Village of DODINGTON History

["DODINGTON" - article in Somerset Magazine 4/99 by Judy Nash]

Just before the Norman Conquest Dodo, Almar and Godric were the three Royal Foresters for the Exmoor District and probably never suspected that one of them would give his name to the tiny settlement that was then known as Stawe. The great forest of North Petherton bounded the village when Dodo was appointed head forester and keeper of the king’s venison and at some time after 1066 he moved from Dulverton to become tenant of the manor that was soon to be renamed Dodington. If Dodo returned today he might well recognise features in the landscape that were familiar to him then, for much of the area remains unspoilt. During the fourteenth century the Master Forester, according to historian Arthur Mee, was Sabina Pecche, whose tasks included tending the deer of the forest at fawning time and later, when these became mature, the huntsmen would descend on the forest after crossing them- selves with holy water from the carved stoup that can still be seen in the porch Dodington church.

The Dodington family finally died out when Baron Melcombe, better known as diarist George Bubb, left no heir in 1761 and by 1837 the village had become part of the Acland Estate. During the Civil War Sir Francis Dodington gained notoriety, not for his good deeds but for shooting a defenceless priest at Taunton as well as for hanging those who had surrendered to him. Perhaps Sir Francis lived at Dodington Hall, adjacent to the church, from which a well worn footpath passes through a private entranceway to the churchyard and so to the Dodington family chapel which was built ‘as a family pew’ and also became their burial place. The late medieval open hall house was extended in 1581 and although altered in the eighteenth century, fortunate1y retained its early features. In 1866 Dodington Hall was described as ‘a good Elizabethan Mansion... perfectly preserved retaining its minstrels gallery, chimney pieces and other interesting features’.

The register of the Dodington’s worshipping place of All Saints dates from as early as 1538 and at about this time ‘the nave was remodeled’, the chancel having been rebuilt during the previous century. In 1883 the church was described as a handsome stone building restored by subscription in 1874’ when new pews were also provided. Another restoration followed after The First World War that cost £1000 and included the erection of a lych gate as a war memorial to the four men who ‘died in the Great War’ - a large loss from a village that declared a population of only 60 in 1911. Close to the church porch stands the shaft and base of an ancient cross and towards the boundary with Dodington Hall is the ‘venerable yew’ described by Arthur Mee as having a girth of 13 feet. For a yew tree the trunk is surprisingly tall and slim and beneath its branches is a mixture of ancient and modern tombstones. One of the most interesting memorials is a small slate slab that posed a problem for the craftsman who inscribed the verse and now stands in the church porch. The inscription reads

‘1624 Valentine Ball Weepe not for me which here do ly Weepe for thy sinns befor thou dy. My death is not to be lamented.  Thy sinns are still to be repent.  By death my body free from sin. By death my soule enjoyes true lif'

The tower was described as having four bells in 1933 but today the ropes appear to be disconnected and cannot be rung. Close to the tower stands a well carved font with wooden cover. In 1866 the Rectory was described as having twenty acres of Glebe Land attached ‘in the gift of Sir Peregrine Acland Bart, held by Rev George Parry Hollis’ but in 1923 the following statement appears: ‘the rectory is in the gift of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College and Lord St Audries alternately and since 1915 the Rector resides at Holford’. The former Rectory is now known as Dodington House and stands opposite the lych gate.

The tiny parish of only 556 acres once stood on the turnpike road from Minehead to Bridgwater and most families were involved in agriculture in 1866. The loamy soil over a subsoil of stone produced crops of chiefly wheat and oats, and at that time the population had peaked at 99. Mrs Sarah Farthing, William Parsons and James Southcomb were farmers then, Thomas Singleton was landlord of the Castle of Comfort Inn and the Parish Clerk’s chief occupation was that of carpenter and wheelwright. The wooded slopes of Dowsborough Hill Fort may have provided him with timber for most of the trees have no age and others show evidence of coppicing, perhaps the source of wood for charcoal burner John Walford in the eighteenth century. It was certainly this spot that was chosen for John Walford’s gibbet, where he was ‘hanged in chains’ in 1789 for the murder of his wife but it is hard to picture the area as Dodington green, as it has been described, for it is so far from the heart of the village. Earlier in the evening the couple had been seen drinking in the Castle of Comfort Inn that stands adjacent to the main road. The site of Walford’s gibbet is marked on the Ordnance Survey Map and is a good spot to pause for a walk. Many paths cross the area through ancient Devon banks that skirt the Iron Age Hill Fort while others give access to open countryside from which there are views across to Steep Holm and Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel. Perhaps these were the well worn paths traditionally walked just before Midsummer’s Day in search of the first whortleberry, an ancient custom held at Dodington for centuries. In the distance can be seen the vestiges of ‘The Great Wood’ that played such an important role in Dodington’s past and closer to Walford’s gibbet is the ‘Great Bear’, ‘Robin Upright’s Hill’, ‘Bin Combe’ and ‘Five Lords’, to mention just a few of the interesting place names. Today the ‘Castle of Comfort’ is a hotel and restaurant, but between about 1880 and 1910 was a Coffee Tavern and in 1866 was recorded as an Inn which dates back to at least the beginning of the eighteenth century.

However, there is no mention in the records of the other craftsmen who worked in Dodington and the surrounding area. Early in the sixteenth century the fulling of cloth took place here. The clayey substances of fuller’s earth were used in the process to clean and finish the woollen cloth which involved dampening the fabric, heating and finally pressing it. Although the water tumbles through the combes at neighbouring Holford where there were two early fulling mills and a dye house, there is little evidence at Dodington of the woollen industry. The name of Perry’s Mill Farm raised our hopes of finding the remnants of this once important’ industry, but on closer examination the name could just as likely have referred to the cider apple trees that grow in the orchard next to the farmhouse. At Holford Combe the Combe House Hotel fortunately still has its exceptionally large iron water-wheel dated 1893 but the tannery which it powered closed soon after the turn of the century. Horse drawn wagons must have toiled constantly between the combes and the high road on their journey between manufacturing industry and the market where merchants awaited the finished product.

However, it was not just skins, wool, cloth and leather that left Holford and Dodington for limestone was quarried and copper was also mined in the area. A rich vein of copper was discovered in the early eighteenth century and production had started by 1712. The venture did not bring employment for local people for experienced miners were drafted in from Cornwall and as far away as Derbyshire. At Dodington a narrow lane leads to the now roofless engine house that can be located from the main road leading out of Nether Stowey. Ivy grows up one wall but does not detract from the beauty of this significant structure that shows the large amount of investment that went into the venture that was to survive for just over a century. The surrounding area shows signs of copper ore and also slag that may have come from the boiler or indicate that the ore was actually smelted on site. Where the workmen were accommodated is unclear but they could have lived in huts in the area that have long since disappeared. A shed that is now in a state of collapse adjacent to the lane once played an important role in the industry and it would be interesting to hear a little more about Dodington's copper mine. A visit makes one feel as though you have stepped into a tiny piece of Cornwall where such structures are much more common. Our last stop was to see 'The Counting House' where we were told the miners queued to receive their wages. This also backs on to the main road, close to a water trough and post box a short distance from 'The Castle of Comfort', with views towards 'Walford's Gibbet', away from the coastal plain and in the 1930s was the home of the Misses B and W Malet. At this time Edward Tarr farmed Perry Mill Farm, his closest neighbour being farmer Jeffery Harvey at Barnsworthy Farm, a large farmhouse less than a mile away that is surrounded by a series of substantial barns that no doubt gave it is name, and the Fewings Brothers farmed at Dodington Hall opposite Rudolf Davbeney at the former Rectory. The Sellick family's wheelwrights premises seems to have already closed by this date and today the Browning family's Post Office also seems to have become history, but for me it is Dodington's industrial past that will draw me back to the village again."

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