Review of Wytherston: A History of a Dorset Settlement, by T.P. Connor (£10, from www.wytherston.com)
WYTHERSTON is a hamlet about four miles north-east of Bridport. You can see what it means to most people by looking at this sign just up the road from there:
It means nothing. It’s a small place that has played very little part in the history of anything, and few people have ever lived there.
For Tim Connor, this made it all the more enticing. He wanted to know how much could be discovered about a settlement like this, and he found the answer to be: a surprisingly large amount.
As is nearly always the case in West Dorset, when places and people are properly approached, stories and connections of an unexpected kind appear.
Two record sleeves, two links to Wytherston. The first link is with Patrick Macnee, best known for playing Steed in The Avengers, hitherto almost entirely unknown for appearing five times in Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew at the Wytherston Barn Theatre during the first week of World War Two. A programme was printed for this production, of which just one copy survives. Its front-cover illustration of Wytherston Barn is reproduced on the cover of Mr Connor’s book:
The second link is with another stage of the barn’s life, this time with its partial use as a recording studio. The folk singer June Tabor used Wytherston to record a demo track which is on the Hokey Pokey charity compilation. Mr Connor also notes that it was at Wytherston that “the composer and guitarist Mike Trim… wrote the music of the feature film ‘Missing Link’ starring [Sir] Michael Gambon.”
I went to the studio myself once and was flabbergasted at the idea of there even being one there: so flabbergasted, unfortunately, that all I can really remember about going there is how flabbergasted I was. And I’m pretty sure I wrote something about going there too…
I mention this to indicate the frailty of human memory, and to suggest why it can be so important for a historian to uncover physical traces (records!) of the past. Like the 1608 Manor of Wytherston Court Roll, in which Mr Connor excitedly spots that the handwriting suddenly changes, “as if to denote something uncommon”. What’s there is a reference to a John Travers, died 1606, as “fil(ius) cytharedi“, the son of a harpist.
“At Melbury, Sir Giles Strangways often paid for ‘fiddlers’, and at that very moment a ‘musitian’ was apprenticed to learn ‘the art & mistery of musicke’ at Bridport. Whether John Travers’s father was a member of some early Powerstock village band, or whether he was employed to play in the hall at Wolfeton, and perhaps at Hooke Court, Toller Whelme or Mapperton, one can only speculate.”
Talk of a harpist also summons up this:
This carving of a hare playing a harp is now in the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. It comes, writes Mr Connor, “from a house in Powerstock, but is said, before that, to have been found in the area of the chapel at Wytherston”. No one knows where the chapel at Wytherston was. It seems to have been in ruins by 1550, with the church at Powerstock used for worship instead.
This is the tomb in Powerstock churchyard of ‘William Travis’, who died in 1646 and whom Mr Connor thinks was probably William Travers of Wytherston, a member of the same family as the harpist. If so, “he is the only pre-twentieth century inhabitant of Wytherston of whom anything permanent remains”.
Come the 20th century and there is clearly a lot more evidence. Owners over the last 100 years have included William Saunders Edwards, JP, five times Mayor of Bridport, and owner of the Bridport net and twine firm Edwards; Major Felix Walter Warre, MC, fifth son of an Eton headmaster and a director of Sotheby’s; Sir Michael Culme-Seymour, a naval commander and modern art collector; his stepdaughter Gemma Nesbitt; and, since 2005, Johnnie Boden, of mail-order clothing fame. The book details Mr Boden’s astoundingly expensive-looking alterations to the properties around Wytherston and his improvements to his 187-acre estate (Dorset gates made by Richard Leaf of Powerstock – who does make very handsome gates, new hedges laid by Nigel Dowding of Corscombe, etc).
Mr Connor writes carefully about all of these people, and misses, I think, some opportunities to paint them more in the round. There are many people who have been involved with Wytherston (Sammy Hurden, Kirsty Fergusson, Miranda Crabb, to name just three) who could have provided more colour and telling detail. Gemma Nesbitt, in particular, is rather passed over.
Still, there are some amazing little vignettes elsewhere. For example, the House family ran an agricultural contracting business from the Dairy House at Wytherstone, sometimes employing more than 30 men. Now read on:
“In a business in which jobs can be distant and widely separated, breakdowns not uncommon and parts difficult to source, the brothers hit on a novel solution to solve their difficulties.
“For several years they used to keep a light aeroplane – a German Bolkow Jnr. – on the level ground of Ramsdon [part of Wytherston], with which they could fly to collect the needed machine part in, say, Norwich, and take it, sometimes dropping it from the air, to a combine broken down in in a field in Devon.”
Isn’t that fantastic? It doesn’t sound very economical, but you can’t dispute that’s a quality service (as long as dropping parts from the air didn’t break them!)
All in all, Mr Connor’s book is impressively thorough, from the discovery near Wytherston of a 60BC bronze coin from the Osismii, a tribe from northern Brittany, one of only a few such coins ever found in England, up to the creation of a tourist website for Grays Farm B & B (Grays Farm used to be called Wicker; its name was probably changed in the 1830s, to Grey originally, in tribute “to the Prime Minister of the reforming Whig ministry of 1832″).
“The deep country is no longer a secret known only to the immediate locality, even if this part of Dorset has not, even now been ‘discovered’.”
Only two mistakes are worthy of note: on page 40 it says that the net and twine manufacturer Edwards “has become one of the constituents of Bridport Gundry,” which is not entirely true. It was part of Bridport-Gundry, but is not now, partly because Bridport-Gundry itself no longer exists.
Also, Mr Connor has been badly served by his designers and/or printers as regards the covers of his book. The covers have been both laminated on the outside, and coated on the inside, which means they curl when held. Technically, in terms of book production, this is a fault.
But a book with a curling cover can also seem to be opening itself, as if it’s confidently asking to be picked up, leafed through and read. So from that point of view its design may be appropriate, as this is a book that should be read by anyone seriously interested in the history, architecture and culture of West Dorset.