The harvest festival held earlier this month at St Andrew’s Church in Monkton Wyld, Dorset was quite an occasion. The magnificent, flint faced, neo-Gothic church is rarely used. It has an imposing steeple and a lavish transept, it has retained all of its original features. St Andrew’s church and the matching parsonage were designed in 1848 by Pugin’s well-respected pupil Richard Cromwell Carpenter.
There are few souls living in this tiny hamlet and fewer Christians, the church opens no more than a handful of times a year. The traveling vicar conducted 5 harvest festival services from Charmouth to Axminster that Sunday and by the time he had gotten to us at dusk he’d refined quite a routine. As we sat waiting for the service to begin a dormouse skipped over the altar.
After singing a few elderly harvest hymns and reciting some appropriately salubrious prayers we drank locally made apple juice and ate locally made apple cake served with thick unpasteurized jersey cream. There was an auction of local produce and people eagerly snapped up their neighbor’s home-grown vegetables… including a giant pumpkin. Katherine from the Monkton Wyld Community brought home-made sausages and Monkton Wyld Court cheese, it sold for a good price raising money for the repair of this delightful Victorian church.
I’ve been in Dorset these past six weeks, looking after a friend of a friend’s huge and imposing Edwardian rectory. Monkton Wyld sits on the edge of Marshwood Vale. This ancient countryside is still divided by hedgerow, the roads flanked by steep mossy banks decorated with ivy and bracken. As the autumn crept over us, the leaves fell from the beech trees revealing the sea at Lyme Bay and Charmouth beyond. Catching the sun like great mirrors, two miles away.
This red brick house was built in 1901 to replace the draughty, original parsonage built conveniently next to St Andrew’s. The parsonage below us is a neo-Gothic masterpiece, similarly faced with perfectly knapped chert. The house sits proudly in a garden copied by Cromwell Carpenter from a surviving medieval English manor.
The rooms at Monkton Wyld Court are large and well proportioned, there is a delightful and unexpected internal courtyard where bats fly at dusk, a kitchen garden that provides enough vegetables all year for the community of people who live in the house and their paying guests. A short way away from the main house, down a well trodden path there is a charming oak framed milking parlor that serves four cows, and every week I’ve stayed here I’ve bought Monkton Wyld cheese or yogurt or milk that tastes unlike any milk I’ve ever tasted.
For the past 40 years I have returned to this valley. Once, hitch hiking from Whitstable to Charmouth to revisit Monkton. As a child I had a magical relationship with this place and I continue to return. When I arrive (however I get here) I walk into the valley, past the stream, up the hill, down the drive. I am immediately transported to a better place. The laurel, the rhododendrons, the great ornamental pines. The rope swing hanging from the ancient Douglas Fir and has done for 80 years, giving so many children so much pleasure.
This is where I went to school, albeit briefly, sadly getting expelled for appalling behaviour. Yet, in 1971 I experienced moments of pure joy in this perfect place. Here I learned everything. I learned how to ride, play the piano, bake bread… I learned how to live in a house with two staircases and how to use an Aga. I read the Norse tales and was read the Greek myths by handsome Chris under the same Douglas fir on lazy hot July afternoons. There I met the Minotaur, felt intoxicated by the story of the king who held him in the labyrinth. Names I will never forget: Daedalus, Theseus, Knossos.
It was here I experimented with my fledgling sexuality with a boy called Jasper. It was here I lay beside Amaryllis and held her breasts. It was here we sped these lanes in an old land rover to Lyme Bay. It was here the older kids took acid and we drank scrumpy. It was in this place I read the banned magazine Oz and when I took that magazine home to Whitstable my parents confiscated it, stunned… as if it were Satan’s pamphlet.
The school kids were wild and articulate and the staff equally so. Every day we had a noisy school meeting where problems were solved and punishments dished out. We ate home-baked bread and whatever the kitchen garden provided. We smoked, our hair grew out, we bathed rarely…. wandering around the school like homeless people. The older kids listened to Alice Cooper and I bought my first single in Axminster, Gaye by Clifford T Ward.
My best friend was Tom Melly. George’s son. Tom and I burned great towers of cardboard pretending they were tower blocks and commentated upon them like BBC journalists as they fell into a burning heap. We explored the stream at the end of the valley and leapt over ravines and fought fern monsters, their tendrils wrapped around out legs like snakes. We invented our own labyrinth and escaped from it. My friendship with Tom wildly impressed my parents who asked endless questions whenever I hung out with Tom and his dad. Yet, for all of this I could not deal with a life unfettered. I had come from a strict house and the damage had already been done. After a shoplifting binge in Lyme Regis I was expelled… and that was that. But my love for Monkton never dimmed. Every time I return to Monkton Wyld I wonder when I leave if I this will be my last visit. I savor every minute, every star above us, every sunrise.
My stay here included meeting community members, some of the Monkton Wyld Community trustees and my immediate neighbors. One in particular grabbed my attention, a single dad who teaches survival skills all over the world. His curly blond hair and fair complexion, his sensitive disposition coupled with his physical strength. What a man!
I met a very posh farmer from Dorchester who gave me a haunch of venison and two excellent cuts of pork. Melanie DB cooked the venison and I cooked the pork. The dogs set upon the bones ravenously. I visited my friend Graham in Weymouth and had a lovely time. We explored country churches and had tea with the Earl and Countess of Sandwich at Mary Lou Sturridge’s Seaside Boarding House. I ate delicious lunches on my own at Hugh’s River Cottage restaurant in Axminster and one very ugly lunch at Mark Hix’s ghastly restaurant in Lyme Regis: three goujons of cod and a pile of rancid chips for £20.
Of course I looked at property and imagined building a place in the middle of nowhere. I traveled to Exmore and stayed with Rachel Campbell Johnston and her dear daughter. We had long walks along the cliffs near Illfracomb and dropped in on Laura Carew. Laura and I hiked the perimeter of her estate which took hours. The little dog soldiered on valiantly. Then, when all was said and done, I drive back to Monkton and sleep soundly in my huge, comfortable bed.
Monkton Wyld School closed in 1981 and now the old parsonage houses a Centre for Sustainability Education, The Court is run and maintained by a residential community as well as a team of short-term volunteers.
Here is a short documentary about Monkton Wyld School made at the time I was there: