Tuesday, 24 August 2021

THAMES: 14) Settling Point

Is time like the river? There are places where it feels less like a flow, with one age succeeding another, than an accumulation of all ages together.
Witness the Oxford Plain. Through an agrarian spread of yellows and greens the river ribbons blue. Here upstream of Wallingford it bends, and in that bend is a tiny village which, at first glance, might as well be any other.

Dorchester-on-Thames, not to be confused with its better-known namesake the provincial capital of Dorset, is a tiny settlement of 1,000 people. Little houses. Sheep in fields. Aside from a peculiarly large church, what is there to set it out in the shadows of the vast structures of power and privilege that line this valley?
Look closer.
Are those not some noteworthy earthworks (at right)? And where are these views coming from on the flat Oxford Plain?
Hill forts. How about it then.
In fact this subtle riverbend is one of the richest historical treasure-troves in the Thames valley. Six millennia of continuous human habitation are written in the shape of its landscape, from the ramparts and ditches everywhere you look to the coins, bones and grave goods that practically erupt from its gravel. It took the English some time to realise it. They’d wrecked much of it through gravel quarrying by the time that they did. But once they did, the Dorchester bend became one of the most prized archaeological zones in the country.
These are deep memories it harbours. Most of them long precede the English nation. They precede even its precursors. They go all the way back to a time when far, far away, Gilgamesh and the Egyptian pyramids were happening; and when here on the very fringes of the story of humanity, the migrants who wandered out this way got out their flint hand-axes and, for the first time, whacked down the stakes of this island-peninsula’s earliest permanent settlements.
A landscape in time, not just in space. The shape of this land is the product – and continuation – of the stories of about six settlements that succeeded each other on and around the Dorchester bend.

Doubtless life in these earliest societies to put down roots here would have been full of struggles. But had it yet gone so fundamentally wrong as we find it today? Was this then, as it is now, a land of abuse? Had the masculine power fantasy, which should never have existed, been invented yet? Whatever diseases afflicted them, was it in them yet to come up with such staggering political and cultural mis-reactions as they have for COVID-19 today?
Regrettably that’s not a theoretical question.
And because this is the middle Thames, we have to ask: what of their forts? The Iron Age fort on the hill, and fort in the bend; the Roman fort just beneath where the village is now: were these, already, Privilege Forts? Or were these forts for everyone?
There’s simply too much in the way to answer these questions now. Nonetheless, let’s take a few steps into a landscape where perhaps there’s less to impede those ancestors’ touch on your skin than anywhere else in this part of the country.

Start: Wallingford Bridge (nearest station: Cholsey – ten minutes by bus, or take the X39 or X40 from Reading for approx. thirty minutes)
End: Confluence with River Thame, near Dorchester-on-Thames (nearest station: miles away, take the X39 or X40 bus to Reading or Oxford instead)
Length: 8km/5 miles
Location: Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire
Topics: Wallingford Castle Meadows, Benson, Shillingford, and thousands of years of settlement at Dorchester-on-Thames
Wallingford Castle Meadows
Dorchester is only a couple of hours’ walking upstream of Wallingford, beginning with what was formerly the grassy envelope of Wallingford castle.
The river from Wallingford Bridge, with The Boat House pub and boat rental at left.
Wallingford natives take their morning coffees and relaxations by the river.
Almost immediately the riverbank greens, with open fields appearing inland.
The fields are Wallingford Castle Meadows – a wide strip of pastures between the river and the embankment where once towered the castle’s outer wall.
These fields were likely an integrated part of the castle complex, so have inherited the names King’s Meadows and Queen’s Arbour. It is thought they grew hay to feed its animals while offering an extra layer of wet and marshy defence. Recent archaeology has unearthed a chalk foundation for a stone outbuilding here, perhaps a dock or a quay.
After the castle’s demolition the hay meadows were reseeded and chemically treated to suit commercial dairy cows. This ruined their biodiversity, so now they are trying to bring it back through better management. These fellows’ summer grazing appears part of that plan.
A related congregation takes its ease on the opposite bank. Formerly the Howbery Park manor grounds, those fields now host a sprawling complex of environmental science organisations such as the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and a large solar power station.
The meadows stretch on past the northern limit of the castle ruins.
From here farmland takes over for the short stretch to the commuter village of Benson.
The vessels moored along here appear barely lived in, when not outright haunted.
Much of today’s reach is free of habitation, giving the river a chance to present its more natural face.
If not completely. The leisure of the monied classes seems to dominate river activity throughout the Oxfordshire Thames. Even on these beginnings of remoteness, the wayfarer is regularly passed by their pleasure-cruisers.
By this point we are more or less clear of the chalk hills. North and west of Wallingford it’s all farmland.
Eventually a weir comes in sight, heralding the village of Benson. The towpath switches to the north bank here, though rejoining it once across requires a quick circumnavigation of Benson’s waterside housing.
The weir is attached to Benson Lock.
These are so common a sight now as to almost cease to warrant commentary.
Benson Lock is another installed by the Thames Navigation Commission in the 1780s, replacing an earlier flash-lock attached to a fourteenth-century millers’ weir.
Unusually you can walk atop this lock and weir to cross the river.
Benson is a residential village and travellers’ outpost perched on gravel in otherwise marshy surroundings. It was known as Bensington until a century or two ago, by when they seem to have found the extra syllable too much effort.
Benson shares in some recurring themes of this region’s heritage. It has evidence of thousands of years of human activity, as well as a frontier position that got it fought over in generations of conflicts: between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, between Matilda and Stephen, and between the Royalists and Parliamentarians in the Civil War. It later flourished in the service of stagecoach journeys on the London-to-Oxford road, and keeps busy doing the same for river travellers today with its large boatyard, bungalow park and waterfront café.
The riverside at Benson, with pleasure-craft lined up a long way up the quay and large crowds bustling through the café.
Benson’s other landmark is its Royal Air Force (RAF) base, built to its east at the beginning of World War II. Originally installed to train air crews and house fighters and light reconnaissance craft, it now appears concerned with the trimmed-down air force’s support helicopters and transportation.
The path out of Benson passes this complex of holiday cabins, likely aimed at people on long boat journeys.
Then it’s straight back into rurality. But the fields here are not quite as remote as they seem. Across them runs the A4074 which became the main Reading-to-Oxford road in the 1980s, replacing the route through the Goring Gap.
A more old-fashioned instance of local river traffic.
While the north bank proceeds through fields and woods, the south is occupied by the grounds of an old manor house known as Rush Court. The original house was thoroughly rebuilt in the 1920s and has since been turned into a residential care home.
The wall of Rush Court’s ornamental gardens is visible from across the river.
Summer draws to a close. A long and bitter winter lies in store for this land.
A lighter vessel lingers about the walled Rush Court grounds.
Indeed, the flowers here have increasingly had their say for this year.
A long, hard winter, packed with plague, persecution and ingrained political abuse. Even surroundings like these can no longer distract from the abject irresponsibility of humankind in general, and the English in particular, in taking this world down its current path.
In due course another small hamlet crops up by the river.
As its name suggests, Shillingford is defined by its river crossing, which since 1827 has taken the form of one of the Thames’s prettier stone bridges. It is the latest in a line of bridges going back at least to the fourteenth century and preceded in turn by fords and/or ferries.
The cabins on the waterfront here look perilously vulnerable to flooding.
Shillingford Bridge. The origin of Shilling in this case is unclear, though most likely refers to someone’s name.
Shillingford has long connected important land routes on both sides of the river. Thus its service as a crossing point is thought to be extremely old – at least as old as the Roman road system, but probably much older.
For some reason the towpath now spends some time on the opposite bank before rejoining this one, and there is no route here along the Shillingford bend. The wayfarer is thus frustrated into a short detour into the village, and less pleasantly, along the busy Reading-to-Oxford road.
Fearsome clusters ambush those who dare walk the narrow path behind Shillingford’s houses.
The English do enjoy their walls and fences. This alleyway is an exhibition of several different types.
Shillingford’s central crossroads. It’s very small, with houses converted from inns from the days when coaches stopped here. It’s still a busy crossroads for motor traffic, but at present-day speeds everyone passes straight through now.
This is a much-used road with poor air, narrow pavements, and long waits for anyone trying to cross it.
Eventually a path offers passage back to the river, and from there, at last, entry into the time-twisting landscape of the Dorchester bend.
Another of these lurks in the meadow that leads back to the river.
The final approach to Dorchester is a straightforward march across this field.
From here we have a first sighting of Dorchester Abbey. Its profile dominates its immediate surroundings, much as it defines Dorchester’s most recent millennium. Only the most recent, we may note, for from here we must widen out our view of time.

We now tread on ground that’s experienced more than six thousand years of continuous human settlement, and whose very shape has shifted in its recording.
Two geographical features stand out on this riverbend, and in so doing have set the parameters of human activity here. We encounter the first as we reach a bridge not over the Thames, but over a tributary which joins it here after its own long journey: the Thame.
The confluence of the Thames and the Thame.
The Thame looks barely navigable, but it’s a major tributary with serious geographical and cultural significance.
Witness the extreme resemblance of the names. Thames has been interpreted as ‘dark river’ in this land’s old Celtic languages, and though the Thame (which unlike the larger river, they pronounce to rhyme with game) possibly shares this origin, the truth of it is lost in the fog of prehistory. Such is frequently the way with rivers, which are there all the way through, often bring people in in the first place, and so tend to carry the most ancient names of all.
The Thame rises in the Vale of Aylesbury, an eastward extension of the Oxford Basin whose Late Jurassic clay dominates the neighbouring province of Buckinghamshire. By flowing south into the Thames just as the latter emerges from its own southward curve, the pair create a peninsula and pack it with gravelly alluvium. Like that they have provided a relatively stable, accessible and defensible seat for settlement in an otherwise marshy area.
It is significant that from this point on the Thames is referred to in the Oxford English dialect by a different name: the Isis. It would be tempting to dismiss this as a posh scholarly affectation on that university city’s part if not for how the practice’s weight, enhanced through its use by Oxford’s fearsome rowing subculture, has prevailed on cartographers like the Ordnance Survey to label it River Thames or Isis from here on up on official maps. In fact the name Isa first emerges in writing in the fourteenth century; there is a theory – perhaps put forward by Oxford academics at that time, and almost certainly erroneous – that the Roman name for the Thames, Tamesis, was the outcome of this merger here, linguistic as physical: Thame plus Isis.
Present-day Dorchester adjoins the Thame on this peninsula. Most of its preceding settlements did too.
South across the river, the region’s other defining feature is at once apparent.
On the south side the land rises into a pair of hills that offer the only high ground on this level floodplain. This is an orphaned outcrop of the Chalk Group, which offers sweeping views across miles of surrounding landscape. This huge defensive, navigational and aesthetic value has garnered these hills many names. They are the Sinodun Hills (thought to be from Celtic: ‘old fort’); the Wittenham Clumps (which strictly speaking refers to the beech woods on their summits); the Berkshire Bubs (a reminder that ancestral Berkshire encompassed this bank till 1974); or more colloquially, thanks to a sixteenth-century lady of the local manor who by this estimation cannot have been small, Mother Dunch’s Buttocks.
That aesthetic value is also sought by today’s recreational walkers, who climb them for some of the best views in the region.

The Clumps are a straightforward climb from the river and can be reached on foot within forty minutes from present-day Dorchester. This is convenient for visitors, but must also have closely integrated the hills into the lives of earlier settlers on the north bank.
The view up the peninsula between the rising Thames (at left) and the Thame (invisible at right), with Dorchester village clustered right of centre. On a clear day the spires of Oxford can be glimpsed in the distance.
To the west is Didcot Power Station. The huge chimneys of its coal and oil plant, Didcot A, dominated the area till they were demolished in controlled-explosion media spectacles over the last decade. What remains is Didcot B, which continues to burn natural gas.
Back downriver the roofs of Benson are in plain sight. From here there is a much clearer view of its RAF base with its hangars and airfield.

Perhaps that combination is why this area has been a magnet for migrating humans as far back as the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age. From this vast period – considered to span from the first ice-age immigrations around 400,000 years ago, to the gradual warming of this land in the last few millennia BCE – Dorchester’s gravel has yielded an impressive number of worked flint hand-axes. This signature artifact of those times was an indispensable tool for chopping and carving all manner of meats, skins, bones, woods and other everyday materials.
A decisive transition marks the Neolithic or New Stone Age, from around 4000 BCE: namely, that these nomads began to cultivate plants and domesticate animals. It was this farming that rooted them to fixed locations, offered food surpluses when things went well, supported larger populations, and thus gave rise to more complex societies which rearranged the environment around them. It was a momentous change – and the challenge in any assessment of it is that it was precisely the pivot which underpins the settled cultures that carry on in the present day. Thus any evidence about it, still fragmentary at best, is necessarily filtered through both the curses and celebrations which the humans of today direct, often with fierce conviction and the gravest of personal stakes, at their current ways of life.
Life for these early farmers was probably neither the cesspit of sickly, bloodthirsty misery that the fans of modernity – that is, its minority of privileged beneficiaries – please to condemn them to for the contrast, nor an idealised golden age free of the raft of horrors that modernity has largely amplified rather than created from scratch. What then do we really know about these ancient people? To answer that we have to look at the evidence they have left us, such as the pottery, earthworks and burial sites that survive from that period. Of these, Dorchester’s promised to be some of the most revealing in all of England – at least until that clever and enlightened modernity got it in its head to lay waste to it by digging it up for gravel.
See that big lake by the river? It’s actually the filled-in remnant of one of Dorchester’s gravel pits, which the English quarried out in the late twentieth century for concrete and road construction. In so doing they wrecked the traces of one of the most tantalising Neolithic ceremonial sites yet discovered.
Around the 1920s and 30s, when the advent of powered flight offered new views of this land from the air, passing pilots began to notice cropmarks in the farm fields north of the present village. Cropmarks are patterns in plant growth which indicate altered soil conditions beneath – such as caused, for example, by buried ditches or wall foundations, to whose presence they serve as a clue.
Eventually these came to the attention of the archaeologists. What they found was astonishing: an entire Neolithic complex of ritual monuments and burial enclosures, spanning the period 2-3,000 BCE. They then spent the rest of the century in a race against the construction industry to rescue what they could from the gravel diggers and, later on, the builders of the Oxford Road’s Dorchester Bypass.
Cropmarks made by what came to be known as the ‘Big Rings’ ritual complex, as photographed from an aircraft by Major George Allen in 1938. It’s now that lake in the previous photo.
Most of the enclosures contained cremated human remains, sometimes with animal bones, arrowheads, or flint or pottery fragments. Amidst them stretched the site’s largest structure by far: a long, linear pair of ditches called a cursus, which ran roughly where the Dorchester Bypass runs now and whose function remains unknown. Possibly it was a boundary, a ceremonial route, or an axis of ritual alignment, very likely with reference to the river. And next to this cursus had stood an outstanding monument: the ‘Big Rings’ henge (as in Stonehenge) that made such an impression on passing pilots. Centuries of farming had obliterated everything above the surface, but the ditches beneath suggested a considerable double-ring of standing stones or timbers.
We can scarcely guess at the functions of sites like these, least of all when a nation’s response to such precious evidence is to annihilate all trace of it in the pursuit of passing material gain. Yet they do permit some general suppositions. For one, Stone Age humans were not the grunting cavemen of popular imagination but sophisticated communities which crafted skill-intensive tools and, far from being consumed by material drives, re-shaped their environments, often at enormous expense in resources and organised labour, to express abstract cultural pursuits and better understand the patterns of nature.
It’s also interesting how what’s now a largely peripheral belt of fields between Oxford and Reading seems to have been a core of human activity from at least the third millennium BCE. It’s easily imaginable that at least as many people would have been involved in building and operating these monuments as live in Dorchester today. Perhaps we could have learnt a lot more about them had their successors, in all the advanced wisdom of their modernity, not, you know, mined their entire site to oblivion.
When the sites were wiped out large sections had yet to be studied. How much richer a picture might they have yielded to the advance of investigative methods and environmental sampling techniques since then?
Excavations of some of the later sites here found bronze tools and ornaments, indicating the shift to what they call the Bronze Age. This is considered to have lasted till about 1,100 BCE in this land, but despite the use of bronze metal (and thus a rise in lasting evidence in the form of bronze tools, grave goods and ceremonial offerings), Neolithic ways of life are thought to have more or less persisted.
A more substantial shift came with the use of iron, with the associated Iron Age in this land lasting through the final millennium BCE. By that point settlements and populations were growing, robust political identities had emerged, and large ritual monuments were falling out of fashion. The change is dramatically recorded in the Dorchester landscape because it was now that a hillfort appeared atop the Wittenham Clumps.
The Clumps were occupied since at least the late Bronze Age, but Castle Hill (the eastern one), seen here from Round Hill (the western), was thoroughly fortified from around 600 BCE. Its ditch and rampart are still in outstanding condition.
By then the Dorchester bend ran through an overlap between three groups of people: the Atrebates on the lower Thames to the south; the Dobunni in the upper Thames and Cotswolds to the northwest; and the Catuvellauni about the Chilterns to the east. These were Celtic or Belgic societies, but we know them today largely through their Latinised names and accounts by the Romans who later subjugated them.
Little about their relationships over these centuries is certain, although by the Roman arrival they were clearly organised polities which appointed kings, minted coins, and traded far and wide. How exactly this hillfort figured into their interactions is thus largely a matter of conjecture, save that it’s easy to imagine its formidable defensibility and prestige as a place of occupation. Although it has never been excavated, several studies including a Time Team investigation have dug up enclosed sites and rubbish pits in the surrounding area. Far from an isolated outpost, it’s more likely it formed the nucleus of an interconnected settlement system that engaged as much in trading, crafting and administration of the surrounding communities as in military activity.
The commanding view to the south, with the rampart running through in the foreground.
The other clump, on Round Hill, is the oldest set of planted hilltop beech trees in England at over three hundred years old.
Hills like these usually carry an eerie reputation. They are almost certainly haunted and no doubt concentrate a mass of local folklore concerning ghosts, curses, strange animals, strange noises, hidden treasure, and peculiar weather and seasonal patterns on account of proximity to other worlds. Spend the night here if you dare.
Bovine custodians graze the rounds of the Wittenham Clumps as they prowl for human troublemakers. Witness them contemplating action against these on account of their barking dog.
The hillfort seems to have fallen out of use towards the end of the millennium. Why is not clear. Perhaps the politics grew stabler, and visual prestige and defence became less important than trade and ready access. The outcome in any case is that the focus of settlement shifted back across the river, this time to the very bottom of the loop between the Thames and the Thame.
Specifically to the area demarked by this line of earthworks, just south of the present village.
This rampart, known today as the Dyke Hills, is believed to have formed the northern perimeter of a forty-six-hectare town – significantly larger than the four-hectare hillfort – that grew up here shortly before the Romans arrived. No less than one of pre-Roman Britain’s first true towns (an oppidum in archaeological parlance), its status as a major trading centre is attested by its profusion of cropmarks indicating large houses and smaller enclosures – most likely workshops and storehouses – arranged along organised roads, as well as the huge concentrations of Iron Age coins that have sprung from its earth at the touch of farmers’ ploughs.
The ditch beneath the Dyke Hills rampart connected the Thames and Thame and would have surrounded the settlement with water, creating a defensible and well-connected island.
A south-facing impression of this landscape in the late Iron Age, on display in the Dorchester Abbey Museum. The new settlement commands the riverbend; note the moated rampart that's now the Dyke Hills. Across the river the old hillfort still stands prominent on the Wittenham Clumps.
Today the settlement’s site supports a woollier population. Army-officer-turned-archaeologist General Augustus Pitt-Rivers (as in Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum) did a big excavation here in the 1870s, battling with profit-hungry agricultural landowners whose ploughs and shovels were obliterating these earthworks much as the gravel-diggers would wreck the Neolithic sites a century later.
A peacock butterfly occupies the path, grumbling about countries that place greed for profit and property above the protection of precious heritage.

This would have been the situation on this bend when the Romans arrived in the first century CE. They integrated this land into their empire as the province of Britannia, co-opting its Iron Age peoples – by force, persuasion, or trickery as the case may be – and gradually transforming their ways of life under Roman cultural practices.
Logically the name of Dorchester ought to have its origins in this period. The -chester name element is common in later Anglo-Saxon place names as a reference to fortified Roman sites, though what the Dor signifies here is unclear. Excavations have indeed revealed a Roman fort by the Thame just north of the Dyke Hills settlement, where it would have controlled both the rivers and the Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester)-Alchester route on the conquest-enabling Roman road system.
Whether this caused the abandonment of the Dyke Hills settlement, or whether its activity was already shifting to what became the Roman civilian settlement that replaced the fort after its demolition around 78 CE, is not known for sure. What is clearer is that this was the first settlement on the site of the present-day village, and so has influenced all further siting decisions to the present day.
The gravelly riverbed here meant that Roman builders had to bring in stone from elsewhere. Centuries’ worth of later builders, facing the same problem, often ended up digging for the Romans’ stone footings to recycle them for their own projects.
If this was one of Roman Britannia’s tiniest walled civilian towns, its small size did not detract from its importance. Swathes of impressive finds have burst from the ground over centuries of village activity, including high-quality glass, ceramic and silver goods such as jars and cutlery; evidence of high-standard construction such as tiled roofs, mosaic floors, tessellated pavements and decorated wall plaster; and the considerable leavings of the farms, pottery kilns and cemeteries that sprawled across the surrounding area. These, on top of the great effort they patently went to to protect this town, suggest its crucial role as an administrative outpost and distribution hub, most likely for this region’s rich agricultural produce.
These discoveries extend over the later years of Roman rule, thus also helping to inform us about one of this land’s most complex and psychologically sensitive periods: the long transition from the declining Roman political and cultural systems, to those of the Anglo-Saxon immigrants – the latter often spoken of, casually and inaccurately, as the identity-fount of modern English whiteness.
On this too Dorchester offers a more complicated picture. For instance, graves have been found of individuals of Germanic origin, sometimes with Roman grave goods, or items from Gaul or the Rhineland, or in some cases both. There is a good chance that these were continental mercenaries (foederati), whom the sub-Roman people of this island were known to invite in for protection as the Roman army departed. Though signs of Saxon building and burial practices increase in the subsequent centuries, here as elsewhere the evidence is of a long and multi-dimensional shift, for much of which groups with different identities were living in close contact with one another. The quality of some of these finds suggests a persisting level of wealth in sub-Roman/early Saxon Dorchester, and thus a continuing regional importance for this town.
These days another of these World War II pillboxes, unusually made of brick, guards the southern approach to Dorchester.
The consolidation of the Anglo-Saxon immigrants into settled kingdoms placed Dorchester yet again on a frontier zone. This time it was the young kingdom of Wessex which looked across the river at the great northern heavyweights of the period, Mercia and Northumbria – the last time, incidentally, when the main power on this island was in the north.
Dorchester’s status received a major raise in this period. In 635 BCE, as recorded by the Northumbrian historian Bede, a Frankish missionary called Birinus arrived, sent by the Pope to convert the West Saxons to Christianity. Dorchester was significant enough that it was here that Birinus presided over the baptism of Wessex’s king, Cynegils, ahead of the latter’s daughter’s political marriage to the already-Christianised king of the Northumbrians, Oswald. As part of the arrangement Birinus was made the first Bishop of Wessex, and given land in and around Dorchester to establish his cathedral. 
In other words, Dorchester was suddenly the central religious headquarters of a newly-converted kingdom. Its new church would in time evolve into its present one, while Birinus’s own name would later be revived and exalted as the regional founder-figure for English Christianity.
For all this religion however, the deeper significance of these events was political. In Dorchester the nascent Wessex kingdom now had an anchor for its expansion north into the Thames valley, as well as a platform for managing its interactions with its stronger, more established rivals beyond it. The latter’s advantage was proven when Dorchester subsequently fell under Mercian control. Its status as an ecclesiastical centre was taken off it in favour of Mercia’s own more central bishops of Leicester and Lindsey (Lincoln), and it didn’t get it back till Mercia was devastated by the Scandinavian Vikings some two centuries later, opening the way for the rise of Wessex under Alfred, the Viking defeat, and the partition of not-yet-England into Saxon and Viking realms.
By that point however the rise of Alfred’s burhs at Oxford above and Wallingford below suggested that beyond its status as a religious centre, Dorchester’s commercial and strategic situation was in decline. This was confirmed when after the Norman conquest of 1066 that ecclesiastical status was removed to Lincoln yet again, this time for good. Nonetheless as an outpost of the Lincoln bishopric Dorchester remained productive, sufficiently so that around 1140, on the site of the Saxon cathedral, the Bishop of Lincoln commissioned a monastery whose main building dominates the local landscape to this day: Dorchester Abbey.
A close-up view of the Norman abbey, within whose structure traces of masonry from the Saxon cathedral are said to survive.
Unlike many English churches nowadays this one’s usually open, and actively welcomes visitors to poke around inside as much for historical interest as Christian observance.
The Abbey was settled by monks from an independent branch of the Augustinian order called the Arrouaisians, who migrated in from across the Channel. Arriving as they did some decades after the Norman conquest, they missed out on its wholesale land-grabs and so got little in the way of manorial estates with resources and income. Instead they made do with spiritual taxes and fees, and gradually accumulated holdings up the Thame watershed in the centuries that followed.
The building survives from this period, though has received many upgrades and renovations over the millennium. This window for example contains a mix of medieval and Victorian glass.
The monks came up with a crafty scheme to raise their profile: they claimed to possess the original relics of Birinus. Dodgy as this was, it gave rise to a new cult of Birinus which drew loads of pilgrims to Dorchester. The money they spent here enabled the monks to fund an extensive building programme, including for a Birinus shrine. This did not survive Henry VIII’s crackdown in the 1530s, but Birinus’s name remains indelibly infused in its atmosphere. This for instance is the St Birinus Chapel; the little circle in its window is the building’s oldest glass, dating from around 1225.
Another of the Abbey’s original pieces: the Norman lead font from around 1170, carved with figures of the Apostles from Christian mythology.
Dorchester’s monks were pensioned off, apparently in compliance, when Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell crushed the monasteries in the 1530s. Much of the complex was lost as a result, but Dorchester Abbey’s main building was saved when it was bought by Richard Beaufort, a rich local farmer, and returned to the community as the ordinary parish church it still serves as today. It also escaped the worst of the next round of obliterations, that wrought by the iconoclastic Puritans during and after the Civil Wars. Despite being expensive to maintain it received some dedicated restoration under the Victorian boom in interest in gothic architecture, and stands on today as one of England's better-preserved large Norman monastic pieces.
This list of its heads – bishops of the Saxon cathedral (left), abbots of the Norman monastery (right), and vicars of the English church (centre) – is a good answer to those who use Anglo-Saxon as a byword for whiteness. How many Haeddis, Aelfnoths and Wulfwigs do you come across today?
On the Abbey’s north side is its cloister garden – a restful place, good for tranquil contemplation. The Dorchester Abbey Museum runs out of the monastery’s old guest house next door, with delicious cakes available at the tea rooms out back. Both currently have good COVID-19 safety measures in place.
Dorchester’s national impact has since declined, perhaps to a quieter level than ever in its history. Left as a largely unremarkable farming village, its fields were Enclosed under a small number of families like Beaufort’s with its agricultural base backed up by milling and smithing. The village more or less fed and serviced itself, sprouting local shops as well as numerous inns and pubs; the latter straggled out of Dorchester’s old tradition as a road and river waypoint but got a brief boost in the era of barges and turnpikes. By around the late eighteenth century however the village became notorious for its poverty, and struggled to support its victims of agricultural depression against the cruelty of that era’s Poor Laws – the antecedent to the present Conservative Party’s abuse of the welfare system to torture and punish people for being poor.
Look at this. When will humans cease to blame individuals for ‘exceffive senfibility’, and actually take some responsibility for the ‘rude Shakes and Joltings’ inflicted by their societies’ abusive values, practices and prejudices?
Almost all of Dorchester’s shops and services have since turned into private houses. As ravening developers have more or less bypassed this village, many of these are living pieces of history; elements persist from their initial construction hundreds of years ago despite centuries of modifications since. Timber frames, wattle and daub, cob (i.e. mud mixed with hair or straw to stabilise it), flint, and even chalk all attest to the village’s creative and resourceful use of materials in the local absence of suitable building stone.
Facing the Abbey, the George Hotel is one of the few Dorchester businesses still in service. Its fifteenth-century timer-framed building (though much altered since) is one of the grandest in the village.
It’s easy to overlook this tiny settlement in the apparent middle of nowhere. Enter its landscape with senses open, however, and they quickly fill with a depth of heritage totally belied by its settlement’s present-day humility. It presents a human story that runs unbroken all the way back through Saxon immigrants, Roman occupiers, Iron and Bronze Age traders and crafters; all the way back, indeed, to those prehistoric hunter-gatherers who came together and, for the first time in this land, took up the way of the settler which, for good or for ill, the English carry on today.
Okay, admittedly for some quite abominable ill. From the fount of settlement, not inevitably but by choice, has arguably come the cult of property and a catastrophically murderous hostility to anyone it deems unfitting: that is, nomads, wanderers, refugees, homeless people, and every indigenous society they wrecked when they carried their settlement practices over the sea. In a further irony, it was also from the way of the settler’s most triumphant expression – cities – and their defining material, concrete, that came the hunger for gravel which has done the most, on the Dorchester bend, to destroy the very six-millennia-long story from which it emerged.
Nonetheless it is writ in this floodplain still. You don’t have to dig through books or archives to read of it. Only walk, instead – up the hills, along the ramparts, through and around the Abbey – and you'll know it through your soles.
That’s the other irony. Here you best learn the story of settlement by doing that which all settlers had to do first, yet too often come to despise when others do it too. You move. You migrate.
Very special thanks to the Dorchester Abbey Museum for informing much of the content in this section, and for its efforts to ensure a safe visit in COVID-19 conditions.
For those interested, a more detailed overview of Dorchester’s story – with lots of photographs and diagrams – can be found in Dorchester Through the Ages by Jean Cook and Trevor Rowley (eds.), published by Oxford University Department for External Studies in 1985.

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