My brother and little sis’ have recently moved to Dorset, to a village called Fifehead Magdelen. It is described, by Online Parish Church (OPC), Dorset, as ‘a small, remote village and parish in the Vale of Blackmore, 8km west of Shaftesbury in North Dorset.’ Small, definitely. Remote, yes, and although not the most remote I’ve ever been to, remote enough. It is 320 feet above sea level, on a ridge of Corallian limestone, in the Blackmore Vale.
I wondered about the name and, as quite a few of the villages in this part of the country have religious sounding names, and whether it had been a Catholic stronghold during the reformation. In fact, the opposite is true.
OPC tells me that Fifehead is a corruption of Five Hides. A hide was the amount of land that would support one free family and its dependents, which, in Wessex was 48 acres. Five Hides was assessed thus in the Doomsday Book. The Magdalen came later, named after the church and the dedication of the hides to St Magdalene.
The village church is, unsurprisingly, St Mary Magdalene. It’s a lovely little church, originally built in the 14th century, although the Newman chapel was added in the 17th century, and it underwent some restoration in the 20th century. Aside from the church, there is a village hall, and an old red telephone box that doubles as the library. Seriously. People put books in there for others to borrow. Aside from houses and farms, I think that’s it.
Bro and little sis’ are reading Hardy again, now they are in that territory. I’ve never found him an easy read, the language is archaic in places, but there is something about his books that makes them compelling. They are so descriptive, I can imagine myself as the character. Don’t watch the films or TV adaptations, I’ve not seen one yet that does his books justice.
Hardy changed the names of some of the towns in his books, presumably to protect the innocent. He refers to Shaftesbury as Shaston (which was widely used in the nineteenth century) and Palladour, and Dorchester as Casterbridge, so that’s how the family refer to places. As if my life wasn’t confusing enough. Enough of nomenclature and back to the country.
Shaftesbury overlooks the Blackmore Vale, where Fifehead Magdalen is situated. There are some fabulous views from the top of Shaftesbury, near to the abbey, if the weather is good enough, and fortunately, it was quite clear when I went. It’s one of those old towns that had an Abbey (founded by King Alfred) and destroyed by Henry VIII. Who remembers the Hovis ad with the little boy pushing his bike up a steep, cobbled hill? That hill is adjacent to the Abbey and is called Gold Hill. Incidentally, Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) directed the ad.
Some interesting facts about Shaftesbury:
- King Athelstan (reign 927 to 939) founded to royal mints here.
- In 981 the relics of St Edward the Martyr (also a king, who died as a teenager) were taken from Wareham to Shaftesbury Abbey, thus making it the site for a pilgrimage for healing.
- In 1035, King Canute died in Shaftesbury.
- In the 18th century, Shaftesbury was famous for producing a cloth called swanskin, used by fishermen in Newfoundland.
- It is 705 feet above sea level.
- There are two museums: Gold Hill Museum and Shaftesbury Abbey Museum.
© Susan Shirley 2019