Abbotsbury is an historic village. It is an interesting village, worth visiting again when the “shut down” is over, with attractions for all ages.
The oldest history of Abbotsbury is passed as you proceed to it from the west on the B3157. As you start to descend, Abbotsbury Castle Hillfort is on your left, but you have to leave the road and climb up to it. The fort is an Iron Age earthwork, triangular in shape, surrounded by two banks separated by a ditch on two sides, the third to the south east having four banks and ditches. There is evidence of hut circles and it is thought to have later been used as a Roman signal station. The South Dorset Ridgeway runs close to the hillfort and on over Black Down and Bronkham Hill and is embroidered with Bronze Age burials (tumuli).
Passing on down Abbotsbury Hill the entrance to the Gardens is on the right. Ahead is the village with a raised pavement on each side. The road divides with a narrow road on the left leading up to Bishop’s Road including Bishop’s Limekiln, now a picnic site. The main road is at the right of the division passing the “Ilchester Arms” hotel which carries the arms of the Strangways and a solitary street lamp. The road then takes a right angle to lead on towards Portesham and Weymouth. The road is narrow and traffic difficult when heavy.
A Benedictine Abbey was founded in about 1030 by Orc and his wife Tola during the reign of King Canute (Cnut). Orc was a Scandinavian henchman and steward to Canute and Tola was Norman, as was Emma, wife of Canute, which is how they were granted the land which became Abbotsbury. The original name of the village was “Abbodesbyrig”, a Saxon word. Orc and Tola were granted other lands so the monastery became wealthy. The monastery had a large Tithe Barn which is still impressive although only half remains. A mill, fishponds and a dovecot were also included. Later Orc became steward to Edward the Confessor and accrued more land. The swannery was probably an early addition to augment the food of the monks. Two churches were built for the monastery, St Peter’s for the monks, which no longer exists and St Nicholas for the village.
When King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries Abbotsbury did not escape and the abbey and monastic lands were sold to Sir Giles Strangways in 1542. Sir Giles, from a family who came to Dorset from Yorkshire in 1500 had been appointed one of the Commissioners for the surrender of the monasteries. By this time the abbey apparently held 22 manors. The last abbot managed to become vicar of Abbotsbury but the nine monks lost their living. About half of the huge Tithe Barn was destroyed. Sir Giles demolished the abbey and built himself a manor house close by. The Strangways family have been associated with Abbotsbury ever since and increased their wealth and land by marriage. Stone from the abbey has been found around the village in various buildings.
Further change came to the village with the 1640 Civil War. The then senior Strangways, Sir John, was a fervent Royalist so his house was entered and searched by Parliamentary soldiers in 1643. The next year a large group of Cromwell’s army under Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper came from Dorchester to annihilate the Royalists in Abbotsbury. The church of St Nicholas came under fire and the pulpit still bears holes made by musket balls from the siege. The Manor House was completely destroyed by a fire reaching a gunpowder store and Sir John and his son Giles were captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London for several years and fined a huge sum of money. Another son managed to escape to France.
With the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 the Strangways were restored to their previous position. Surprisingly Ashley-Cooper had turned against Cromwell and assisted in the Restoration of the Monarchy and was rewarded with a peerage.
The next change in the ownership of Abbotsbury came when a Strangways daughter, Elizabeth married the man who became the first Earl of Ilchester. Elizabeth Countess of Ilchester built a castle-like house overlooking the sea and commenced the gardens in the 18th century which have since become a favourite visiting place as the sub-tropical gardens. Unfortunately the castle was burnt down in 1913 and although rebuilt it was apparently unsatisfactory and it was demolished in 1934.
The Ilchester Estate largely owns most of Abbotsbury. Many of the house doors in the village were painted blue or white. The blue were rented and the white were leased. Any other colour probably indicated freehold. Opposite the Ilchester Arms is the old school house, now the village hall and beside it in Back Street is the “Schoolmaster’s House”, probably both funded by the Ilchester family.
On Chapel Hill is St Catherine’s Chapel which can be seen from most points. Overlooking the sea it was a navigation aid from medieval times. It is a sturdy, austere building which has survived from at least the 14th century and legend says that spinsters went to pray to the patron saint for a husband. It overlooks the Fleet, a narrow area of salt and fresh water south of the swannery with an underwater walkway across it, thought to aid fishermen bringing their catch back to the village. Fish were prolific in the past. The Fleet was briefly famous during the second war when it was an early site of trials of the “bouncing bomb”. The famous Abbotsbury Swannery is at the west end of the Fleet and was probably a source of meat, eggs and quills for the monks from at least the 14th century. Since the dissolution of the monastery the swans belong to the Strangways and are very popular.
The Ordnance Survey map shows a dismantled railway line from Upwey and Weymouth to Abbotsbury. It opened in 1885 to transport local iron ore, which proved to be insufficient and the line closed in 1952. The map also shows several withy beds and reeds, the latter used for thatching. The present roof of the Tithe Barn originally of stone is now thatched. The barn is now a children’s attraction.
After the loss of the abbey many poor people had a hard time and some turned to other ways of making money. In common with most of the south coast smuggling was rife in Abbotsbury in the 18th century. In 1720 Abbotsbury fishermen caught 23 casks of brandy and 2 barrels of wine anchored to stones with ropes which they intended to take to the Excise Officer, but the Strangways Bailiff, William Bradford took the contraband and would not hand it over, with local people aiding. Troops called from Dorchester enabled Customs Officers to restrain the goods, but Thomas Strangways claimed they were salvage from a wreck, not contraband and raised the matter in Parliament. In 1832 Moses Cousins, an Abbotsbury basket maker was taken by the Abbotsbury Excise Officer with four gallons of brandy and gaoled for a year for non-payment of a £100 fine. The Vicar, Mr Foster, tried unsuccessfully to have the sentence reduced, then wrote to Lord Ilchester who achieved his release after only 60 days in Dorchester Gaol. Eventually the Government reduced the duty payable on such goods, reducing the profit for the smuggler and the trade ceased.
A few years ago Paul Atterbury, well known on TV from the Antiques Roadshow, produced an excellent picture book “Greetings from Abbotsbury” using many old picture postcards. It has helped me to recall some of the places and is a good alternative to visiting during the shut down.
Cecil Amor, Hon President of Bridport History Society.