The Cranborne Chase

The chase has many faces: upland, downland, woodland and open fields; windswept or sheltered, springy turf or crunchy woods, the Cranborne Chase offers so much. Even with the long passage of time here you can still find the nooks, crannies and wide open spaces suffused by history, agriculture and the landscapes that have inspired writers, painters and the general public since time immemorial.

The ‘chase’ was originally designated for the exclusive pleasure of the monarch for their hunting, rent collection and sale of produce, beginning when it was a favourite hunting location of King John (1199-1216): he acquired the Cranborne Chase following his marriage to Avisa, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester who had been the previous owner of the ‘chase’.

In its hey-day the Cranborne Chase had a 80 mile circumference, divided into the ‘Inner Bounds’ and ‘Outer Bounds’, that took in three counties. ‘Chase’ laws were called ‘vert and venison’, the former referring to the timber and the latter to the deer, wild boar and other edible wildlife. Until the seventeenth century the monarch had absolute control, after which it was passed on to powerful landowners.

On December 16, 1780 two opposing groups of men carrying an assortment of wooden staves and heavily loaded flails met in a corner of Cranborne Chase. Following the clash one man died and several others were badly injured and the episode has entered local history as ‘The Battle of the Bloody Shard Gate’: one group were the ‘keepers’ of the Cranborne Chase who were enforcing ‘vert and venison’ and the other group local poachers (the location is half an hour’s walk from the Park Farm House).

Today the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) covers 379 square miles (980 km2) of Dorset, Hampshire, Somerset and Wiltshire and is the sixth largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England. It is a time-line through British history: whether it is a piece of straight road from the Roman occupation, or mysterious mounds and dells that hint of forgotten ages, history’s touch is never far away.

Tollard Royal gets its name from the time when King John held an annual court in his hunting lodge, King John House, which can be seen today behind the church.

Just to the north of Tollard Royal is the Rushmore estate, historically most associated with Lieutenant General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), often referred to as the ‘father’ of English archaeology. After fighting in the Crimean War, the general found fame as a scientist and archaeologist through excavating earthworks near his home Rushmore House (now a prep school) and Estate.

He built a private museum in Farnham, 3 miles away, to house his models and local collections; after this closed in the 1960s most of the exhibits went to OxfordUniversity, although you can see scale models, drawings and artefacts in the Salisbury and SouthWiltshireMuseum in Salisbury.

The general also created a deer-park and ornamental parkland where today the golf-course is located, and carried out a wide variety of landscape planting schemes including what are now spectacular beech avenues and belts. There are a myriad of public foot-paths over the Rushmore estate, all giving access to some of the most beautiful and historic parkland and woodlands in Britain.

The general also developed the LarmerTreePleasureGardens as a visitor attraction which today contain a unique collection of buildings including a temple and theatre, a dell water garden, Nepalese buildings and an interesting collection of trees and shrubs.

The gardens are named after the Larmer Tree, a landmark tree on the ancient boundary between Wiltshire and Dorset: the tree was an ancient Wych Elm under which King John and his entourage met when hunting and later became the focus of a sheep fair. The original tree was still living as late as 1894, around which time it was replaced by an oak which was planted in the centre of the decayed rim.

The preservation and restoration of the estate’s heritage is largely due to the enthusiasm of the general’s great-grandson Michael Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, the owner of Rushmore from the 1950’s until 1999. During this time there was a steady renovation of estate farms and domestic dwellings and a programme of restoration to re-vitalise the landscape and re-create the species-rich grassland formerly associated with the park.

One evening while Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma were staying with the Pitt Rivers at Rushmore an annual sports day was held at the Larmer Tree Gardens followed by a night-time dance, which the great writer ‘led off’ by dancing with the general’s daughter, Agnes, and later writing about how ‘the wide-faced moon looked through the boughs at the faery lamps of the Larmer avenue’.