A stroll through Sherbourne

A stroll through Sherbourne

Sherborne is hidden away in the rolling Dorset countryside. Take time to visit the Abbey Church, the ancient buildings in this charming market town, and don’t miss Sherborne castle, once the home of Sir Walter Raleigh who lost his head! Are you ready to stretch your neck? Because that what’s going to happen if you take a walk around Dorset’s famous Abbey town of Sherborne! The tour will involve a lot of looking up and down as you try to take in all the magnificent sights, writes Mel Russ.

I had never been to Sherborne, just inside the northern boundary of the county; the closest I have ever been is during the annual holiday rush westwards down the A303 towards Devon. I never realised I was driving past such an historical wonderland. Discover Sherborne, an information sheet published by West Dorset District Council, reveals that there are nearly 20 interesting things to see around the town but we shall scale that down to just a handful, the star of the show being Sherborne Abbey, which reflects 1300 years of worship.

The Abbey church is said to have the heaviest peal of eight bells in the world, and the historians amongst us will be intrigued to know that two kings are buried in the Abbey and that Sir Walter Raleigh, who built a castle to the east of the town, worshipped here. The Abbey, built on the instructions of St Aldhem, the new bishop of the West Saxons, is constructed from locally quarried Hammstone, was originally quite small. Enlarged over the following centuries many interesting features still remain, including a Saxon doorway.

If Sherborne Abbey has a wow factor it must be its famous and beautiful fan-vaulted roof, a criss-cross of vaulted arches with colourful rosette centre bosses. The interior stonework is stunning; the stained glass windows throwing wonderful shafts of colour around the building. The Sepulchre chapel is dominated by the striking white marble monument to John Digby, 3rd Earl of Bristol and his two wives. Further research of the other Abbey effigies suggest that the one of Sir John Horsey, who purchased the Abbey estate during the Reformation, is wearing armour reflecting a much earlier date that his death. Could it be suggesting that his ancestry stretches further back than we are lead to believe? On leaving the Abbey Church take time to admire the intricately carved Digby Memorial erected in 1884 to mark the life of George Digby. Showing signs of severe weathering in parts, it is still a marvel fashioned from stone.

One of the town’s most charming buildings is the almshouses of St John the Baptist built in1437 as a home for 17 poor people, who had to give up all their possessions and abide by the religious rules to be allowed entry. Continuing your walk admire the Conduit, the monks washhouse during the 15th century and since then used as a library, police station and even a bank. Close by is the Bow Arch built in the 15th century and where it’s believed that Monmouth rebels were hanged in 1685.

Walking round the town you see the Abbey pharmacy, a sympathetically restored building dating back to 1790, while still in Cheap Street you find The Julian, a 16th century hospice, and next door there’s The George, Sherborn’s oldest inn dating back to the 1500s. Sherborne School could look familiar if you are a film buff. Goodbye Mr Chips and The Guinea Pig were all filmed at the school, which was founded in 1550 by King Edward VI.

Finally we arrive at Sherborne two castles. The original one is to the north of Sherborne Lake, an now a ruin, while the new one built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594 is on the opposite side of the lake. Originally built with imposing hexagonal corner turrets Sir Walter didn’t live to enjoy it, he lost his head for treason, and his estate was claimed by the crown.

In 1617 John Digby, remember his effigy in Sherborne Abbey, purchased the castle and enlarged the building in the early 1620s by adding four wings in the same design as the original castle. During the mid-1750s Capability Brown redesigned the gardens over a two year period creating parkland in the latest fashion of the time.

Sherborne Castle played its part in two World Wars; in the First it was a Red Cross hospital for wounded soldiers, and during the Second it became the Commando HQ for the invasion of France.
After nearly 400 years the Castle is still in the hands of the Wingfield Digby family.

Want to know more?

Mel Russ