On Top of Turnworth Down

The visit to Turnworth Down was an afterthought.

It was Hod Hill the meeting was really about.

We were to meet Keith there, the Historic England Inspector. It was to review the management of the hillfort

It was positive, the conservation grazing and scrub removal now enabled the details of the earthworks to be seen. The result of a lot of hard work. After discussion, the ranger and farmer agreed the next set of actions and we descended the steep hill….back to the little car park on the road to Child Okeford.

Hod’s ranger, Michael, wanted us to look at Turnworth. I hadn’t been there for years but Simon our nature conservation advisor offered to guide me through the back-roads. Keith would come along too…  together with Marie and some of the West Dorset rangers.

It was still very early spring, overcast but warm enough as we crossed the Stour, skirted the edge of the Blackmore Vale and started to rise onto the chalk again.

It had been a long morning, we parked up on a verge beside the property gate and Simon walked across and joined me in the car. The others had gone hunting for lunch in a shop somewhere.

We ate sandwiches and talked of our families and the National Trust.

Our usual combination of archaeology and nature conservation in a landscape…beside a long quiet road, lined with mature trees on the lower slope of a chalk escarpment.

Keith arrived and said that he had agreed my application and would make sure the scheduled monument consent for Cerne Abbas would be processed before the start of our excavation there on Monday.

A couple of landrovers swung onto the verge and Michael unlocked the gates. We began the ascent of Turnworth …or Ringmoor as it is sometimes called.

I’d not done my homework.

What was this landscape all about? We’d noticed the large trees along the Turnworth Road but it was clear that another avenue diverged from our lay-by and followed the path we were on. The trees were mature, gnarled and twisted and had been planted along the hollow of a wide, dry coombe. There were gaps… and a couple of large trees had recently fallen.

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The fallen tree once part of an avenue shown on the 1791 map.

So this place was more than common sheep pasture… at some time it had been included in a designed landscape… though why this avenue had been planted was hard to tell. It seemed to go nowhere.

We stood beside the fallen giant tree, its root plate now vertical.

‘How old is this’ I asked Simon.

‘Its been here well over 200 years’

We walked round to see the tangle of roots. Nothing clearly archaeological in the debris. Large nodules of flint in clayey brown earth.

‘I wonder why these trees were planted here?’

‘The site of Turnworth House lies over the ridge’ said Michael ‘huge place, burnt down in the 1940s, there’s just a bungalow there now’

We followed the trees for a while and looked across the pasture field. This National Trust property is an island of grassland in a sea of deep ploughing. Outside this reserve, the archaeological earthworks had been levelled by arable farming long ago.

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The Turnworth Estate map dated 1791 which shows the ‘Y’ shaped avenues of trees. We had lunch where the avenues join  and walked up the hill along the trees to the left. Far left, the pond can be seen and below a dark mark is the now ruined cottage. The circle, left of centre, is presumably the Iron Age farmstead enclosure.

Turnworth was Tornworde in 1086, a manor held by Alfred of Spain (I looked it up when I got home). Alfred’s a Saxon name.. how did he survive as a landholder in the new Norman regime… and why of Spain.. curious

This pasture field had not been ploughed in the last few hundred years and still had medieval strip lynchets carved into the steeper slopes. A place of community farming within its strip field system… until the lord of Turnworth decided to include it in his wider parkland…complete with tree-lined carriage drive.

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A break of slope, marking a medieval strip lynchet terraced into the slope.

I’ve just made that up. Definitely tree-lined but was it a carriage drive? Nice idea but no clear evidence. The 1791 enclosure map shows the trees clearly. Already well grown by then.

We turned away from the medieval, left the re-wilded avenue behind and climbed steeper up the ridge to see the main attraction.

This is the bit that even the medieval cultivators set aside. Sheep pasture long before the  Saxon open field system was established.

A high down-top with wide views out across the lowland of the Blackmore Vale, Hardy’s ‘Vale of Little Dairies’.

As we crested the slope, we found ourselves in an area of short grassland dotted with occasional trees and bushes. Emerging from this were distinct banks enclosing rectilinear plots of land. We entered an old trackway, defined by two parallel banks, that led us along a curving path into an oval enclosure with two level areas created…for round houses.

We had entered an Iron Age world. A rare survival. We were standing in a homestead  where a farming family once lived some 2000 years ago. It was surrounded by their small square fields linked by trackways. The sort of fragile ancient earthworks that have usually been ploughed flat, sacrificed to the demands of modern agriculture.

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Aerial photograph showing the prehistoric field system preserved on Turnworth Down. The oval Iron Age farmstead enclosure can be seen top left, With the trackway on its left side.

Who knows when this land was first cultivated but the farmstead on Turnworth Down probably continued to be used without much change throughout the Romano-British period. It has never been excavated so dating is hazy….but definitely old, very old.. and precious. A scheduled monument of course, as Keith reminded us.

This place had not been completely ignored by people in the intervening years. There were pits, deep pits. They are shown on the 1880s Ordnance Survey map as ‘disused gravel pits’…though mainly dug for extracting flints for 18th and 19th century road hardcore or for local buildings and walls.

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One of the deep disused 18th-19th century quarry pits.

Then we came across a short long mound on the hill top. This could be a ‘pillow mound’. Was this place used as rabbit warren at some time? These high out of the way places were often used to farm rabbits with pillow mounds built to house them.

In the highest corner of the property, Michael led us to a pond beside a ruined cottage. Perhaps this building was once a keeper or stockman’s house …remote beside its watering hole.

Fifty years or so ago it became too inconvenient a place to live.. or perhaps there was insufficient cash or inclination to repair it.

The silted pond and become a wildlife reserve. The natural and historic environments, mutually beneficial and blended in the landscape.

We discussed future management needs, made a plan and took a new route back down the hill.

The terraced boundaries of the prehistoric field system drifted under the mature woodland of the lower slopes. We were soon surrounded by moss and fern covered ancient trees. Craggy outstretched branches, open grown, demonstrating that they had once matured in managed open parkland.

In single file, we meandered deeper into the trees. A visit like many before, though it felt like a conclusion. Looking back, there seemed to be something…etherial, enigmatic…a line of figures disappearing into a fading light.

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One of Turnworth’s open grown parkland trees covered in fern and moss.

 I have tried to find out more about Turnworth. The names of the owners of parish and park. The church largely rebuilt in the 19th century, the mansion house gone in the fire and its historical records perhaps gone too. All those hidden past lives in this small pocket of Dorset.

I can list the owners back to the 18th century …but not much more…The documents show that the great house was once a wealthy, thriving place. In 1861 mum and dad, 12 children, a governess and 13 servants all lived there… all named in the census.

Though, at the top of Turnworth Down, the names of the windswept occupants of the ancient farmstead will remain a mystery, alongside the hopes and dreams of Domesday’s Alfred of Spain.

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