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History & CommunityRivers of Dorset

Rivers of Dorset

“See you later alligator—in a while crocodile”. This was a common exchange or song some years ago. But neither of these creatures inhabit the rivers of Dorset.
The rain falls on our land and permeates the chalk until it reaches an impermeable layer when it eventually emerges as a small spring. Other springs coincide as a stream and finally become a river which runs down to the sea. Sea water is evaporated by the sun and moved by the wind to form clouds, until it eventually falls as rain to complete the cycle.
We are blessed with many small rivers in Dorset. If the water falls over stones as a small waterfall, it gurgles and glistens like silver even from a dirty slow river. Look carefully and you may see a flash of silver in the water, this time it is a fish. If the river is large enough you may see swans paddling majestically along and perhaps a heron, looking for fish in the shallows. Fussing around the rivers’ edge there could be a moorhen or a coot and less frequently a water mammal. All are maintained by the river which provides food and some shelter by the growth on its banks.
The origin of local river names is shown in Cullingford’s book History of Dorset. From west to east Celtic river names are, Lym, Char, Bride, Toller, Cerne, Frome, Lydden, Divelish, Stour, Iwerne. Then Saxon names are Piddle, Trent, Winterborne (and I infer Crane). The river Brit is named after Bridport, not the other way round, according to Marie Eedle in A History of Beaminster. The Lym exits to the sea at Lyme Regis, the Char at Charmouth, the Bride (pronounced Briddy) at Burton Bradstock, or Burton Freshwater. The Toller and Cerne join the Frome to exit near Wareham, as does the Trent. The Lydden, Divelish, Iwerne and Winterborne join the Stour to leave at Christchurch. The Brit exits into Bridport Harbour, now known as West Bay.
Already we have so many rivers that the picture is becoming confused, so let us look more closely at West Dorset. In the Marshwood Vale a stream started on Sliding Hill in the Bettiscombe area, to eventually join the river Char. Moving east, the river Winniford passes Chideock to emerge at Seatown. The Brit starts above Beaminster in Fullers earth clay in several streams which combine at Beaminster to flow through the grounds of Parnham House, recently subject to a disastrous fire and on to Netherbury, once known for cheese and cider, where it passes under a 17th-century bridge of three spans. It flows on to Oxbridge and Pymore, where it runs under Watford Bridge via a weir.
The Brit passes West Mill in Bridport under West Street. The river Simene rises west of Bridport in Filford and down the valley to Symondsbury past 16th-century cottages, through fields and Skilling to join the Brit northwest of the parish church of St Mary. The combined river passes the Chantry, the oldest non-religious building in Bridport, although it once housed a priest who said prayers for his landlord and supplied him with pigeons from the Chantry loft. In olden times the river was navigable from the sea to past the Chantry which has a possible fixing for a beacon, so it may have acted as a lighthouse or customs house.
The river Asker takes its name from Askerswell, which is said to be 1000 years older than the Domesday book and the river flows through the valley to Uploders and then Loders. It is joined just east of Bradpole by the Mangerton river, which passes Mangerton Mill, known now for cream teas. The combination is then again called the Asker. It passes under a stone road bridge in Lee Lane from the Dorchester road, close to the disused Bradpole railway halt. The bridge is also over an old sheep dip. The river continues near a field lane from Bradpole towards Bridport under an attractive stone footbridge near a bay in the river enclosing a sand island, known as Happy Island, a favourite haunt for children and earlier for Victorian Sunday School tea parties. The Asker reaches the east end of Bridport to flow under East Bridge and on down to join the Brit just above the brewery, which is thought to be the only thatched brewery in the country. The Brit then carries on down to the sea at West Bay. In 1774 the river entered the sea near East Cliff but its course was altered when a new harbour was built and the piers were erected changing the course of the river. In the past the river has flooded, causing considerable problems in Bridport and a road near the brewery is named Flood Lane. At West Bay the river has sluice gates which control the flow into the bay at low tide and enables a broadening of the river mouth so that boats may be rowed upriver towards the brewery and an annual raft race is organised with crews in carnival costumes.
Moving east to Burton Bradstock we find that the river Bride springs from chalk hills above Bridehead, Little Bredy which at first seems surprising as one might expect it to have run off to the sea earlier and flooding has been a frequent problem in Burton. Elizabeth Gale tells us that it is often after an accumulation of heavy rain and a rough sea causing Freshwater to “bay up”, when the shingle bar at Freshwater builds up and blocks up the river mouth. I have frequently seen Bredy Road flooded near to where it joins the main road to Abbotsbury, but this may be the result of water runoff from the fields.
Next to Abbotsbury which has the Fleet, partly salt and partly fresh water. The Fleet has a hidden causeway where it narrows to about 100 metres just south of the Abbotsbury Swannery which has been known from the 1600s. Gordon Le Pard calls it a “wadeway” almost permanently under water and it was possibly used for waggons to collect fish directly from boats on the Chesil Beach back to dry land. It has a rubble base topped by rough cobbles, but it has passed the test of time.
This practically finishes the West Dorset rivers.
Some readers of my age may recall a song on the radio sung by Donald Peers many years ago which goes :
“In a shady nook, By a babbling brook, Mid the flowers, I spend hours, Every day”. Another verse is:
“Rippling waters call me far away, to a shady nook – I’d be more than satisfied, if I could hide away,
beside a babbling brook”.
This seems to be a pleasant ending to this piece about rivers, streams and brooks.
Bridport History Society meets again on Tuesday 8th October in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport at 2.30 pm for a short AGM, followed by Lady Sandwich with a talk entitled “Inside and Out”. All welcome, visitor entrance £3.

Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.

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