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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

Milton Abbas - a 'perfect' Dorset village

Milton Abbas is a pretty village in Dorset, typical of so many villages in that part of England, with thatched houses, a pub, alms-houses, and ancient church, surrounded by the rolling, chalk down land. It appears eternal and one can imagine our medieval ancestors going about their peaceful lives, largely undisturbed. But looks can be deceptive.

An artist's impression of Middleton

Milton Abbas was originally called Middleton, and in about 933 King Athelstan founded a monastery there. The settlement of Middleton thrived during the Middle Ages and eventually it grew into a market town. In 1252 the villagers of Middleton were granted the right to have weekly markets and an annual fair. In 1309 the Abbey Church was struck by lightning and largely destroyed, but was rebuilt over the following decades. In 1521 a grammar school was founded in Middleton. One of its students was Thomas Hardy who became Nelson's flag captain, and in command of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. However, the school closed in the late 18th century and was moved to Blandford Forum (where it stayed open till the 1960s). In 1539, like all other religious foundations in England, Henry VIII closed the abbey and sold it to John Tregonwell, the lawyer who had arranged his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The Abbey then became a private house. Despite all these upheavals, the little town continued to thrive and in the 18th century Middleton had a population of about 500, with 3 inns and a brewery.

In 1752 the manor was sold to Joseph Damer (1718-1798), who later became the 1st Earl of Dorchester. In 1771 he decided to build a new mansion and he employed the architect James Wyatt (an earlier architect having been dismissed – difficult clients are nothing new) to rebuild the house and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to landscape the grounds. The early 18th century saw a rejection of the formal and symmetrical jardins à la française of the 17th century as the principal gardening style of Europe and the introduction of the English ‘landscape’ gardens, with its idealised view of nature. The English garden usually included a lake, sweeps of gently rolling lawns set against groves of trees, and recreations of classical temples, Gothic ruins, bridges, and other picturesque architecture, designed to recreate an idyllic pastoral landscape.

Milton Abbas

Unfortunately, the village of Middleton was literally on Damer’s doorstep and was undoubtedly untidy, noisy, and smelly, and would spoil Damer’s view. So, he decided to remove the existing houses in the town. Damer waited till leases ran out and in the 1780s he demolished the existing cottages and replaced them with new ones further away, in a wooded valley (Luccombe Bottom) to the southeast of the Abbey. This new settlement was renamed Milton Abbas. The 36 almost identical thatched cottages were intended to house two families each. They were built from cob and previously were painted yellow, with each house fronted by a lawn, and originally a horse chestnut tree was planted between each dwelling (sadly, these trees were all removed in the 1950s due to age and disease). Alms-houses and a church were also provided for the new village, sited opposite each other. The church, consecrated in 1786, is in the Georgian Gothic style, with late 19th-century additions. Some house-names give clues to some of the original inhabitants of the village: baker, blacksmith, brewery, etc.

St. James' Church, Milton Abbas

Originally intended for 2 families, this house is now one and run as a B&B

Today the houses are white-washed, and the main street also features a public house (the Hambro Arms), a Post Office/shop, the Tea Clipper Tea Rooms, a now redundant school building, and a Wesleyan chapel. This ‘model village’ was not unique. Other large landowners also demolished inconveniently located villages but did not always relocate them. In 1852, the merchant banker Carl Joachim Hambro acquired Milton Abbey to make it his family home and set about a major restoration programme, including an extensive refurbishment of the Abbey itself. The Hambro family developed and lived at Milton Abbey until 1932. In 1954 Milton Abbey School was founded and bought the buildings.

The old High Street of Middleton. On the right would have been rows of houses

The old Abbey Church

Milton Abbas School and Abbey church

On a hill above the Abbey, and accessible from the village, is St Catherine’s Chapel. The chapel dates from around 1190 and was undoubtedly a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims would either journey between local shrines (such as St Augustine’s Well in nearby Cerne Abbas, or travel further afield to places like Winchester, Chichester, and Canterbury. It is possible there was an earlier building on the site and it has been suggested that it started life as an Anglo-Saxon ‘minster’, in which case it may have been constructed of wood and left no trace.

Pilgrim route to St. Catherine's Chapel

St. Catherine's Chapel

The Abbey Church from St. Catherine's Chapel. Down the hill would have been a pilgrimage route

Milton Abbas is well worth a visit and although the school is private, the impressive Abbey Church is generally open to the public. Unfortunately, when I was there last weekend the building was inaccessible due to the ongoing lockdown.

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