As I sat amongst fragrant herbs in the garden of the Cerne Abbas café, I mused to the waitress who served me a pot of tea and Victoria sponge cake, “You must love living here.” She smiled and replied, “Those born in Dorset, never leave Dorset.”
The Cosy Community of Cerne
Situated in the lap of England, nestled within the undulating hills of beautiful Dorset downs, is the village of Cerne Abbas. The wonderfully close-knit community of around 1,000 residents resides beside a labyrinth of pathways, stone dwellings, and medieval magic. Though thrilled to see an English village crammed with a distinctive Olde Worlde charm, I could see its biggest attraction is the Giant.
Unusually, no one knows who carved his massive 180ft image, but the National Trust puts forward two possibilities:
- Romans – honouring the Greek God Hercules
- English locals – making fun of Oliver Cromwell
Regardless of where the responsibility lies, with his extra-ordinary member on display to the world, bashful visitors be warned. A short walk along the village’s cobbled pavements leads you to an information board demonstrating a community of active, caring folk. A vibrant bunch of barn dancing enthusiasts, English cricketers, avid horticulturists, pernicious historians, and talented musicians gather together, even organising a voluntary car service for those without the means or ability to drive themselves.
Typical English History?
Today, Cerne Abbas is one of those peaceful English villages, with thatch cottages and roses growing around each door, but a sense of the centuries of battles and invasions by French Normans and Danish Vikings is never far away. As such, the place offers more than simple visual delights. Stories of the marauding monks, the Benedictines, who founded Cerne Abbas in 987 abound. Back in 1166, Father Bernard, disgusted with the uncontrollable rabble, left the monks who brewed and drank the ale. Sadly, the Abbey was dissolved in 1539, after Henry VIII’s divorce which meant only destruction and demolition for the building. Thankfully, the Abbey’s ornately carved tower remains, tucked within the protective walled gardens of a private residence now owned by the Fulford-Dobson family who invested heavily in its restoration. What is astonishing is, unlike the Cerne Abbey Guest House, there are not many businesses that can claim they’ve been trading for over 500 years. Nestled cosily within the walls of the Abbey, let’s hope it is open for many more years to come.
Almost 350 years ago, in 1672, another Cerne Abbas resident, Thomas Notely, travelled to America. While there, he bought over a thousand acres of land and named it Cerne Abbas Manor. That land’s most notable claim to fame is that, one hundred years later, Notely’s legatees signed it over to the government and it is now more familiarly known as the USA’s capital.
Silver Well Wishes
A short trek down a steep gravelled path leads you to the Silver Well near the Abbey. Plenty of myths surround the Well. One of them is about St. Augustine who offered either beer or water to the shepherds. They asked for the latter, so he stamped his staff to the ground and announced “Cerne El”: “I perceive God!” The truth is that the tale could be construed as the first marketing venture. The drunk monks probably created the story to encourage inquisitive visitors to buy their beer. Another magical tale swirling around Cerne Abbas’ Well is of its healing properties. It is said if you dip a laurel leaf into the water then rub it over your eyes, they will heal. Another encourages girls to visit it, say a prayer to St. Catherine then turn three times. Within a few short months, the story goes, they will meet their future husband and fall pregnant.
Lest We Forget
Outside St. Mary’s Church, a stark stone memorial stands proud. Erected by villagers in memory of the brave sons who died in the bloodied fields of the first and second world wars. Its epitaph poignantly states: “They died, that we may live”. On the memorial, a stark black plaque remembers another former resident; Royal Marine Sgt. Ron Rotherham. Sgt. Rotherham marched out from his cottage in Cerne Abbas and, on 8th June 1982, on the battlefield of the Falkland Islands, one more of England’s sons sacrificed his life. Take a seat in one of the village’s three pubs, and it is easy to imagine Sgt. Rotherham sat proudly in his uniform next to the warmth of the big log fire, with a pint of Cerne Abbas’ own brewed ale.
Home Brewed Ale
Cerne Abbas’s villagers boast happily about their ‘Modest Brewery with Giant Integrity’. With a gap of only 150 years, ale has been brewed there and exported to America since its monks weaved the story of St. Augustine. Today, the brewery uses Maris Otter barley, grown organically in the Cerne Valley. Just before being interviewed by the BBC, after debuting the beer in the Houses of Parliament, a quick-thinking villager protected the Cerne Abbas Giant Ale logo – with a fig-leaf. Inside the Royal Oak, blackened beams ooze a history established in 1540 while, outside, its stones are hugged by a beautiful Virginia Creeper that turns a vibrant red in autumn. The Royal Oak is one of over 700 Inns in England that changed its name to commemorate King Charles II’s escape after the Royalist defeat in the battle of Worcester in 1651. Incidentally, the pub serves a remarkably tasty roast chicken lunch.
Morris Dancing Men
On May Day, Morris dancers trek the steep hills to give thanks for the coming spring sunshine. They crash their bats together and stamp their stockinged boots on the crest of the hill to bring in Beltane with a wiggle and jingle of bells. With a wry smile, one of them said: “Without the sun, no man would live.” Like the beautiful sunshine on an early spring morning, Cerne Abbas has a way of creeping into your heart – and you begin to understand why those born in Dorset never leave.