Save Your County Town April 2020
As Town Crier of Dorchester, in common with my town crying colleagues, I am often asked, particularly in competitions, to give my “Home Cry”. As the title suggests this is a cry extolling some of the virtues and telling some of the story of the town I represent. My “Home Cry”, which has to be limited to a maximum of 125 words, is as follows:
OYEZ ! OYEZ ! OYEZ !
Dorchester, an ancient place, with stone-age wooden henge,
Stands beside the river Frome – a hundred miles from Penge!
We’ve Celtic Maiden Castle, sacked when the Romans came
Who built fine “Durnovaria”, much of which remains.
Through pestilence, fires, war and crises
To dreaded Judge Jeffreys and his Bloody Assizes.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs, long owed their pardons,
Still haunt the Court, the Walks, the Gardens.
The “Casterbridge” of Hardy continues still to thrive,
While the poetry of Barnes keeps the dialect alive.
Today the Prince’s Poundbury is reaching to the west,
I trust that you will relish, Dorchester, one of the best.
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
As you can see there’s plenty to celebrate, commemorate and enjoy in Dorset’s county town and many of the lines have a resonance far beyond the county boundary. However my cry, limited in length as it is, makes no mention of Maumbury Rings, described by Thomas Hardy as, “one of the finest Roman Amphitheatres, if not the very finest, remaining in Britain.” And it’s still in use today ! There’s no reference to the fabulous collections in the Dorset County Museum, currently undergoing a £13 million National Lottery funded extension. The stories and memorabilia linked to centuries of action by the Dorset Regiment in the Keep Museum are absent and there’s no mention of the County Hospital, the Dorset History Centre or the architectural splendour of High West and High East Streets which can only be truly appreciated without traffic. There’s more, much more to Dorchester but of course I’m biased. However, by any national measure, Dorchester and its immediate environs are truly blessed by the wealth of evidence of its long, varied and fascinating past. Therefore I truly believe all of Dorset’s residents can and should be proud of their county town.
However Dorchester is facing a truly fundamental/irreversible threat; a change that would destroy for ever one of its most singular and precious aspects namely its one remaining abrupt, unique and centuries-old boundary with its adjacent countryside. Current plans by landowners, farmers and developers, including Persimmon, to build 4000 homes on the downland immediately beyond the water meadows to the north of the town will destroy for ever this unique feature of Dorchester’s setting. Should this proposed development go ahead, It will mean the loss of good farmland, the destruction of wildlife habitats and acres of the natural world, while compromising sites of archaeological interest including a deserted villages. It will, inevitably, place an enormously increased strain on the education, health and other public services in the town. There are many other concerns as you can imagine; water supply, drainage and sewerage and the possible pollution of the river Frome and Poole Harbour’s status as a “Rascar”. There are issues around transport, traffic, poor links from this separated development to the town centre and many more.
Throughout most of its existence, and certainly from Roman times onwards, Dorchester has served as the market town for the products, goods and services created and required by the farming community which surrounds it. It has been the county town since 1305 when the first County gaol was built at the bottom of High East Street; the town became the judicial centre for Dorset forming part of the Western Circuit for the Assize judges. Its live animal market only ceased in 1991 but its weekly Wednesday market still serves a wide area.
Thomas Hardy, Dorset’s most famous literary figure, describing early 19th century
Dorchester in his novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, comments on its lack of suburbs “or transitional intermixture of town and down.” He goes on to write, “It stood, with regard to the wide fertile land adjoining, clean-cut and distinct, like a chessboard on a green table-cloth.”
It would be both foolish and completely unrealistic to expect Dorchester to be the same today as it was in the 19th century; but surely we should, if at all possible, both respect and retain vital characteristics of its long and fascinating past? To lose this quintessential aspect of its setting by the water meadows of the river Frome and the rolling downs to the north, so vividly described by Thomas Hardy, amounts to “cultural vandalism”.
We have already lost Dorchester’s abrupt boundary with the countryside to the west, where Poundbury now occupies three former Duchy farms; we’ve lost it to the south, which now reaches the football stadium roundabout on the road to Weymouth; and we’ve lost it to the east, where Hardy’s Max Gate home is now as firmly within the town boundary as it was beyond it when built in 1885.The only side of the county town which still echoes Hardy’s description is to the north, the very area now under threat.
Dorset Council are currently putting together a Local Plan for the whole of the county (excluding Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole and the former Purbeck District Council area) and, as things stand, it’s likely this 4000 home development to the north of Dorchester may form part of that plan. Although there has been NO public engagement with this Local Plan so far, the questions we should all be given the chance to answer are:
“What do we want the county of Dorset to be like in the future?”
and, ”What should or should not be incorporated into any vision for the future of Dorset?”
Finally, but most importantly and particularly pertinent to this threat, Dorset Council declared a Climate and Ecological Crisis at its first meeting in May 2019 and since then we’ve had the Covid 19 Emergency which may well have profound long-term effects. Surely any Local Plan, for the much-enlarged Dorset Council area over the next 15 to 20 years, must take account of these critical issues and be very different from former versions of any Local Plan.
I’ve expressed my concerns on this matter in the following cry:
OYEZ ! OYEZ ! OYEZ !
We are facing our finale, if we lose our northern edge,
If we lose this open country with each tree and ancient hedge.
We are a very special town, our Roman bounds unchanged;
Should we despoil two thousand years? Do you believe we’ll gain?
A few will make a fortune, but what’s in it for us?
Promises are plentiful, but often turn to dust!
‘Twill be sad enough to lose the view,
The loss of farmland we shall rue.
They’ll not be building the homes we need,
For their only concern is to feed their greed.
We’ve saved this town in times long passed,
Let’s do it once more and ensure it lasts.
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
If we act now and act together, while the Local Plan is still being processed and final decisions have yet to be made, we might yet stop this despoiling of our county town. Write/email your Member of Parliament and copy your letter to your County Councillor and Cllr. David Walsh, the Dorset Council Cabinet Member for Planning.
To find out more about this threat to the county town I refer you to the website of the campaign group “STAND” (Save The Area North of Dorchester):
Cllr. Alistair Chisholm Town Crier of Dorchester
Email: Alistair@chiz.org.uk Mobile: 07419 589 005
The views expressed in this article are my own. However some 3000 people have signed the 38 degrees petition which can be accessed from the STAND website. Dorchester Town Council have grave reservations about this development proposal as do the neighbouring parishes of Stisford and Charminster. The Thomas Hardy Society is fiercely opposed to development on this important literary landscape which features in a number of his novels, poems and short stories. The Dorchester Civic Society is opposed to this development and the STAND campaign has the wholehearted support of the Dorset branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE)