortable
than we ? Perhaps some later century will know : perhaps
there may even be proof in the space between them and us,
which I am now to traverse. Meanwhile the sunlight and
the heather and bracken on the Camp can do away with all
emotions but present happiness.



IV



Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
(C«do equidom), vivos ducont de marmoro voltus,
Orabunt causas molias, coelique meatus
Describeiat ratlio et surgontia sidora dicent :
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(Haec tibi erunt antes) paciqxio imponero morem,
Parcero subjoctis ot dtOx^Uare superbos . . .
Suiit gomiuao Somni portae. . . ."

PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MARO,

Aeneia VI.

'* Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half -devil and half -child."

RUDYARD KIPLING,
The White Man's Burden.



IV



THE GREEN RO.VDS



Spcll'jbu'-y







"1 ^TIE Roman roads in Dorset are curiously eloquent
I of the present as well as of the past. They show,

-*- because of their comparative unimportance in the
strategic and commercial aspects, just what was real to
Rome as to us. The chief Roman city in the county,
Dorchester, was never of the first importance, nor was the
great road that ran through it the main highway to the last
outpost of the Empire in the west. There was, perhaps,
a certain settlement of Romans in the county : but quota
portio faccis Achaei ? How many were true Romans,
how many adventurers of tlu^ outer races drawn into the
Roman army, cannot be known. Apart from the
idiosyncrasies of the roads, to which 1 sliall return, the
significant features of the Roman period in Dorset are
three : the farm sc^ttlement in (■ranb(jrne Chase excavate<l
by that great archaeologist, Gen. Pitt-Rivers : the Bokerly

r>3



54 THE MARCHES OF WESSEX

Dyke, which is neither pure Roman nor pre-Roman : and
the Chi-Rho symbol — the first two letters of the name of
Christ, in a monogram — in the mosaic floor uncovered at
Frampton,

It is perhaps simplest, from an historical point of view,
to start with the Chi-Rho. That emblem of Christianity
almost certainly shows that between the death of Christ
and about a.d. 400 — probably between 200 and 400 after
Christ, when the Roman order had become apparently
permanent in South Britain — there was a Roman-Christian
household in Dorset. If only a tiny fraction of the Glaston-
bury legends is true, that is not in the least incredible.
The further arguments, however, which deduce a connection
with the Apostles of Christ from a stone fragment found at
Fordington, are much more ingenious than convincing.
But the tradition of the Celtic-Christian Church at Abbots-
bury seems to be fairly trustworthy. And the stones in
Wareham Church inscribed with the name of Cattug may
possibly be connected with a Cattug or Cattogus who was
concerned in the Pelagian discussions of a.d. 430. It is
at least a highly likely conjecture, therefore, that the
exotic religion from Palestine had some foothold in Roman
Dorset.

Caesar arrived in 55 B.C. His excursions into the Home
Counties can hardly have touched Dorset. But echoes
of the clash with the great civilization of Rome must have
reached even the far-off Durotriges. It must be remembered
that they were not savages. They may have used woad
and worn skins : I have seen blue face-powder and furs in
London to-day. They may have burnt prisoners in wicker
cages (that is one theory of the origin of the giant at Cerne).
But they were probably part of the third wave of immigrant
Celts, and they had come themselves, far back, from the
Europe with which, if only because of the gold and amber
which I have mentioned, they were still in habitual contact.
They used a Greek design for their coins, that of the well-
known Macedonian stater, of which Dorset examples are



THE GREEN ROADS 55

preserved in the County museum. They had certahily
some sort of ordered civilization of their own, however
loosely knit. And they had rendered the soil of England
in some degree hospitable to man's needs — they, and the