Dorchester is the county town of Dorset. Although not a very large town, it has a very extensive history being previously a Roman settlement called Durnovaria. I had never explored the town before but I can now say it is well worth the effort. Of particular note is the very attractive and interesting walk around the boundary of the ancient Roman town. According to one source I have read this boundary was, in Roman times, fortified with a wall 6m high and 2.5m thick. Only one small part of the wall remains to be seen today. In the 18th century a tree-lined pathway was constructed along the perimeter wall and much of the current-day walk follows these delightful tree-lined avenues.
We started the walk at the statue of Thomas Hardy. I thought he looked rather miserable, but he had been dead for many years. We then walked along the West Walks Road, alongside the Borough Gardens. We paused a while to admire the Victorian bandstand, and cast iron clock tower, a gift to the town by some wealthy local in 1905.
One of my abiding memories of this walk will be the statues of the Dorset Martyrs by Elizabeth Frink completed in 1986. The sculptures are stark and striking, but what I found startling and disturbing was the information on the accompanying display board.
This statue is located at the junction of South Walks Road and Icen Road, known as Gallows Hill. The walk then crosses Salisbury Field with its beacon post and descends to cross a branch of the River Frome.
At this stage of the walk there is open country to one side, and we saw two deer grazing in a field; probably Sika, we think. At the end of the riverside stretch we reached John’s Pool where an escaped convict, named John, is reputed to have drowned. Continuing what had become a somewhat macabre theme, suitable for Halloween, we reached Hangman’s cottage and climbed back up to a tree-lined walkway above: Northernhay. Nearby we found the Roman Town House remains. These were discovered and excavated in the 1930s and are now well-preserved with the surviving mosaics sheltered under a roof.
After a good look around this house we rejoined the path and turned into The Grove, still along a tree-lined avenue and returned to Hardy’s statue. The walk took us about an hour and a half, which allowed ample time to read the display boards and generally observe. I look forward to walking it again at a different time of year and would recommend it to any visitor.
After seeing the Dorset Martyrs statues I did a bit more research into the gallows in Dorchester and the religious persecutions of the 16th and 17th century. With regard to the gallows, it is claimed (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~fordingtondorset/Files2/Dorchestergallows.html) that “thousands must have suffered the cruel lingering death by strangling that our murderous laws condemned man, woman, and child to suffer for even theft to the worth of 5s. Here, periodically, following the Assizes, the State provided its public spectacles of torture, thinking to terrorise evil-doers and improve the morals of the people.”. Thomas Hardy witnessed the spectacle of the last woman to be hanged in public in England, in 1856. This took place in North Square Dorchester and was witnessed, it is claimed, by three- to four thousand people.
I find difficult to comprehend the cruelty demonstrated in former times. A phrase on the display board alongside the Dorset Martyrs statues, that one of the martyrs was tortured 13 times before being hung drawn and quartered, I find so barbaric as to be totally incomprehensible. These must have been terrible times to live and die through.
The period 1584 to 1679 saw many Roman Catholics killed. In 1987, 85 martyrs from England and Wales were beatified by the Roman Catholic church. I understand that this means that they are recognised as having “entered Heaven” and are referred to as Blessed. Later, in 1970, 40 martyrs were canonized ie they became Saints. Apparently, in 1960, people started praying to these souls, as a group, and the recovery of a young mother from a malignant tumour was considered to be a prayer answered, and hence a miracle. So, the group was canonized. I find all these processes alien also.
So a very pleasant walk with thought-provoking results.