1904 Illustrated Description of Bere Regis by Charles Harper

In 1904, Charles Harper wrote an illustrated book called, 'The Hardy Country - literary Landmarks of the Wessex Novels'. In it he described his trip to Bere Regis.

With thanks to The Project Gutenberg

Only when Bere Regis comes within sight are the solitudes of Egdon left behind. Steeply down goes the way into the village, down Rye Hill, past the remarkably picturesque old thatched cottage illustrated here, perched on its steep roadside bank, and so at last on to the level where Bere Church is glimpsed, standing four-square and handsome in advance of the long street, backed by dense clumps of that tree, the fir, which has so strong an affection for these sandy heaths.

Here then is the introduction to the “Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill” of the Wessex novels, the “half-dead townlet . . . the spot of all spots in the world which could be considered the D’Urbervilles’ home, since they had resided there for full five hundred years.”

This “blinking little place,” and now perhaps a not even blinking, but fast asleep village, was at one time a market-town, and, more than that, as its latinised name would imply, a royal residence. Kingsbere, said to mean “Kingsbury”—that is to say, “King’s place” or building—really obtained its name in very different fashion. It was plain “Bere,” long before the Saxon monarchs came to this spot and caused the latter-day confusion among antiquaries of the British “bere,” meaning an underwood, a scrub, copse, bramble, or thorn-bed, with the Anglo-Saxon “byrig.” We have but to look upon the surroundings of Bere Regis even at this day, a thousand years later, to see how truly descriptive that British name really was. It was of old a place greatly favoured by royalty, from that remote age when Elfrida murdered her stepson, Edward the King and Martyr, at Corfe Castle, and thrashed her own son Ethelred here with a large wax candle, for reproaching her with the deed. Those events happened in A.D. 978, and it is therefore not in any way surprising that no traces of the ferocious Queen Elfrida’s residence have survived. Ethelred, we are told, hated wax candles ever after that severe thrashing, and doubtless hated Bere as well; but it was more than ever a royal resort in the later times of King John, who visited it on several occasions in the course of his troubled reign. Thenceforward, however, the favours of monarchs ceased, and it came to depend upon the good will of the Abbots of Tarent Abbey and that of the Turbervilles, who between them became owners of the manor.

The village street of Bere is bleak and barren. It is a street of rustic cottages of battered red brick, or a compost of mud, chopped straw, and lime, called “cob,” built on a brick base, often plastered, almost all of them thatched: some with new thatch, some with thatch middle-aged, others yet with thatch ancient and decaying, forming a rich and fertile bed for weeds and ox-eyed daisies and “bloody warriors,” as the local Dorsetshire name is for the rich red wall-flowers. Sometimes the old thatch has been stripped before the new was placed: more often it has not, and the merest casual observer can, as he passes, easily become a critic of the thoroughness or otherwise with which the thatcher’s work has been performed, not only by sight of the different shades belonging to old and new, but by the varying thicknesses with which the roofs are seen to be covered. Here an upstairs window looks out immediately, open-eyed, upon the sunlight; there another peers blinkingly forth, as behind beetling eyebrows, from half a yard’s depth of straw and reed, shading off from a coal-black substratum to a coffee-coloured layer, and thence to the amber top-coating of the latest addition. Warm in winter, cool in summer, is the testimony of cottagers towards thatch; and earwiggy always, thinks the stranger under such roofs, as he observes quaint lepidoptera ensconced comfortably in his bed. Picturesque it certainly is, expensive too, although it may not generally be thought so; but it is more enduring than cheap slates or tiles, and, according to many who should know, if indeed their prejudices do not warp their statements, cheaper in the long run.

It is, in fine, not easy to come to a definitive pronouncement on the merits or demerits, the comparative cheapness or costliness, of rival roofing materials. The cost of the materials themselves, payments for laying them, and the astonishing difference between the enduring qualities of thatch well and thatch indifferently laid forbid certitude. But all modern local authorities are opposed to thatch, chiefly on the score of its liability to fire. All the many and extensive fires of Dorsetshire have been caused by ignited thatch; or else, caused in other ways, have been spread and magnified by it. Yet, here again your rustic will stoutly defend the ancient roofing, and declare that while such a roof is slowly smouldering, and before it bursts into a blaze, he can dowse it with a pail of water. No doubt, but that water, from a well perhaps two hundred feet deep, and that ladder from some neighbour half-a-mile away, are sometimes not to be brought to bear with the required celerity.

This, let it be fervently said, is not an attack upon thatch: it is but the presentation of pros and cons, and is no argument in favour of that last word in utilitarian hideousness, corrugated galvanized iron, under whose shelter you freeze in winter and fry in summer.

Meanwhile, here are ruined cottages in the long street of Bere, whose condition has been brought about by just such causes, and whose continuation in that state is due, not to a redundancy of dwellings, but because the Lady of the Manor at Charborough, despising the insignificant rents here, will not trouble about, or go to the expense of, rebuilding.

Hence the gaps in the long row, like teeth missing from a jaw.

Not a little hard-featured and stern at first sight, owing to the entire absence of the softening feature of gardens upon the road, this long street of Bere has yet a certain self-reliant strong-charactered aspect that brings respect. It has, too, the most interesting and beautiful church, rich in historical, and richer in literary, associations.

Bere Regis in its decay is a storehouse of old Dorset speech and customs. To its cottagers vegetables are “gearden-tackle,” sugar—at least, the moist variety—is “zand,” and garden-flowers all have quaint outlandish names. The rustic folk have a keen, if homely philosophy. “Ef ’twarnt for the belly,” said one to the present writer, in allusion to cost of living, “back ’ud wear gold.” “Bere,” said another—an ‘outlandish’ person he, who had only been settled in the village a decade or so and accordingly was only regarded as a stranger, and so indeed regarded himself—“Bere, a poor dra’lattin twankyten pleace, ten mile from anywheer, God help it!” which is so very nearly true that, if you consult the map you will find that Dorchester is ten miles distant, Corfe Castle twelve, Wimborne twelve, Blandford eight, and Wareham, the nearest town, seven miles away.

“Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill,” as Mr. Hardy elects to rechristen Bere Regis, owes the ultimate limb of that compound name to Woodbury Hill, a lofty elevation rising like an exaggerated down, but partly clothed with trees, on the outskirts of Bere Regis. The novelist describes this scene of an ancient annual fair, now much shrunken from its olden import, rather as it was than as it is. “Greenhill was the Nijni Novgorod of South Wessex; and the busiest, merriest, noisiest day of the whole statute number was the day of the sheep-fair. This yearly gathering was upon the summit of a hill, which retained in good preservation the remains of an ancient earthwork, consisting of a huge rampart and entrenchment of an oval form, encircling the top of the hill, though somewhat broken down here and there. To each of the two openings, on opposite sides, a winding road ascended, and the level green space of twenty or thirty acres enclosed by the bank was the site of the fair. A few permanent erections dotted the spot, but the majority of the visitors patronised canvas alone for resting and feeding under during the time of their sojourn here.”

The place looks interesting, viewed from beneath whence two forlorn-looking houses are seen perched on the very ridge of the windy height. But it is always best to remain below, and so to keep romantic illusions; and here is no exception. Climbing to the summit, those two houses are increased to fifteen or seventeen red-brick, storm-beaten cottages, some thatched, others slated, mostly uninhabited; all commonplace. The fair is still held in September, beginning on the 18th, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Formerly it lasted a week, and, at the rate of a hundred pounds a day in tolls to the Lord of the Manor, brought that fortunate person an annual “unearned increment” as the Radicals would call it, of £700. Nowadays those tolls are very much of a negligible quantity.

Here it was, during the sheep fair, that Troy, supposed to have long before been drowned in Lulworth Cove, but living and masquerading as Mr. Francis, the Great Cosmopolitan Roughrider, enacted the part of Dick Turpin in the canvas-covered show, and, looking through a hole in the tent, unobserved himself, observed Bathsheba, who had thought him dead.

The villagers of Bere look askance upon the dwellers on this eyrie. They tell you “they be gipsy vo’k up yon,” and hold it to be the last resort of those declining in worldly estate. Villagers going, metaphorically, “down the hill” in the direction of outdoor relief, move to the less desirable cottages in the village, and then, complete penury at last overtaking them, continue their moral and economic descent by the geographical ascent of this hill of Woodbury, whence they are at last removed to “The Union.”

Below Woodbury Hill, on the edge of Bere Wood, the scene of an old Turberville attempt at illegal enclosure, is rural Bloxworth, whose little church contains the fine monument of Sir John Trenchard “of the ancient family of the Trenchards in Dorsetshire,” Sergeant-at-Law and Secretary of State in the reign of William and Mary. He died in 1695, aged 46. Ten years before, he had been an active sympathiser with the Duke of Monmouth, in that ill-fated rebellion, and it is told, how, when visiting one Mr. Speke at Ilchester, hearing that Jeffreys had issued a warrant for his arrest, he instantly took horse, rode to Poole and thence crossed to Holland, returning with the Prince of Orange three years later.

Above all other interest at Bere is the beautiful church, standing a little distance below the long-drawn village street, and clearly from its character and details, a building cherished and beautified by the Abbey of Tarent, by the Turbervilles, and by Cardinal Archbishop Morton, native of the place.

The three-staged pinnacled tower is very fine, the lower stage alternately of stone and flint, the three surmounting courses diapered: the second and third stages treated wholly in that chessboard fashion. The beautiful belfry windows, of three lights, divided into three stages by transoms, are filled with pierced stonework. The exterior south wall of the church is of alternate red brick and flint, in courses of threes. There is a remarkable window in the west wall of the north aisle, and in the south wall the exceptionally fine and unusual Turberville window, of late Gothic character and five lights, filled in modern times by the Erle-Drax family, of Charborough, with a series of stained-glass armorial shields, displaying the red lion of the Turbervilles, all toe-nails and whiskers, and ducally crowned, ramping against an ermine field, firstly by himself and then conjointly with the arms of the families with which the Turbervilles, in the course of many centuries, allied themselves. The Erle-Draxes have not, in honouring the extinct Turberville, forgotten themselves, for some of the shields display their arms and those of the Sawbridges, Grosvenors, Churchills, and Eggintons they married.

Entering, the building is seen to be even more beautiful than without. Its most striking and unusual feature—unusual in this part of the country—is the extraordinarily gorgeous, elaborately carved and painted timber roof, traditionally said to have been the gift of Cardinal Morton, born at Milborne Stileman, in the parish of Bere Regis. The hammer-beams are boldly carved into the shapes of bishops, cardinals, and pilgrims, while the bosses are worked into great faces that look down with a fat calm satisfaction that must be infinitely reassuring to the congregations.

The bench ends are another interesting feature. Many are old, others are new, done in the old style when the church was admirably restored by Street. Had Sir Gilbert Scott been let loose upon it, it may well be supposed that the surviving bench-ends would have been cast out, and nice new articles by the hands of his pet firm of ecclesiastical furnishers put in their stead. One is dated, in Roman numerals, MCCCCCXLVII; another is inscribed “IOH. DAV. WAR. DENOF. THYS. CHARYS,” and another bears a merchant’s mark, with the initial of “I. T.” The Transitional Norman pillars are bold and virile, with humorous carvings of that period strikingly projecting from their capitals. It evidently seemed to that now far-away waggish fellow who sculptured them that toothache and headache were things worth caricaturing. Let us hope he never suffered from them, but he evidently took as models some who were such martyrs.

But the centre of interest to us in these pages is by the Turberville window in the south aisle, beneath whose gorgeous glass is the great ledger-stone, covering the last resting-place of the extinct family. It is boldly lettered:

Ostium sepulchri antiquae
Famillae Turberville
24 Junij 1710

(The door of the sepulchre
of the ancient family
of the Turbervilles)

In the wall beneath the window is a defaced Purbeck marble altar-tomb, and four others neighbour it. These are the tombs described in Tess of the D’Urbervilles as “canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their brasses torn from their matrices, the rivet-holes remaining, like marten-holes in a sand-cliff,” and it was on one of those that Alec D’Urberville lay prone, in pretence of being an effigy of one of her ancestors, when Tess was exploring the twilight church.

The great monumental History of Dorsetshire tells the enquirer a good deal of the Turbervilles who, being themselves all dead and gone to their place, have, with a slight alteration in the spelling of their name served as a peg on which to hang the structure of one of the finest exercises ever made in the art of novel writing. It seems that the Turbervilles descended from one Sir Pagan or Payne Turberville, or de Turbida Villa, who is shown in the Roll of Battle Abbey—or was shown, before that Roll was accidentally burnt—to have come over with the Conqueror. After the Battle of Hastings he seems to have been one of twelve knights who helped Robert Fitz Hamon, Lord of Estremaville, in his unholy enterprises, and then to have returned to England when his over-lord was created Earl of Gloucester. He warred in that lord’s service, in the Norman conquest of Glamorgan, and was rewarded with a tit-bit of spoil there, in the shape of the lordship of Coyty.

In the reign of Henry III. a certain John de Turberville is found paying an annual fee or fine in respect of some land in the forest of Bere, which an ancestor of his had impudently endeavoured to enclose out of the estate of the Earl of Hereford; and in 1297 a member of the family is found in the neighbourhood of Bere Regis. This Brianus de Thorberville, or Bryan Turberville, was lord of the manor, called from its situation on the river Piddle and from himself, “Piddle Turberville,” and now represented by the little village called Bryan’s Piddle.

At a later period the rising fortunes of this family are attested by their coming into possession of half of the manor of Bere Regis, the other half being, as it had long been, the property of Tarent Abbey. Still later, when at last that Abbey was dissolved, the Turbervilles were in the enjoyment of good fortune, for the other half of the manor then came to them. This period seems to have marked the summit of their advancement, for from that time they gradually but surely decayed, giving point to the old superstition which dates the decadence of many an old family from that day when it sacrilegiously was awarded the spoils of the Church. This fall from position began in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but D’Albigny Turberville, the oculist who was consulted by Pepys the diarist, and eventually died in 1696, as the tomb to him with the fulsome inscription in Salisbury Cathedral tells us, was a distinguished scion of the ancient race, as also was “George Turberville, gentleman,” and poet, born at Winterborne Whitchurch, and publishing books of poems and travels in 1570. These, doubtless, were not forms of distinction that would have commended themselves to those old fighting and land-snatching Turbervilles; but, other times, other manners.

The last Turberville of Bere Regis was that Thomas Turberville over whom the ancient vault of his stock finally closed in 1710. His twin daughters and co-heiresses, Frances and Elizabeth, born here in 1703, sold the property and left for London. They died at Purser’s Cross, Fulham, near London, early in 1780, and were buried together at Putney. Shortly afterwards their old manor-house of Bere Regis, standing near the church, was allowed to lapse into ruin, and thus their kin became only a memory where they had ruled so long. Of the old branch of the family settled in Glamorganshire, a Colonel Turberville remains the representative, but the position of the various rustics who in Dorset and Wilts bear the name, corrupted variously into Tollafield and Troublefield, is open to the suspicion that they are the descendants of illegitimate offspring of that race. There remained, indeed, until quite recent years a humble family of “Torevilles” in Bere Regis, one of whom persisted in calling himself “Sir John.” But as Mr. Hardy says, in the course of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, instances of the gradual descent of legitimate scions of the old knightly families, down and again downwards until they have become mere farm-labourers, are not infrequent in Wilts and Dorset. Their high-sounding names have undergone outrageous perversions, as in the stated instance of courtly Paridelle into rustic Priddle; but, although they have inherited no worldly gear they own the same blood.

 

© Bere Regis Village Website 2014 - Site by Chola Design