Wednesday, June 22nd 2016
This evening we are going to the house of friends for dinner. They too are vegetarian which makes things that much easier and more confortable. We will spend the day in Dorchester (or ‘Dorch’, as I have heard it called locally), as there are a few things to see.
We started with a visit to the market which is not far from the hotel. It takes place on Wednesdays on a special site off Weymouth Avenue. Dorchester has had markets since time immemorial but the present site has been in use since the late 1800s.
The market has open areas and covered areas and there are many stalls selling a wide range of goods. It’s very easy to end up buying something you never knew you needed!
We walked through a beautiful old building called Napper’s Mite. Today this is a coffee shop and restaurant but its history goes back to the 17th century. In 1615, Sir Robert Napper died, leaving a will in which provision was made for the founding of almshouses to accommodate ten aged men. He had already purchased the land but it was now left to his son Nathaniel to complete the work, which he did, by 1616. Since then, there have been alterations. For example, the west façade, pictured above, was rebuilt and given its upper storey in 1842, when it also acquired the clock from a poor law institution that had been demolished.
In one corner of the square complex is the inevitable chapel. (Inmates of almshouses were expected to attend chapel services on Sundays.) In the centre is a courtyard, now furnished as a seating area for restaurant customers but, I hope, a pleasant spot where the original ten aged men could sit and enjoy the sunshine.
Despite the alterations, Historic England (English Heritage) considers the building fine enough to merit a Grade II* listing.
This splendid building, once the headquarters of Dorchester Council (which has moved to new premises in North Square), was designed by Benjamin Ferrey, in his favourite Gothic Revival style, and was completed in 1848, though the clock tower was added in 1864. These days it is the home of Dorchester Arts and the other rooms are available for hire for meetings, conferences, performances, wedding, etc. The Corn Exchange is also Grade II* listed.
We had a look inside Holy Trinity Catholic Church. It is also by Benjamin Ferrey and was completed in 1876, though there have inevitably been refurbishments and additions since that time.
Ferrey had to fit the church onto a relatively cramped site and this has led to some unusual features, such as aisles of uneven length and breadth. (Grade II listed.)
We of course paid a visit to the wonderful Dorset County Museum. There is so much of interest to see here and the building alone is an exhibit in its own right. By G.R. Crickmay & Son of Weymouth, it was built 1881-3 and, to me, feels like a museum should feel. (Deservedly Grade II listed.)
There are too many exhibits to give a representative sample. Any selection will seem arbitrary. Here are a couple of sculptures to start with.
The above is a general view of the Victorian Gallery in the museum. It is light an airy with an upper gallery and I think it is quite beautiful.
At one end of the gallery is a beautiful rose window. Unfortunately, I do not know who made it and assume it was installed when the gallery was built.
Looking down from the upper level, we have a view of the Roman Mosaic Pavement. As the museum’s Website points out, this is one of the few places in Europe where people are allowed to walk on a Roman mosaic. It was discovered during building work in 1905 in Durngate Street. It was re-laid here by the then curator Captain Acland. I did walk on it but must admit that it felt almost sacrilegious to do so!
A little further along the road is a relatively unadorned building, Dorchester’s Shire Hall. It was designed by Thomas Hardwick and completed in 1797, if the date impressed on the rainwater head is to be trusted. It is Grade I listed.
One of the more important functions of the building was that it served as the local Crown Court until 1955. This earned it a place in history because of a famous trial that took place here in 1834. There is now a plaque on the façade commemorating the event.
The plaque, by Ian Walters, shows a scene that encapsulates the story of the trial and transportation to Australia of the six persons named around the edge, Thomas Standfield, James Hammett, James Loveless, John Standfield, James Brine and George Loveless. The six are collectively remembered today as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Briefly, the story is as follows. In the 1830s there were locally too few jobs to employ all those seeking work, and landowners were profiting from this by lowering wages. Previously, it had been illegal for workers to band together to seek better working conditions but in 1825 this law was repealed. The six men mentioned, all from the village of Tolpuddle, therefore banded together and formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers, swearing an oath to support the Society and its aims. In particular, members refused to take employment for a wage of less than 10 shillings a week.
This did not suit the landowners and they sought a way to destroy the Society. They could not do so directly as such organizations were no longer illegal but were advised by Lord Melbourne, then Home Secretary, to use the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797. This prohibited the swearing of secret oaths and could be used against the Society’s members. In consequence, all were found guilty and sentenced to transportation to Australia.
Use of an obscure law never intended for such a purpose was clearly a breach of justice and there were protests and marches in support of the convicted men. The protests were successful and in 1836 they were pardoned and allowed to return home. (More information on the Tolpuddle Martyrs will be found here and on many other sites on the Web.)
We next walked to Colliton Park where, in the 1930s, Dorset County Council planned to build its new County Hall. Before building began, the site was surveyed by archaeologists, resulting in an important find. The Council’s building plans had to be modified in order to preserve this important site. It has been stabilised and protected and can now be freely visited by the public,
Known as the Roman House or the Roman Town House and now listed Grade I and given the status of a scheduled ancient monument, it was probably first built in the early 4th century and added to subsequently. The house now exists as various lines of stonework on and below the surface. The roofs you see in the background are those of a modern shelter set up to protect the most fragile part of the site.
Roman houses usually included s hypocaust or under-floor heating system. Letters home from Roman soldiers in Britain often complain of the cold, especially in the north of the country. The warming effect of the hypocaust must have been very welcome in winter. The floors of some rooms were supported by blocks or columns, leaving a space through which hot air from a specially kindled fire could circulate. The hypocaust in this building has crumbled but we can still work out its structure.
The jewel of the site, so to speak, is the fine mosaic. Both the hypostyle room and the room with the mosaic are protected by glass screens. Photographing through glass is problematic but there were narrow gaps around the edges of the screens, just wide enough for me to insert my hand. They were too narrow for my camera to pass through but just wide enough for my hand holding my mobile! The last two photos above thus come courtesy of my iPhone.
We now started back to the hotel, intending to make tea and have a rest before going out for dinner in the evening. On the way we passed the Borough Gardens, a pleasant public park first opened to the public in 1896.
There we found this rather splendid 16-foot tall fountain, decorated with lions, birds and ferns and still n working order. It was presented by Charles Hansford Esq in honour of George John Gregory Gregory, Alderman and JP (and also his brother-in-law, I believe), who was mayor of Dorchester 5 times and in 1895 responsible for the purchase of the land that became the park.
Near the tennis courts we found what I think is a very fine clock tower, cheerfully painted in red, green and gold. It is Grade II listed, quite deservedly. Erected in 1905, it too was presented to the town by Charles Hansford and his head, in profile, appears on the body of the tower. It is quite a masterpiece of the clockmakers’ art.
We later left the hotel and caught a train to a station a few stops up the line where (so we thought) we had arranged to be met by our friend with his car. It later turned out that the message had become scrambled and our friend had gone to Dorchester South, the station from which we had just left! However, in the age of the mobile phone, such hiccups are easily sorted out and we were soon collected and taken to dinner.
Dorchester has today shown us some of its treasures but I am sure many more remain to be discovered on other visits.