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The Sinking of HMS Formidable

Everyone has heard of Lassie the super-intelligent ‘doggy’ film star. Few realise that the part was originally based on a rough-haired collie owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat Inn, Lyme Regis. That Lassie has always been credited with saving a sailor’s life. An enduring Hollywood serial has indeed a Dorset ring to it.

It was the first day of January 1915, in the early hours. The battleship HMS Formidable had been training and exercising in Lyme Bay with other ships when she was struck with two torpedoes. The magazines blew up.

Two hours after the first strike her crew of 780 was ordered to abandon ship. Only 233 were to survive the savage, ice-cold water. It was a major disaster not long after the opening of the First World War. A lifeboat capsized in the swell, but other ships in the squadron took off 114 men. Then the big ship went down, deep by the bows.

An empty boat was found at Abbotsbury and another came ashore at Lyme Regis with some sailors dead from exposure. One other man was to have his life saved by the dog Lassie. He had been taken into the Pilot Boat Inn, apparently dead, but Lassie kept licking his face for half an hour and he revived. The dog was awarded two animal medals. Forty-eight survivors reached Lyme Regis in all.

Hollywood got on to the story of Lassie and as a result of that her name will live forever….  But a second dog figures in the tale, for at Abbotsbury Gardens a headstone marks the grave of the captain’s dog Bruce, whose body was washed up on the nearby beach a day after the disaster.

Many sailors are buried in Lyme Regis churchyard and two at Burton Bradstock cemetery.

There are about 30 identified wrecks in Lyme Bay, most of which can be reached by divers, and some have been.

There was an intensification of U-boat activity after the sinking of the Formidable, and many thousands of tonnes of British shipping were lost off the coast of Dorset; however, six U-boats were sunk. Towards the end of the war two merchant ships were attacked in September 1918. The Gibel Hamam was torpedoed off Abbotsbury and 21 of her crew were lost. Another ship, the S.S.Ethel, was attacked and sank while being towed to Portland.

The Day West Bay Fished a Dinosaur

One day in the 1980’s an ignominious lump of nondescript bone was brought into the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester by a Mr E Taylor. It soon became apparent however that it was a portion of the skull of an animal, for it bore sockets for the creature’s teeth and in its dimensions varied from 46 to 67 millimetres in size.

The skull fragment had apparently been caught up in a fishing net during a trawl for scallops off West Bay, west of Portland. As a remnant of an ancient vertebrate this find in itself was not that unusual, for the seabed in the area in question forms part of the world-renown (and richly fossiliferous) Jurassic Coast Heritage site, and consists of a stage of the Jurassic strata known as the Lower Kimmeridgian, after the village of that name near Kimmeridge Bay. Long before the discovery of the skull, numerous vertebrae of  marine reptiles and possibly even of dinosaurs had regularly been obtained from the same area as tidal action wore away the enclosing rock. While some of these show wear and colonisation by bryozoans and worms, others are fresh-looking suggesting that the bones are still being eroded from the entombing clay.

But the West Bay skull-bone shows both fresh and eroded areas. From examination, it was clearly part of the skull of a large theropod dinosaur, and isolated and fragmentary bones of this kind are generally classified as Megalosaurus (or “large lizard”). This is a genus of dinosaur originally identified from Jurassic strata at Stonesfield in Oxfordshire. The type specimen exists as a group of bones first described by William Buckland in 1824. Although the specimen skull fragment from West bay is similar in general appearance, it evidently belonged to an individual much larger than the reptile(s) who’s remains were excavated from Stonesfield. Thus the latter’s  subnarial height exceeds 164 millimetres, as compared with 110 mm for the Stonesfield specimens. The teeth are also relatively closer together in the Dorset example; the inter-dental plates relatively lower in height.

Knowlton and the Riddle of its Rings

Knowlton is a deserted village hamlet on the B3078 in the east Dorset parish of Woodlands, 10 miles north of Wimborne. The motorist passing speedily through the place on the main road may notice nothing more than a number of low mounds and embankments, which may convey nothing to the untrained eye. Seen from an aircraft or balloon however, and the full extent of an amazing complex of earthworks will be immediately apparent, ideally in the low, raking sunlight of evening.

The ancient structures scattered across nine fields at this site are the funeral and ceremonial monuments of Neolithic and Bronze Age communities occupying this area from about four and half thousand years ago. Possibly the locality was favoured for the fertility of its soil and/or the proximity of a stream for water supply. But the sheer density of the earthworks, indicate a very long phase of occupation spanning over a millennium. There is not just a scatter of a few graves at Knowlton, but a complex of memorials on the scale of necropolis. Indeed, it has been said that in their day these earthworks ranked only third to the great megaliths of Stonehenge and Avebury.

Central to this complex of prehistoric remains is a close-knit scatter of four of the ring-bank and ditch enclosures known as henges. These structures diminish in diameter from south to north and are ramified by the course of the B3078 and a minor road running northwest from it. The main road actually bisects the Southern Henge which, with a diameter of 220 metres, is the largest enclosure in the group. In the angle thus formed by the main and unclassified roads are three other henges: the central but smaller Church Henge and, 100 metres to the north-west, the still smaller Northern Henge and the tiny enclosure known as Old Churchyard.

Approximately equi-distant from the henge complex to the northeast and southwest are two dense scatters of round-barrow mounds, and known respectively as the Northern and Southern Barrow Cemeteries. A further ten barrows have been identified and plotted with a random distribution among the henges, with another four in an imperfect east-west alignment across four fields slightly to the west. One dominant barrow (Great Barrow) with an unusually distant ditch lies 50 metres east of the Church Henge. These barrows vary widely in size and represent higher caste burials of the Bronze Age Wessex Culture, dating from a later period than the ritual henges of the Neolithic settlers. The barrows now mapped at this site now number about 55.

Clearly the reconstruction and interpretation of this site would represent archaeological bodies with a challenging source of material for investigation. So it was that in 1993 landowner Arthur Thomlinson and a confederation of other local landowners granted permission for a programme of surveys and excavations to be conducted by Bournemouth University with funding from English Heritage. The results of these investigations added considerably to the knowledge of the site in general and Southern Henge in particular.

Unlike other types of circular enclosures, henges are defined as having the corresponding ditch on the inside, not the outside of the bank. It was the Southern Henge upon which the attention of the BU archaeology unit was primarily focussed, with a preliminary geophysical survey of a cross-section of the bank and ditch on the south east side being carried out. However, the result was inconclusive, as the bank of the henge did not respond well to the survey techniques. For the 1994 season the following year the university project team excavated a 3 by 30 metre trench across the area surveyed the year before to access the extent of plough damage and to examine in more detail the earthwork’s stratigraphy. It was found that the henge bank survived to a depth of only 20 centimetres and had indeed been extensively damaged by ploughing. A burial soil was also discovered beneath undisturbed portions. The ditch, which is separated from the bank by a 9.5 metre platform, was 5.5 metres deep, though only 4.5 metres could be excavated at the time.

The ditch fills suggested that it had been cut with almost vertical sides, and there was evidence of episodes of slumping. Two slot-trenches were also found one with posts and the other with wattle work. On the floor of the post trench a piece of worked chalk was discovered.

Elsewhere, this season saw a geophysical survey being conducted over the north-east quadrant of the Southern henge, where aerial photography had indicated past entranceways, now possibly obscured by the main road or farm buildings. A contour survey was also carried out over the eastern half of the henge and another geophysical survey was undertaken of an area to the south where some ring-ditches had been identified. One of these was a double ring-ditch 29 metres across, while the others formed a tight cluster; one large ditch was cut by smaller examples.

Following the arrival of Christianity in Britain, a popular practise was to consecrate and thereby perpetuate henges and other prehistoric enclosures as holy, ritualistic sites by building some of the earliest churches within them. In so doing it was likely thought by the early ecclesiastics that they were symbolising the triumph of Christianity over paganism, whether or not the sites were foci of some kind of tellurian energy which could be tapped for religious purposes. Normally however, evidence of the maintained use of a prehistoric ceremonial site by the Christian priesthood will have been obscured by trees, boundary demarcations, etc, such that unusually circular churchyards in areas of prehistoric settlement may be all that is visible to betray the practice today.

But as a consequence of unusual circumstances, this was not the fate of the Church Henge at Knowlton. This monument is probably unique, for no-where else in England, if not the UK, can one see a better example of the heathen-to-Christian transition in its bare native state, for this church was never walled or consecrated for burials. And this enclosure may have been sacred to Celts, Romans, and Saxons before the Norman’s built a stone flint-rendered church here sometime in the 12th century.

Records state that this church had once been a ‘Chapel of Ease’ for Horton, was enlarged during the 15th century, and had a curate (Richard Saunders) in 1550, when there were three bells in the tower. But it is likely that the effects of the mediaeval plagues, which led to the de-population of the village, also affected the church, and in about 1650 regular services ceased. After a brief period of restoration and revival, the church was abandoned after a roof collapse some time later. The font was removed to Woodlands Church.

Today the empty shell of this church stands within the henge approximately 300 yards from the deserted village. This henge is about 100 yards in diameter and became the focus of attention from the archaeology team for their 1995 season. At this time a contour survey of Church Henge was conducted, the results suggesting that the bank around the west entrance (one of three) had been altered after the henge’s construction, possibly when the church was built. Other evidence led to the supposition that the northeast entrance of the henge may have been created some time after, by infilling the ditch at that point and removing a portion of the bank.

1995 also saw the University students surveying the northern henge and Old Churchyard. Northern Henge is a curious earthwork consisting of a sub-rectangular ditch enclosed within a horseshoe-shaped bank, both of which are broadly open to the southeast. Old Churchyard, the smallest of the four enclosures at Knowlton, is even more unconventional, having a small squarish bank enclosed by a circular 60-metre diameter ditch with one entrance on the northeast side. This configuration and small scale is difficult to parallel, and has no precedent among the classes of ringed earthworks known. Furthermore, the feature does not conform to a henge in the strict sense, since here the bank-ditch positioning is reversed. However the finding of scatters of burnt flint in the vicinity of the enclosure clearly points to a prehistoric origin, and contemporaneous with the true henges. It has been thought this feature could signify a valuable link between earlier and later Neolithic monument methods and styles.

An analysis of the molluscan (snail) profiles in the ditch of the Southern Henge revealed that considerable change during use and decline of the monument had taken place. One other feature of the site identified by aerial photography and the University research was an as yet undated track way leading off southwest across a large field from the south side of the Southern Henge. This may be Medieval, but it is yet another controversial element in the complex history and remarkable sequence of human activity at Knowlton.


A Rich History Revealed through Excavation

Five miles south-east of Dorchester lies the parish of Poxwell, an L-shaped area occupying the south-facing slope of a spur of chalk downland on the 4oo-foot contour. This slope forms the north side of a valley that denotes the line of the Poxwell fault, a dislocation of the strata that brings the Chalk on its north side against part of the Purbeck Beds to the south. Since the Dorset Ridgeway, a major line of communication for trade in prehistoric times, runs close to the parish boundary, the area is rich in the remains of associated settlement and cultivation in the form of strip-lynchets, enclosures, burials, and “Celtic” fields. (see the feature Dorset Ancient Fields published 10th of April 2011 in the General Category.)

An early survey by the RCHM found both Celtic field and Medieval strip-lynchet systems to be present within the parish. In 1967 trial excavations were carried out by Mr H C Bowen at the behest of the owner of Poxwell Manor Farm, Mr J H C Lane, when the latter decided to level a system of lynchets in the vicinity of the manor grounds. This excavation revealed occupation debris and stone features which necessitated a larger-scale excavation being conducted. This was undertaken by J S Wacher in 1968.

The excavation further revealed fragments of probable Kimmeridge shale, used for ornamentation in prehistoric times, and some fibrous calcite (calcium carbonate) similar to the satin spar variety of Gypsum (calcium sulphate). As the dig progressed it became clear that a composite stratigraphy representing five periods was emerging. The layers and features were placed with regard, not only to their stratigraphic position, but also to the date of the associated pottery and any dateable attributes of the features. These periods were – (1) ?LATE NEOLITHIC – EARLY BRONZE AGE; (2) IRON AGE (c 400-c 150  BCE); (3) ROMANO-BRITISH (earlier phase c 200 CE/later phase 275-300 CE;  (4) c 300 CE (1st HALF of 4th CENTURY; (5) SECOND HALF OF 4TH CENTURY & LATER.

Of these five periods the Romano-British (3) was by far the richest and most complex regarding evidence of occupation remains. It is by a fortuitous fluke of nature the site has been well preserved. The terracing of the slope played a part in this, but ironically it was Medieval ploughing that contributed towards further protection. The north-south orientated Celtic field lynchet just west of the site was drawn across it when the east-west trending lynchets were established. Later hill-wash also contributed to this effect, but beyond the lynchet system features, including a burial, have been disturbed.
Beginning with Period 1, NEOLITHIC TO EARLY BRONZE AGE, this is based mainly on the position and posture of a skeleton in a shallow grave near the corner of what appeared to be a Celtic field, though this is now much obscured by later strip lynchets. The position of this grave and the crouched attitude of the     burial suggests that it may originally have been covered by a barrow or tumulus of earth. Barrows are commonly sited in association with such field-systems, though it is often difficult to establish which came first. The grave contained a layer of silt at the bottom, a feature suggesting that the pit may have been  open for some time before the dead person was laid out and the grave back-filled. Subsequent Romano-British terracing of the slope may explain the absence of any associated ring-ditch around the grave; no other contemporary features or finds were noted, except possibly some flint chippings.
Evidence of remains datable to the IRON AGE (400-150 BCE) were also sparse, again probably due to later terracing on the slope, and only one large pit could be assigned to the period with any certainty. On the floor of the pit a layer of silt was overlain by a layer of chalk rubble, possibly derived from the rim and sides of the pit. The presence of charcoal pointed to the pit having originally had a wickerwork lining. Clay was also present, and these provisions suggest that that the feature had been dug for use as a grain silo  (similar material has been found in known storage pits of the period). The clay was explained as the remains of seals to the pit. Above this the next later was of stone rubble, a feature that may have been purposely added to raise the level enough for a corn-drier to be constructed. Carbonised grain and   fragments of charcoal were identified from a layer within the corn-dryer and above was a layer of brown clay with largish stones, which may have been part of the oven wall before it collapsed. Besides this pit there was one other, smaller pit to the north of the first which also featured a layer of carbonised material but which, unlike Pit 1, yielded no sherds of Iron Age pottery, suggesting that it should be assigned to Periods 1 or 3 in its dating.


This period involved two recognised phases: (earlier; 200 AD & later: 275-300 AD) Pottery sherds are notably more common during these two phases, perhaps as the result of hill-wash or material being re-deposited by mechanical disturbance. As regards features, the period was one that amounted to   considerable industrial activity, to judge by the remains of ovens, walling, plinths, paved floors, and a drainage gulley. Furthermore, interments are represented on the site by a twin burial of an adult woman and a child, a grave that indicates by its shallowness that it dates from before the later terracing operation and indeed the accompanying pottery indicates a date of around c150 AD. Consequently, it is thought that the grave does not belong to the main period of activity on the site. Another burial close by produced no evidence which could date it with any certainty, though its similar alignment to the woman-child interment suggests that it is contemporary with the latter. Stratigraphic evidence does not contradict this, but equally it cannot be used to confirm it.
It is clear that activities of an industrial nature were planned for the site, though there is some doubt as to whether they were ever of continuous duration. The evidence of the pottery and stratigraphy seem to point to a process of unsuccessful experimentation having been undertaken, and so it is likely the site was occupied only for a short time. The complex of ovens and other features were set out against a sheltered corner formed by the base of two slopes, one running north-south, the other east-west, meeting at right-  angles. Occupying the south-west corner of this shelter was an oven containing a residue of charcoal and ash, but as to its exact purpose this remains unexplained.

Situated further north, and positioned just behind the first burial, was a horseshoe-shaped oven lined with regular rectangular stones and opened towards the east across a shallow oval depression. A closer examination showed that this was not in fact a single structure but two layers of walling, suggesting that two ovens were present, a later one comprising finer stonework being superimposed upon the earlier outer layer. From the design it was thought that this had been a smelting or roasting furnace of a type found on a  contemporaneous site at Broadmayne. The earlier oven was built into a pit excavated in the chalk and was approximately three feet in diameter with four surviving courses of stone. A number of loose blocks lay on the floor of the structure, having evidently collapsed into it from higher up, suggesting that the oven may have originally stood about three feet above the present ground level. Against the back of the oven there was a heaped deposit of unburnt greensand with only a few burnt patches. Behind this deposit the back of  the oven showed no sign of burning, which showed why the oven space was reduced by the introduction of another layer of walling, partially overlying the earlier firing up of the oven. It has been presumed that this modification was intended to overcome the problem of insufficient heat being generated in the earlier furnace; reducing the inner diameter by 25% overcame this, but it appears that success still eluded the workshop as shown by the complete absence of any industrial slag.
Greensand, however, contains a silicate of iron called glauconite, which thus enables it to be used as a low grade iron ore. There is therefore some possibility that iron was being smelted by roasting greensand in the oven, in which case, the absence of nodular slag would be explained. Yet even if roasting was being undertaken the shortage of residues from the process leads one to the conclusion that the workshop must have been in use only for a brief period.

The greensand deposit on the floor of the inner oven was overlain by a layer of charcoal with much greensand mixed in with it, particularly near the sides. Similar material was found filling the stokehole. That  temperatures of the order required were attained in the new smaller oven is shown by the existence of vitrified clay, a probability that is further supported by the cracked and fractured condition of the limestone walling. A better distribution of heat was therefore obtained after the original oven had been reduced in  size. Conveniently it was this damage which rendered the stone blocks worthless as robber-material after the site had been abandoned, so enabling them to survive while the rest of the site was pillaged for stone after the end of period 3. A greensand dump lay close by the ovens directly upon the native chalk. This  was certainly an indication that terracing had occurred, and further, that the outer oven at least is contemporaneous with the earliest use of the freshly terraced site. The pottery associated with the construction of this oven is critical to the chronological framework of the entire site. The upper fillings of the stokehole and furnace of the inner oven yielded datable pottery indicating the latter phase of Period 3.

A fourth oven was found in the north-west corner of the terraced platform, abutting against the exposed bank of the chalk. This position would likely have had the effect of insulating it against heat loss, but the oven’s walling had been so extensively robbed-out that very little remained, these being portions of the northern and western base walls, and two large slabs. These slabs may have been floor-stones, and their thickness would have suited them to this purpose, as it would have meant that the grain would only have been exposed to a gentle amount of heat. Yet there was a burnt layer of considerable thickness, with carbonised grain and charcoal at the base of this furnace, pointing to the occurrence of a conflagration of some description centred on this corn drier. The chalk forming the back wall of the drier above the line of the stone walls also displayed burn marks. Possibly there was a timber cover to the oven that caught fire, carbonising what was inside.
A few yards to the east of this oven and abutting onto the south-facing slope of the lynchet a fifth oven had been constructed. In its plan this structure showed that an attempt may have been made to improve on earlier efforts. But from a stratigraphic point of view it is equally likely that these two corn-drying kilns are contemporary. This oven was slotted neatly into a square-ended recess at the base of the lynchet at the north end of the site. But in this instance the pattern of the flues could easily be made out, these being in the form of a tuning-fork or perhaps an H shape. The flues consisted of limestone and chalk with chalk rubble filling in the space around them. Nothing of the floor remained, nor were there any signs of burning or carbonisation. From this it was concluded that this corn dryer was hardly, if ever, used. A short way to the south of the dryer a small portion of walling no more than two-thirds of a metre in length was excavated, though whether this was a very small remnant of another part of the oven which had survived  robbing, or an entirely unrelated feature, was not determined with certainty.

What then, were the industrial activities formerly carried on across this site established to serve? Clearly the five corn-drying kilns and their associated structures or features constituted a workshop that became derelict around the end of the third century, yet it is highly unlikely that it could have functioned independently as a unit unattached to any parent organisation or market outlet. Rather, the site is best interpreted as a workshop or shelter for workers employed on an associated Romano-British villa estate who’s remains have not yet been found. If this is the case, then the short period of occupation so evident in the remains suggests that the workshop formerly occupied marginal land at the edge of an estate it served, so indicating a peak of prosperity for the villa, a time when the land was used to its maximum  agricultural potential. In this respect the location of the industry could not have been more ideal, for it was situated on well-drained chalk above the spring-line, providing the workers with a source of water supply which is even marked by two wells to this day. Further, it was tucked away into the corner of a right-angled  turn in a positive Celtic lynchet and, incidently, faced east, affording the structures protection in the lee of the south-westerly winds regularly sweeping up from Lyme Bay.

Only one coin was ever recovered from this site, which dated the activity to the late third century. The brief occupation of this period (3) is attested to by the virtual absence of pottery and by the fact that no occupation layer was associated with the structures. As described earlier,the alteration of the composite (double-walled)oven and the absence of slag and hammer-scale points to little success in carrying out the industrial processes. Further, there seem to have been considerable problems with the corn-dryers; one may have burned down and the other seem to have been barely used before it was abandoned. As a result of the difficulties encountered the site was abandoned after a short time, though it has been thought that the desertion could equally have taken place because because the peak of prosperity had  passed and it became no longer economic to cultivate the marginal land of the estate. After dereliction most of the stonework was robbed out.

  Period 4

Corresponding to 300 AD to around 360 AD, by contrast with the preceding period, produced significantly more small finds and pottery sherds. It evidently followed on from Period 3 without any noticeable hiatus or break, since no turf line separates the two layers. Period 4 is represented by a thick layer radiating from the oven near the right-angle turn of the lynchet in the north-west corner of the site. This layer was seen to thin out towards the south and east, it source being apparently domestic, since quern fragments, appropriate pottery and plentiful food waste were present in the deposit. It has been thought that this waste material may have come from a midden associated with a nearby farmstead or villa that could have occupied the site of the present village of Poxwell. The small find seem to support the idea of a domestic source, as small structural fittings and domestic  artefacts are also present. To judge by the amount and nature of the finds it may also be inferred that the site became a midden – ie a dump for domestic waste. The waste not unnaturally contained animal bones of sheep, oxen, horses, pigs and geese; furthermore, shells of winkles, oysters and limpets show that seafood was also a part of the diet. Other than the burials of two infants, no graves of adults were observed; the skeletons were largely intact and had not suffered from the attention of scavengers. In choosing this area to use as a midden, the  intention may have been to reclaim it for agriculture in the future. More likely though, the intention was to way-lay the collapse or subsidence of nearby lynchets into the disused cavity.

  Period 5 

The second half of the fourth century and later, which is covered by this period, was represented by a layer of variable thickness that extended over the whole site. This layer was a chalky loam which contained some flints and appeared to be a secondary deposit as the result of hillwash, since the inclusions were erratics (fragments derived from another area).


As stated previously, there were no finds of ceramics made from the layer corresponding to PERIOD 1, though collectively from PERIOD 2 onwards some pottery was in evidence. Later Romano-British terracing operations however had effaced almost all artefacts dating from this period, so that little that did remain was likely only a fraction of what once existed. Three distinct types of fabric were identified.

A small quantity of pottery was associated with PERIOD 3, which covered all Romano-British activity until the site became a waste dump in Period 4. One of the burials of the period contained a high amount of Iron Age pottery in the backfill, together with a grooved rim bowl of a type found at Dorchester dated to 150 AD. Pottery associated with the later Romano-British features and connected with the use of the site was indeed singularly lacking.

Following the robbing of the site at the end of Period 3, there is a notable increase in the volume of pottery and other artefacts from the Period 4 layers. There is also a notable increase in the size of the sherds, which had once belonged to jars with rims having a greater diameter than the body. Flanged bowls make their appearance, several of which were coated in a white slip. The period further saw the  introduction of some New Forest wares, which began to be produced around 300 AD.

The pottery from Period 5 differs little from the nature of the wares encountered in Period 4. There were similar wide, overturned-rim jars, unadorned bowls bearing flanges dropped well below the rim and  plain,rimmed dishes. Besides these however, there were more unusual forms present. For example, one of the bead-rimmed jars seems to be reminiscent of an Iron Age type; another, although a similar form, was made in a coarse fabric more usually characteristic of Iron Age pottery. Other elements in the ceramic assemblage were storage jars of the New Forest industry type, as well as NF bowls, beakers and parchment wares, with just a very small amount of Oxford ware. This means that the same pottery industries as were found in the Period 4 finds were also found here, though as with the former they do not appear to represent any later developments.


Besides the pottery, some iron, copper and lead objects were recovered from the site. Period 4 was also notable for fragments of prismatic mould-blown glass bottles of a type that are very common on Romano-British sites of between the 1st and 3rd centuries, and for half a bracelet with incised decoration. A stone axehead and a bronze coin of Tetricus 1 (270-3 AD) were also found in the Period 4 layer.  


This produced a small amount of Medieval pottery, confirming that there was some settlement of this period in the area and complimenting the presence of the strip lynchets.

  Beyond the borders of the site, prehistoric (Bronze Age) occupation in the parish is represented by the presence of a cairn circle (probably the internal sepulchre of an earthen round barrow since eroded away)
half-a-mile south-east of Poxwell Church.

Cranborne Chase: Deer-stealers, Poachers and Gamekeepers

The Cranborne Chase we know today is a small remnant of its ancient splendour. When the Chase belonged to the Crown it was an immense tract of woodland with rides made through the woods, planted on each side with evergreens to provide food for the deer. The Chase had for a long period belonged to the Earls of Gloucester, but in King John’s reign and from Edward IV’s time to the reign of James I it belonged to the Crown. Records from the reign of Elizabeth I state that the office of Warden and Ranger of the Chase was granted to Henry, Earl of Pembrokeshire, for life. However, in James I’s reign, the free Chase and Warren was granted to William, Earl of Salisbury, and his heirs, and all the rights and privileges of the Chase were transferred to the Lord of the Manor at Cranborne, as was the custom; he was also the Lord of the Chase.

North of the main Blandford to Salisbury road it still has some fine avenues of trees and the boundary line between Dorset and Wiltshire runs through it. Between Tollard Royal and Ashmore Down there is some of the finest scenery in the north of Dorset. A series of long narrow valleys lie between very steep ridges while the valleys are called Bottoms; there is Rotherley Bottom right in the Chase, Malacombe Bottom between Rotherley Down and Berwick Down; Ashmore Bottom on the other side of Berwick Down, and Quarry Bottom near Ashmore Down. In ancient times they might all have been river valleys, as the gravel in the bottoms indicates died-up watercourses. On Berwick Down there are numerous low banks and shallow ditches which were probably cultivation banks in prehistoric times.

William Chafin wrote Anecdotes respecting Cranborne Chase in September 1816. About gamekeepers he says:  “In the grant of the Chase, it is not the feed of the deer only that is granted, but the inclusive property of all undergame of every denomination”. He tells of a time when there was no such person as a game-keeper throughout the whole chase and relates that the first person to appoint a gamekeeper was Mr Doddington, later Lord Melcombe.

At the time George Chafin was the Head Ranger of the whole Chase, he died in 1766. One day he met Doddington’s game-keeper, who had a gun and dogs with him. After some argument Chafin ordered the game-keeper to go home and tell the person who sent him that, if he ever came again to this or into any part of the Chase with gun and dogs, the dogs would be shot and he himself prosecuted.

A few days later the Ranger met the same man near the same place and, having a gun in his hand, put his threat into action, shooting three dogs with one shot as their heads were close together drinking in a small puddle of water.

Mr Doddington was far from pleased. He set off for London the next day and sent a Challenge to Chafin to meet him in London and give him satisfaction for the affront. George Chafin, a Member of Parliament for the County of Dorset as well as Ranger of the Chase, went to the expense of buying a sword, which was never used and to this day has never seen blood.
It seems that when Chafin and his friend, Jacob Bankes Esq, at that time Member of Parliament for Shaftesbury went to see Mr Doddington to fix a time and a place for their duel they found him peacefully inclined and happy to acknowledge his error. Mr Doddington invited them both to dine with him and instead of fighting a duel they became good friends to the end of their days.

On the night of 10th of December 1780 there was a fight between the keepers and deer-stealers on Chettle Common in Bursye-Stool Walk. A gang of deer stealers met at Pimperne, headed by a Sergeant of Dragoons named Blandford who was stationed in the town of that name.

They came to the Chase in the night, in disguise and armed with swindgels, an offensive weapon resembling flails to thresh corn. They attacked the keepers, breaking the knee-cap of the stoutest man in the Chase and they broke three ribs of another keeper. The keepers re-grouped and moved on their opponents and one of Sergeant Blandford’s hands was severed from his arm and fell to the ground. The Dragoon was carried to the Lodge and Peter Beckford, who at the time was Ranger for the Walk, brought Mr Dansey, an eminent surgeon, to dress the wound. As soon as Sergeant Blandford was well enough to be moved he was committed to Dorchester gaol, where he joined his companions; his hand was buried in Pimperne Churchyard. Several of the offenders were employees of Mr Beckford. All were found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years but this was commuted to confinement in gaol for an indefinite term.

In his book William Chafin mentions hawking and says it was: “the most predominant amusement and was followed by all the gentry at a great expense”. He says of cock-fighting: “…it was a favourite diversion at this time and cocks were bred at different Lodges in the Chase. But in our days of refinement, this amusement of cock-fighting hath been exploded, and in a great measure abandoned, being deemed to be barbaric and cruel”.

No more game-keepers were heard of in the Chase until Lord Rivers, then Mr Pitt, was called upon to represent the County of Dorset in Parliament. Some saw this as an opportunity to install game-keepers in the Chase, something Mr Pitt found convenient to over-look. Very soon there were numerous game-keepers at work in the Chase. Records show that in 1828 there were as many as twelve thousand head of deer roaming across the Chase and these were the charge of keepers who worked for the Rangers.

Hutchins included a print of a noted deer-hunter in his costume, from a portrait by Byng in 1720, with the comment: “The deer-hunter of 200 years-ago was on-all-fours with the poacher of his day, no better and no worse. He was not ashamed of his occupation, nor was it considered a disgraceful one in any sense, and the result was the disappearance of the deer. The only point of contrast discoverable is that old-time poachers were the gentry and modern-time poachers are not”.


After the Rebellion

During the summer of 1685 the West Country was in turmoil. The Duke of Monmouth’s short lived campaign to seize the throne failed, leaving many mothers without husbands and sons. Those of Monmouth’s supporters who survived the fight faced a journey to Dorchester and the rough justice dispensed by Judge Jefferies at what was to become known as the Bloody Assizes. (See our article: the Monmouth Rebellion, published 18th October 2012 in the General Category).

The 800 or so who were sentenced to be transported were the fortunate ones; nearly three hundred were sentenced to death and for many of those the journey out of this world was to be a cruel and barbaric one. A few saved themselves by testifying against their fellows, while some wealthy individuals were able to buy themselves a pardon and a lucky few managed to escape and blend back into their communities when the hue and cry had died down. (See our article: Prideaux Family at Forde Abbey published 20th July 2012 in Real Lives Category).

Supporters of Monmouth continued to be sought out until the announcement of a General Pardon in March 1686. One was James Daniel, a lawyer, who lived in Beaminster. Following the defeat at Sedgemoor he fled to his home town and hid in a closet in his house. Hearing that soldiers were heading towards Beaminster looking for him he hurried west out of town to Knowle Farm, where he hid in a barn and covered himself with straw.

The soldiers arrived at the farm and charged into the barn, stabbing at the straw with their bayonets; amazingly they missed him. Eventually, the soldiers abandoned their search, leaving the fugitive to wonder about his miraculous escape. He was sure God had saved his life.

Four years passed before things improved for the better and James Daniel’s life could return to something resembling normal. The first thing he did was to buy the barn and the land around it, establishing a private burial ground so he and his descendants would lie where he believed God had saved him. James Daniel lived a further three score years reaching the age of 100 before it was time for this former Rebel to return to Knowle Farm one last time.  The burial ground remains to this day. Just 40 ft by 24 ft it is surrounded by a hedge of holly and a low stone ivy-covered wall, being entered through two large iron gates.

Those who fought on the side of the king returned to their homes and occupations, while some of the landed gentry who had supported the royal cause were received and thanked for their loyalty and service personally by the king in London.
In the thick of the battle commanding a troop of Dorset Horse was Thomas Chafin from Chettle. He was a devoted family man who frequently sent letters home to his wife; some of these have survived and provide us with first hand accounts of life on the field of battle, as well as giving us a glimpse into his relationship with his wife and his pride at being presented to James II.
In an early letter home Thomas Chafin tells of how his cousin was killed “barbarously” and goes on to say that one of his friends saved himself by hiding in a plot of kidney beans and how another escaped by running into a garret: “he was running as fast as he could thither and he and Thomas Clements and his gardener with him, well armed.” In another letter home he says: “after being fallen upon by rebels there was an hour’s fighting and away they ran”. He goes on to claim they took and killed a thousand of the rebels and captured three loads of arms.

In a further despatch to his wife who he addresses as: “My Dearest Creature” and  closes with “… and blessings to the brats and let Nancy take true love from her Deare Tossey,” Chafin tells her they “had totally routed the enemies of God and the king and could not hear of 50 men together of the rebel army. Every hour they picked up rebels in fields, hedges, and ditches including the Duke of Monmouth’s valet; the duke’s last words to him were that he was undone”.

The Duke of Monmouth was captured hiding under a tree near Cranborne Chase, at a spot still referred to as Monmouth’s Ash. He was running from the battlefield, trying to get to Poole, where he hoped to secure a passage back to Holland. Instead he was taken to London under a guard of soldiers from 1st King’s Dragoon Guards and executed.

It is not clear if Chafin and his men were a part of that guard but certainly Chafin was in London for Monmouth’s execution, a fact he reports to his wife. He describes how he and Thomas Erle were presented to the king, who gave them his hand to kiss, so that the whole company gazed on them and wondered who they were.  “Pray let ten cock chickens and two hens be sent to Thomas Erle’s speedily” Chafin orders, his wife adding: “The Duke of Monmouth’s head was severed from his body yesterday morning on Tower Hill. Blessing to Brats. So farewell, my dearest deare Nancy, quoth Tossey”.

The outcome of the conflict impacted the lives and relationships of many Dorset people. Some were cruelly sent to their deaths, some were shipped-off to far-away shores with no hope of seeing their loved ones again, and some were royally rewarded.

The Monmouth Rebellion

Dorset could have played a vital part in a return to Protestant dominance in England in the late 17th century. The Duke of Monmouth arrived on Lyme Regis beach from Holland, impelled by volatile evangelicalism in that country, and soon gathered an army of thousands which marched north, only to be defeated by King James II’s forces at Sedgmoor.

It was an army of peasants or serfs, armed with farm implements, and stirred to action by the death of Charles II and the arrival of a Catholic king on the throne. The attempt, in the summer of 1685, did not have the support of the Whigs as it might have done, and it was cut down among the Somerset rhines, the drainage canals in the moors, by a smaller but more professional force led by John Churchill, later the First Duke of Marlborough.

Monmouth and Lord Grey made for the Dorset coast, hoping to get away by sea from Poole. They abandoned their horses, disguised themselves and separated but Monmouth was caught in Cranbourne Chase and within weeks he was executed for treason at Tower Hill, London.

An associated rising planned in Scotland, a stronghold, like the West Country, of the burgeoning Protestant religion, resulted in defeat. It was left to William III of Orange to sail from Holland three years later, put ashore at Torbay with an army and eventually to be made king by Parliament once James II had sailed away to France.

The political and church scene at this time was mercurial and transient. The Civil Wars, which were intended to straighten things out, were not long over. The death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 led to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Draconian rules were in force governing worship, and Baptists and others were meeting in the woods. A century later the situation was somewhat similar, before there began to be an acceptance of the Roman Catholic Church once again. Things were going round in circles.

One James, Duke of Monmouth, aged 36, bastard son of Charles and claiming the throne in the place of his uncle the Duke of York, had stepped ashore near the Cobb at Lyme Regis, his Declaration was read out at the ancient cross. He had a high profile supporter in Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury. Monmouth’s followers were euphoric, yet there were many Dorset men in the king’s forces, which were soon to harry them.

The end was very violent and very sad. At the Bloody Assizes in September 1685, based in Dorchester, Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys took revenge in a courtroom said to have been draped in red. The Oak Room, still preserved, and now a rather select tearoom, overlooks an alley thoroughfare not far from the town’s tourist information centre. The judge’s lodgings in the town’s main street are also now tearooms. Altogether 292 people were condemned to death and 800 were transported to the New World.

Four years later, following William’s “Glorious Revolution”, the ‘hanging judge’ himself died rather ignominiously in the Tower of London.

Everything was against Monmouth: a badly equipped army, quarrelling amongst his chief officers, poor preparation, and an inept skirmish at Bridport. By midnight on the landing date Mayor Gregory Alford of Lyme Regis was at Honiton ordering an express message to Whitehall, and two Lyme Customs officers were also on their way to London to raise the alarm.

Taunton and Bridgwater welcomed the rebels with flower lined streets. The rebels wished to take Bristol, then the second city in the kingdom, but were easily discouraged and made their way through Frome and Shepton Mallet to Wells, and to Bridgwater again. By this time the people were losing heart and Taunton asked the rebel army not to return.

Monday July 6th 1685 decided things. Monmouth decided to attack the king’s army near Weston Zoyland, but was defeated by the rhines and the accidental or treacherous firing of a pistol in the dark by one of his own side.

The duke had hatched his plans with the fugitive Argyle and some hotheads in the Netherlands. Argyle was to start an insurrection under the Covenanting banner in the Borders and Campbell territory. The idea was that they would then both march on London. Argyle landed in Kintyre but the Marquis of Atholl occupied the countryside there and he was eventually captured when approaching Glasgow, and executed.

This activity north of the border had caused Parliament to vote money for a professional army. More troops came from the Continent, and help even came from William, showing that while their aims were similar, he had no time for Monmouth.

The strange thing is that four years earlier; Monmouth had toured the West Country and was led to expect massive support from the gentry. But his ragged army was one mostly of farm labourers and cloth workers. Even the supplies he had brought from Holland were seized.

Later, hundreds were caught as they ran from the battleground, cut down or hanged on the spot. A garrison newly returned from Tangiers was sent in, and retribution in nearby towns such as Shepton Mallet and Taunton followed.

Maurice Ashley, in “The English Civil War” (1974) set the scene for the Monmouth fiasco and what followed very well:

“Lastly, because Parliament won the civil wars it henceforward became an unchallengeable part of the British constitution. The Church of England ceased to be the sole religious institution because, in spite of heavy penalties imposed upon them, dissenters – known as nonconformists – emerged as a permanent feature of public life and influence on society.”

There was never to be another civil war in England. And when it began to seem that Roman Catholicism would hold sway again, along came William of Orange with his armed force to reverse the situation again. King James II fled to France and the nation remained Protestant.

Durdle Door

Durdle Door on the Dorset Jurassic Coast. Photo by Chris Downer, for more about the photographer click on the image.

Durdle Door

A detailed photograph of Durdle Door on Dorset's Jurassic Coast. Photo by Chris Downer, for more about the photographer click on the image.

A detailed photograph of Durdle Door on Dorset's Jurassic Coast. Photo by Chris Downer, for more about the photographer click on the image.

Durdle Door – a lesson in the natural world’s awesome forces.

It must be one of the most remarkable and intriguing formations of the Jurassic coast. Indeed, so curious and intriguing a natural phenomenon that it has been photographed and reproduced as a living-room landscape picture, one reproduction of which hangs above the mantelpiece in the home of a person of my acquaintance.
But Durdle Door, on the Dorset coast about a mile west of Lulworth Cove, is actually not unique as an example of a geological feature of its type around the thousands of miles of mainland Britain’s coastline. Rather, it represents a process similar to an earlier stage in the formation of sea stacks, those columnar outliers off headlands of bedded rock, examples of which include the Needles off nearby Isle of Wight, and Orkney’s Old Man of Hoy. “Door”, of course, needs no explanation, but the name “Durdle” derives from the Old English Thirl, meaning a bore or drill.

An appropriate starting point for the origin of Durdle Door would be around 140 million years ago during the late Jurassic period, when a shallow, warm sea was just beginning to retreat from southern Britain, leaving behind a lake basin which basked in an equatorial climate. The sea left behind a calcareous deposit which would later become the Portland Limestone series, but the lacustrine environment which succeeded it occupied the area that is now south-east England – but extending west to include Dorset of course – into which the sedimentary deposits of the Purbeck Beds were the first to be laid down. Around this lake tropical ferns and coniferous plants would have flourished and in and around the water dinosaurs would have roamed (saurian footprints have been discovered in a Purbeck quarry).

Without any marked change in the environment the Purbeck beds graded into a series of clays and sands marking the beginning of the Cretaceous period. These were the Wealden beds and Lower Cretaceous Gault Clay and Greensand. Eventually the sea encroached upon the land again, resulting in the deposition, first of a sequence of sands and clays then the unique lime-rich conditions in which the chalk was formed. But how did this sequence of beds come to be where they are today?

In a programme a few years ago devoted to Dorset in the ITV 1 series Countrywise, a geologist astonished presenter Paul Heiney when he explained how Durdle Door came to be formed. He told Heiney that the feature had resulted when the northward-drifting continental plate of Africa collided with that of Europe! In the immediate collision zone, the impact produced the Alps and the Pyrennees, but it also sent a shock wave of compressional movement extending as far north as Britain. This was powerful enough to tilt the earlier Jurassic and Cretaceous strata of southern England almost vertical.

At Durdle Bay nearly all of the limestone has long been removed by wave-action, while the remainder forms the facing of a small headland. This limestone band also forms the submarine “threshold” and seaward cusps of Lulworth Cove, which has been eeked out by wave action on the softer stata behind in a similar way to that of Durdle Bay. It is possible that the “door” was originally a local lens of weaker or softer strata within the limestone which the sea could breach more readily, so forming the archway. Evidently the sea was then able to erode away the rock behind, leaving a gap providing access to beds forming the headland.

Beyond the upstanding limestone it is noticeable that the top of the headland that joins the limestone to the Chalk is not level. From the ground it can be seen that the beds form a col or depression which then passes up into the Chalk forming the cliff-face of the bay behind. This rock, the sequence of the Purbeck beds overlain by the Wealden Beds and Greensand, was less resistant to erosion than the limestone. The dominant rock type in the Purbeck beds is the Purbeck Marble, a calcareous rock consisting almost entirely of brackish or freshwater snails and which has been extensively quarried as a decorative building stone. Interestingly, another feature of the Purbeck is the preservation of stumps originally belonging to some of those tree-ferns that used to grow around 140 million years ago. These can be seen weathered out in The Fossil Forest to the east of the entrance to Lulworth Cove.
Today Durdle Door is under the private ownership of the Weld family as part of their administration of the Lulworth estate. UNESCO teams have for some time been working to conserve the arch and adjoining beach.