Three miles north west of Blandford on the A350 road to Shaftesbury a left turn onto the A356 takes the traveller onto an old stone bridge across the river Stour. About a quarter of a mile further west is the village of Durweston.
It is thought that the name derives from the tun or farmstead of a man called Durwes; alternatively, it comes from dwrwys meaning “deep water.” The setting for this village is an embayment in the chalk downs and the willow-bordered Stour, which near a mill takes a broad sweep off towards the west end of the parish, where the escarpment of Hod Hill dominates the further bank at some distance.
The bridge was designed and built in greensand ashlars for the Portman family by Joseph Towsey in 1795, who provided it with triangular cutwaters and refuges. At that time the Portman estate included the land between the high ground and the water meadows, but this is recent history. Like most parishes in Dorset the Durweston area was inhabited much earlier: in about 1800 BC when two tribal chiefs or aristocrats of the Bronze Age Wessex Culture were buried beneath round barrows still to be seen in the parish. During the following Iron Age the focus of local settlement would have shifted into the defended enclosure of Hod Hill, later conquered and occupied by the Romans, who used the south east corner of the rampart to form two sides of a marching camp. Evidence of a warmer climate in southern England in the 11th century is suggested by the Domesday survey in 1086, which recorded three acres of vineyards at Durweston and surveyed three parcels of land under the name Durvinestone.
The Lord of Durweston in 1316 was Brian de Gouiz, but later the Manor sequentially came into the possession of the Fitz-Payne, Poyning, Percey and Kitcon families and thence to the Cokes. On the death of Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester in 1753 it was purchased by Julines Beckford, who’s son Peter sold it to Henry William Portman in 1774.
The present Church of St. Nicholas was originally the parish church of Knighton before that parish and Durweston were integrated in 1381 (Durweston’s own Church once stood by the water mill, where today only some foundation stones remain.) The earliest recorded Rector was Will de Aylesbury, the incumbent in 1309. Although the tower is original the central nave and rear chancel had to be restored in 1846 after a survey found the structure to be so badly decayed as to present a risk to safety. The restoration work, which is in revived Gothic early English and Perpendicular styles, was financed by Lord Portman and re-incorporated fragments of the older fabric in places.
Two sculptures by Don Potter created in 1991 of St. Nicholas and a Madonna and Child can be seen on the south side of the tower, but the parapet and the interior of the church also display some lively gargoyles. Purbeck Marble was used to make the font, which is the oldest feature of the church. During the restoration of 1846 another sculpture was rediscovered under an east window and re-set above the inside of the south door. It commemorates St. Eloi (Latin: Eligious) as a patron saint farriers. The relief shows Eloi as a monkish figure (who’s head has been lost) at a blacksmith’s forge, shoeing the detached leg of a horse, which stands to the right on its other three legs, beside its rider as they await the completion of the work. The Portman family plot, and one of the oldest gravestones in Dorset, that of Mary Cocks (1690-1759) are situated near the south-west corner of the tower, which has six bells.
The nearby water meadows probably date from medieval times and were created to cultivate an early crop of grass for over-wintering the local farm’s livestock. Strip lynchets on the downsides are the remains of medieval cultivation terraces. Sheep and arable farming were also important, wheat and barley being the main cereals (these have now been supplemented or superceded by peas, flax and oilseed rape.) Older industries have been milling (on the Stour,) agricultural machinery and oddly, steel fabrication.
When the railway was laid nearby in the 19th century, the village was served by Stourpaine and Durweston Halt. Between 1848 and 1875 Durweston was the home of Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne, an outspoken Rector appalled by the rural poverty of the time. Osborne therefore campaigned for the repeal of the Corn Laws, a stance which brought him into conflict with George Banks, then Dorset’s Conservative MP who was upholding the Laws in Parliament. Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, was a friend of Osborne’s and spent some time with him in Durweston, while he held a brief position as a curate at nearby Pimperne.
Up until World War, 2 Durweston was part of the Bryanstone estate, when the entire village and its farmland belonged to the Portmans. In 1951 however the estate passed to the Crown. The present manor in Bryanstone Park is a red brick Regency mansion designed by Norman Shaw for the 2nd Viscount Portman. The building stands on a knoll in the centre of the great park and the main entrance is an imposing 18th century structure.
Until the 1960’s it was noted that Durweston had about three shops, a school, a post office, reading room, carpenter, joiner, and a pottery. The village also possessed a filling station. The dwellings of Durweston typically include some picturesque cottages some with hollyhock and jasmine in their front gardens. Typically the cottages have walls of flint, brick or cob, with brick chimneys and thatched roofs. Dairy House is a more recent building with a 19th century brick cottage nucleus. Most of the approximately 160 homes in the village however are probably 18th century or later.
By the end of the decade however, a much-publicised decline had set in. There is an excellent first-hand account of this contraction by a man from Wimborne who bought up the post office-cum-shop as a lightweight early-retirement-due-to-health occupation in the early 1970’s. He could testify that there were then the two other shops, the steel fabricator works, the school, filling station, two farms employing local men, and nearly twenty well-kept allotments, supplying rich and poor alike with a wealth of fresh fruit and vegetables. There were, he adds, many plumbers, chimney sweeps and general handymen.
Yet by the time this gentleman had sold up the business some years later to return to the vibrancy of town life the shops, filling station and steel fabricators had closed, the farm livestock had gone, and the farm was employing just two men. The school kept going, but only by bussing in children from other places. And those allotments? – they “grew” new homes in their places; as is the way of today, beyond the affordability of new generation villagers.
Little wonder then that Durweston folk spoke of the days when allotments flourished and everyone supported or took part in the village show. They spoke of when football and cricket teams played regularly, when there was a youth club, and when a barn and reading room were available for village activities such as dances, skittles, competitions and meetings. Previously, with no village hall or pub, group meetings had to be held in member’s homes.
Sometime when it was at its lowest ebb it was said of Durweston that it was “not a village, which impresses with any beauty of architecture.” But now the tide has turned and Durweston is growing again. A purpose-built village hall was opened in 2003 and the playing field was recently extended to include a tennis court. Yet at the 2001 census a population of only 489 was recorded – thirty fewer than in 1851, since when, and until at least the end of the 19th century, the population is likely to have risen still higher.
Today the parish is a Conservation Area of archaeological importance and with Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But a large proportion of the revival, as in so many other rural communities, is made up of new, if restricted, commuter or holiday homes at the expense of former social amenities and community spirit.