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

The marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England online

. (page 2 of 28)
Online LibraryF. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) DartonThe marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England → online text (page 2 of 28)
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this was Iniilt in 1847 by merchants of the town, who in
those days kept, as in Dorchester and Bhindford also, a
social state of dignity and ordered well-being : they used,
for example, to send their Madeira to Newfoundland (a
great Dorset trade, three centuries old) and back, in their

• And tho roj)o f(jr King John's hIujih, jiikI for Henry VIII'h ships, nnd
all and smidry sliips of Knglund : und niurh \\ iro netting to ctvtch tho
ovil fwh that carno out of (Jormany in l'Jir> : and likowiso lanyards for
JoIHcoo'h JwHiins. Moreover, to some extent, llax-growing has Ixnin
revived : a ripple from tho utouo thrown into world niurkots by tho
RuMian lievolution.


own ships, to mature it. Or the local ironwork railings on
the Harbour Road : there is no iron ore near here ; they
are a century old. Or the decent Town Hall. Or the
magnificent collection of Borough records (Bridport had a
mint in the days of Athelstan).* Or the open-air rope-
walks. Or the warning, just outside the town, that anyone
who damages the county bridge will be transported for life —
signed by an official whose family surname under George III
began with a capital F, but now begins with ff. Or a
thousand other odd and discrepant vestiges of creation.

I want to know what such things mean, and their relative
significance in time ; what expression they really are of
the spirit of man, and where man has got to in this one piece
of England. It seems to me that I may be able to guess more
nearly what the progress of mankind has been (if there has
been any progress) by visualizing it in a single county (and
in a county of which I love every inch) ; by trying to find
out with what intention our forefathers built or fought or
lived since man came into England, and what kind of Dorset
the first man in it and the generations after him have found
and altered.

* Almost, but not quite, certainly. It is not determined whether Bredy
(up the Bride valley) was not the " town " so honoured, though if so its
glory departed very quickly.


" It is a question if the exclusive reign of orthodox beauty is not approach-
ing its last quarter. Tlie new Vale of Temi^o may be a gaunt waste
in Tluile : hiuuan souls may find themselves in closer and closer
harmony with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to our
race when it was young. The time seems near, if it has not actiuiUy
arrived, when the cluistened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain
will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with tlio moocLs
of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately, to the
c-onunonest tourist, spots like Iceland may become wliat the vine-
yards anrt myrtle gardens of South Europe arc to hun now ; antl
Heidelberg and Baden be passed unheeded as he hastens from the
Alps to the sand-dunes of Schoveningen."

Tlu: Return oj the Native.

*' Bboadbent {stopping to snuff up the hilhidc air). All ! I like this spot.
I likf> this view. This would bi^ a jolly good place for a hotel and a
golf links. Friday to Tuesday, railway ticket and hotel all inclusive."


John Bull's Other Island.





STRICTLY speaking, I suppose, the history of man
in Dorset should begin with a conjectural account
of the origin of all life — with the atom, the ion, the
amoeba, the nebular hypothesis, and a view of the (till
lately) infinite space where stars grow into worlds. But
(praise be !) I know nothing of world-physics, nothing of
astronomy, nothing even of astrology ; I cannot so much
as cast a horoscope, which seemingly almost any clerk in the
Middle Ages could achieve. In this book, therefore, I shall
speak of the celestial universe (three- or four-dimensioned
space and its contents) no further than to point out, upon
this opportunity, that the monkish clock in Wimborno
Minster is wTong when it alleges in a pantomime, as it has
alleged for six hundred years past, that the sun travels
round the earth.

But if one pretermits these huge speculations, it is still


impossible to deny all reference to the grim science called
geology ; least of all in a county which has given a world-
name to three notable formations. Moreover, the rocks in
Dorset are a chronicle open and clear. Not only do Dorset
folk use in many ways the stones of the time before the
Flood ; not only do the foundations of the county contain
the tremendous mystery of man's first appearance ; but the
cliffs and the hills and the valleys are themselves a chronicle
of past wonders, now plainly visible. They are as insistent
as an earthwork or a ruined castle. Here, then, shall be a
journey through the old time before our oldest fathers.

The most ancient " rocks " in the county — more venerable
far than man — are the cliffs of Charmouth and Lyme
Regis, and the meadows of Marshwood Vale. The epochs
that went to create them must have been much longer than
all time since. Next upon the stairway of the years stand
the most important of all the county's strata. From
Portland comes the stone that creates the soft shadows of
St. Paul's Cathedral ; from Purbeck the grey columns of
Westminster Abbey, and the splendour of the west front
of Wells Cathedral.

But mankind was not extant when those rocks took shape.
There were thrown up next the glorious chalk hills. On
the chalk the shepherd is able to exercise the first and oldest
art of subjugation. In the high downs — higher, nobler
in Dorset than in the more-praised dominion of Sussex —
rise the scores of streams that the dairies need ; and upon
the sweet turf feed myriads of comely sheep ; the true
horned sheep of Dorset, a valiant and fertile stock with an
old pedigree, the envy of less happier lands, the ornament
and treasure of the green slopes. And in those slopes also
the dominant race of earliest Britain cut its vast and
enduring citadels.

But man was still not born in England even " when first
the hills in order stood." There are clays and sands older
than he. The white earths of Stoborough Heath, which for
generations the Five Towns have drawn from Dorset for


their craft of pottery, were formed ages before the only
creature that has learnt how to use a thumb : near here also
is the best clay for long churchwarden pipes. Lower down
the Dorset sloj)cs, by the rivers and marshes, is the poor
kingdom of land that alone is cocv^al with mankind. There,
where still the winds and the streams change by little and
little the infirm water-courses, stretches the new-built
earth that is man's twin. All else was old and established
before any human voice was heard in the fantastic world
of continental England.

For that is the unimaginable condition of the beginning
of man's life in Dorset — a condition whose results still
govern that life. The county lay formerly upon no sea :
it was part of a lost Atlantis. How long and how often it
was joined to Europe not even the geologists will say with
certainty-. Twice at least it was submerged beneath the
waters, to rise again with land where now the grey warships
ride. It was in turn arctic and tropical. Whole generations
of living things were born : the earth shook and was opened,
and when the torment was past the living things were rock.

At some time in that ebb and flow of terror man appeared
in England : Eolithic man. We do not know if he is our
direct ancestor : there is in England no link found between
him and tlie later, j'et incalculably old, generations of
Pala?olithic and Neolithic man. Wc only know that he had
to strive against a power we cannot so much as describe :
the full might and fury of Nature her.self. To Nature fell
the victory. Never again in England did she prevail so

Dorset seems to hold a record of tliat first defeat. L^pon
the Ordnance Survey's gay and j)rctty geological map, in
the very heart of the county, there i.s a briglit pink speck in
the midnt of the green stripes that stand for chalk. It is
unique, and has a name peculiar to itself. It is called
" Elej)hant Bed of Dewlish " : perhaps the finest achieve-
ment of any science in the way of mixed homeliness and


All that is left of the elephants who slept in that bed
their last sleep is in Dorchester and Salisbury Museums.
The immense curving tusks are over six feet long. They
are imperfect : in life they must have measured more than
eight feet. The molars are like great lumps of rock. They
belonged to the elephant known as Elephas meridionalis,
the Elephant of the South : by whose presence in our island
we know that England must then have had a warm climate.
He vanished from the face of the earth in the Pliocene Age.

Close by the remains of these monstrous creatures were
found some little chipped flints. They have been thought
to be the possessions of Eolithic man. With those feeble
weapons he must fight for life against such beasts, with those
poor tools he must conquer the hard earth : and but for
them we might not know even that he had ever existed in
this part of England.*

He vanished, too, like the Elephant of the South. Before
Palaeolithic man appeared, there was another vast trans-
formation of the earth's face, and England was islanded for
a time. Then once more man, Palseolithic man, appears ;
in Dorset he has been traced on the Devon border and at
Wimborne. Then again came the cold, and the land rose
up from the waters, until, by stages not to be numbered
certainly, the last great breach with Europe occurred. Man
in England had viewed the promised land, but he might not
possess it — might not leave upon it the marks which after-
wards Neolithic man made incffaceably in Dorset — until
the triumphant sea had torn the cliffs of Purbeck and Port-
land into walls against itseK.

I think the lowest of the many computations I have seen
of the duration or evolution of the three Stone Ages in
England is 139,000 years. The Neolithic Age ended for
us about 2000 years before Christ ; hardly 4000 years ago.
If in 135,000 years from now England grew too cold for

* We do not really know, so far as Dorset is concerned. The flints
are now said not to have been worked by man. But the Elephant is
authentic, and, like the mocking-bird in Mrs. Trimmer's Robins, had
better remain here " for the sake of the moral."


human life, how much of our civilization would be left for
those who at length came back, as perhaps Neolithic man
came back, from the warmer zones of the south ? I know
that it is a vain speculation ; and the years of geologic
time are beyond the mind's comprehension. Yet it is some
such indescribable and terrifying immensity as this that the
Dcwlish Hints and Purbeck and Portland stones imply :
an immensity containing even the reversal or the dethroning
of all that we mean by man's dominion alike over organic
and inorganic nature.

Once, from near Dcwlish itself, I looked up to the hills
and saw as it were a travesty of that antique strife. There
was an empty lane climbing the hill between hedges, and
the day shone with the hard brightness of spring before the
bud.s have opened. I had grown tired of roads, and looked
to the top of the ridge with hope. Suddenly there appeared
over the clean line of road the head of a mounted man,
with a black cap ; and then a red coat and tlien the
multitudinous waving sterns of hounds ; and after that
more red coats and fine horses, ambling easily, first one,
then another, and pairs, and at last a host, every one coming
into sight like the units of an army — terrible as an army
with banners, for had they not killed the fox ? It was a
gay sight, a triumphant simplicity, this famous Cattistock
Hunt ; and yet it seemed also a parody of that remoter,
huger war that had once taken place in those very hills,
when all the odds were not upon the hunter. \\'hat if the
fux, in a milli(jn years, had conquered Nature, and made
man as the elephants of Dcwlish ?

Any man can see in a reasonable walk* most of tiiat
geological pageant which I have just suggested ; and ho
need not trouble himself much about geology, for the places
th«?mselves speak in a good comprehensible tongue of their

• By " reoflormJjIo walk," or iiidood by " walk " ulono, I mean now and
h<Tfafl<'r any (Imtuiwn froiu twelve to tliirty miles, ucrording lo rircuin-
Miuii<<-H. For furlhfT dt'tiiiLH He« tlu< A|)|>cMi(ii.\ 1. In the i>i-uuont cu-so I
HUg^ffit iiUo thn goal of nn altcrnAtivu walk.


Begin at Poole Harbour, where the sands and heather and
brambles stretch from the western bank into Studland
Heath and Little Sea. Here, at the outset, the unstable
foreshore performs, by way of forecast, the still unended
miracle of earth-building. A bunch of whin near an inlet
will suddenly hold together a small island of sand : the
wind comes, and lo ! a grass-topped hill in a yellow desert.
The waters slowly push the sand higher, scooping their
own shallow channel a little deeper ; and so, in a few
centuries of minute toil, there is formed a delicate con-
tinent of dunes, whose shape and colour change without

The waters too have simple proofs here of the unhuman,
almost inhuman tasks accomplished by Nature alone.
Poole Harbour, Lytchett Bay, Arne Bay, Wareham Channel
are now pied with islets of stubborn grass, like molehills on
a flat meadow. A gull or a heron may make them his throne
while he rests a few minutes from the search for food,
thinking highly, doubtless, of the Providence that in the last
few years has suddenly set up these inns for his sojourning.
But there is a stranger wonder in the green tufts than the
mere convenience of birds. The grass comes from America,
and with it the New World is rebuilding the Old. A few
seeds of an American grass chanced to come by ship, it is
said, into Southampton Harbour : and by chance, too, they
so fell that they took root ; and now all the flats of water in
that region are filled with the quick-growing sturdy v/eed,
and the channels are being narrowed and deepened more
securely than man could compass.

It is almost a battlefield, this little strip of coast : sea
against land, man against both. At its westernmost curve
the waves are daily triumphant. Here, beneath Handfast
Point, stands Old Harry. By his side formerly stood also
his long-faithful consort. Old Harry's Wife, a second un-
gainly pillar of chalk. But the subtle, indefatigable sea
plucked at her robes continually, and slid away her founda-
tions, till suddenly she dissolved into the waters, and was


but a heap of diminishing white himps. Even so will her
lorn spouse presently perish.

Tliat cruel deed must have been the revenge of Ocean ;
for Studland Heath before that had robbed him not less
cruelly. In the waste of sand and lagoons on the Heath,
lies the enclosed mere named Little Sea. In Ralph Treswell's
Tudor map it is an arm of the great sea, upon which swim
swans and ducks and what appear to be pelicans of a pro-
digious bigness ; but now the land has imprisoned it, and
there are no pelicans. ^len say that in its still depths is
buried Excalibur, flung there by Sir Bedivere against his
will ; and indeed the brown marsh is a ghostly place, where
in the twilight the most knightly soul might forget his

There is power in this strange and lovely place : a power
not only of beauty beyond description, not only of legend,
but of some spiritual force as well. It may be only some
trick of light and colour, such as sometimes you get in the
Welsh bilk or on Romney Marsh. There is contrast enough
here for any illusion of the sight : the white cliff of Vectis
standing stiffly out at sea, the gold and silver of the sand, the
blue and white and grey water, the profound dykes, the
heather and pines — all these are played upon by sun and
wind and cloud without hindrance to the line of sight,
until not twice running will a view appear the same : and
in turn the hues play upon the eye of the mind, so that as
the wraiths of old chivalry pass dimly, and faint echoes
ring in the brain from the forlorn passions and hopes of the
knightly years, the whole world and he who regards it from
Studland Ht'uth are subdued into a sombre union, an
ecstasy of loneliness.

Another legend and another fragment of earth-history
lie close at hand. \Vestward of Little Sea the shaggy heath
begins to grow upon clay, coeval with man, and not now
shifting and unstable like the sand. In tiic midst of its
wildnesa are set two great alien stones, the Agglestone and
the Puckstone. Legend says that the Devil, having taken


a hatred of Corfe Castle, threw these stones at it (from his
natural home in some Isle of Wight watering-place), and they
fell short. The stories told by scientists are less interesting
and not much more plausible. But by any account the
Agglestone and the Puckstone are older than their resting-
place, and older than man.

From the Heath one comes into the geologically older
world of Purbeck. But a-t this point, he who walks comes
upon a serious obstacle. He climbs up to Ballard Down,
and sees at his foot a rather large and offensive town,
stretching up every valley, full of grievous things : houses
built to appear important to unimportant persons ; sham
half-timber, eruptive and incongruous glass of many
colours, ironwork and paint of the Public Baths and
Washhouses Period, cornices that bear no weight, be-
dizened doors, gables in number like the tents of an

Not that Swanage is wholly vile, however. The old pond,
and a few grey and white houses of a grave and stubborn
homeliness, and the new church, and the harbour, and
its seemly Georgian hotel — these have reticence and

It is with mixed feelings that after crossing the town one
looks back at the unseemly parodies of architecture which
climb Durlstone Head. They are, after all, man's victories
over Nature in a land where victory has not been easily
won. As you pass them, you will see many invitations to
the Caves of Tilly Whim. Defy the warning of experience
of watering-places : go to these alleged caves. They are
not caves :* they too are a battleground. They are disused
quarries, worked by the Company of Marblers of Purbeck
(a vigorous trade gild or union) many years ago, before they

* Nor is Tilly Whim, strictly, their name. They are Tilly's Wliim
Quarries. Tilly was one of the first to use a crane, or whim, some two
hundred years ago : an effort of progress which doubtless Dorset under
the Georges regarded placidly as the summit of mechanical skill. But the
quarries here have not been worked now for a century past. (See A Royal
Warren, by C. E. Robinson. Privately printed.)


migrated to otlit-r galleries. In the silent workings are all
the secrets and all the spirit of an imnieniorial craft. Men
have riven and split the stone in the same way, with the same
tools, perliaps since imperial Homo set up marble where
before were only the wattle huts of the Celts. There is
something indeseribably hard and penetrating, yet venerable
also, in the grey unchanging masses : they have almost a
life — they could speak with the voice of old Time himself,
and tell of all the humble hopes, the anger, the joyful
strength, the caprices, from which they suffered blows :
of all the nameless men now more still than the very dust
of the quarry.

Yet even the stones are not wholly dumb. Here have
been found many still undefaced records from the dimmest
antiquity — fishes of strange shapes, and vast turtles, fit
dwellers in such a jjl^^ce and such an epoch as formed
Purbeck marble : and one trace of life more romantic,
even, than the elephants of Dewlish. It is the footmark
of an iguanodon ; one print only, a shamrock-like impress
of a huge lizard's foot, twelve inches or so across, left when
the rock that now is so painfully carved was but soft mud.
It is like the footprint upon Crusoe's island, solitary, un-
related, full of terror : but it is from no mere sea that it
comes ; it is stamped high and dry above the tide-mark of
time itself.

On the lonely hills towards St. Aldhelm's Head, there is
a desolation no less suggestive of the beginnings of the earth,
though it is in reality a man-made solitude. The coarse
grass is strewn with great shaped boulders, like the ruins of
a giant's palace. There are strange holes in the turf, de-
cayed walls, little deserted stone shelters wliere once the
smaller blocks were shaped and stacked : brambles and
nettles are everywhere, and no smooth surface anywhere.
It might be the workslK>p or nihhish heap of a world-
builder. It is but a deserted quarry, left haphazard as thougli
the marblers had fled in some sudden fear. It is strangely
full of the atmosphere of awe, like the grisly " chapel " where


once Sir Gawain must abide the three strokes of the Green
Knight :

" Wild it seemed to him ;
He saw no sign of resting in that place,
But high steep rocks on either side the dale.
Rough knuckled boulders, rugged stones and rocks,
With shadows full of terror . . .
' I wis', quoth Gawain, ' wilderness is here :
This is an ugly grass-grown place of prayer,
AVhere well that Knight in green might pay his vows,
And do liis reverence in the devil's way.' "

At last, after a league of desolation, comes St. Aldhelm's
Head — St. Alban's or St. Aldhelm's, as the Ordnance map
observes punctiliously ; but St. Alban had no commerce
with Wessex. The promontory of the great Saxon bishop
Aldhelm is as it were the pivot or apex of the Isle of Purbeck.
It is an impregnable salient thrust into the sea. Near its
summit the two hard rocks, Purbeck marble and Portland
stone, are broken off ; except for a little strip near Wor-
barrow Bay, they are not seen again on the coast until
Portland itself rises up at the western end of the wide
curve of the cliffs.

The Headland, perhaps, does not fasten itself upon the
imagination as do certain other seaboard places of Dorset :
at any rate in calm weather. But in the wind and the rain,
when the south-westerly tempest blows clear across the
Atlantic into the narrow groove of the Channel, it is glorious.
The rock seems to join the sea in the war against their
common conqueror. How many tall ships, through the
ages, have been blown safely past the Start, past the terrible
race of Portland, almost into the peace of Christchurch
Bay, to be broken to splinters upon Dancing Ledge or
Anvil Point ?* Out of the innumerable company of their
dead would rise the armadas of nations long vanished, of
empires from whoso numb hands sea power departed
countless generations ago. Every race and every tongue

* One almost as I wrote these words.


of Europe would be found thcro, in ships of strange rig,
the little brave creeping ships of the old world.

The low, strong Norman chapel on the headland is by
tradition a record of one such disaster. A father, in 1140,
it is said, saw his son drowned in a gale before his eyes, and
set up this little four-square house of prayer to be at once
a beacon-holder and a chantry for the souls of sailors.

There is a change in the pageant of the rocks at the
Headland itself. The hard stone ceases and gives place
to what seems a more kindly land. Below the cliff is a round
blue pool and a gorse-embroidered valley ; beyond, yet
another valley, full of trees, and then hill after hill cut short
by the sea, until, far awa}', the cliffs end in a dying fall at
the sunset. Instead of the bleak quarries, there comes,
after a patch of shale, a great stretch of chalk downs.

If you are walking westwards from here, you can choose
either of two routes ; close to the coast, through Kimmeridge,
or along the inner chalk ridge, over Creech Barrow. By
the Kimmeridge route Encombe Glen (below the House)
must be avoided ; ill-behaved trippers have caused it to
be closed to the public. But the coast can be reached
again near Smedmore, east of Kimmeridge.

The geologist takes great delight in Kimmeridge. The
shale ledges are older even than the Purbeck and Portland
stones ; and the wrinkled sea that slides over their grey,
oily layers hides dreadful things that the earth has done —
geological faults, lapses from regularity, highly original
sins which make science a ghoulish joy. Are they not
recorded and pictured in the Museum of Jermyn Street i

Man converted the Purbeck and Portland rocks to his use

Online LibraryF. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) DartonThe marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England → online text (page 2 of 28)