Essential Wessex: The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was a man-o-war in Henry VIII’s navy, built in Portsmouth in 1510 and launched the following year. Henry was preparing for war against France, and the building of the Mary Rose and her sister ship, the Peter Pomegranate, arguably laid the foundations for the birth of the Royal Navy as we know it.

The Admiral of the Fleet, Edward Howard, chose the Mary Rose, rather than the larger Regent as his flagship. This gave him the element of surprise at the Battle of St Mathieu in 1512. The French were not expecting the English to arrive for several more days, and the Mary Rose was able to catch them unawares, crippling their flagship the Grande Louise.

The ship saw many more years of distinguished service before being sunk off the Isle of Wight in 1545. The exact reasons for her loss were unknown, but it is thought that bad weather hastened her demise.

The story does not end there, however. The wreck of the Mary Rose was raised in 1982, and today sits in a dedicated museum located in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard. Find out more at their website.

Wessex Attractions: MAKE Southwest

MAKE Southwest, formerly the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, was founded in 1955 by Edward Baly, to promote regional crafts. They started out creating small exhibitions in various venues across South Devon, but now have over 250 members and a permanent home, Riverside Mill in Bovey Tracey, purchased in 1986.

Riverside Mill contains a retail gallery and three exhibition galleries, hosting over 20 exhibitions a year between them. Members include printmakers, silversmiths, sculptors and many more categories.

The satnav postcode for RIverside Mill is TQ13 9AF, and the what3words is figs.roost.rabble. Bus number 178 from Newton Abbot to Okehampton stops nearby, and the nearest railway station is Newton Abbot. The gallery is open 10am-5pm Tuesdays to Saturdays, and admission is free. There are two pay and display car parks located within a minute’s walk. If you cannot make it there in person, their website hosts virtual exhibitions. Click the link for details.

Wessex Attractions: Corfe Castle

Last week, we looked at Shaftesbury Abbey, once home to the relics of Edward, King and Martyr. This week we turn our attention to Corfe Castle, the original site of his murder, Destroyed by the Roundheads during the English Civil War in a misguided attempt at denormanisation, this year (2023) saw its ruins become the subject of the National Trust’s biggest ever conservation project, restoring loose and damaged stonework, and removing excess vegetation without destroying valuable wildlife habitats.

Species found in the castle and surrounding area include the Adonis Butterfly and the Grey Bush Cricket. Perhaps fittingly, its gothic ruins are also home to birds of prey and carrion eaters; ravens, red kites and peregrine falcons.As with the Tower of London, legend has it that if the ravens ever leave Corfe Castle, England will fall.

Corfe Castle also gives its name to a nearby village and civil parish. Its railway station was a rather late casualty of the Beeching rail cuts, closing in 1972, but was reopened as part of the heritage Swanage Railway in the mid-1980s.

As well as the ruins themselves, Corfe Castle also has a tea room and bookshop, and is licenced for civil weddings. Opening hours are 10am to 6pm daily, with last entrance to the castle at 5.30pm.

The castle has a car park, and the satnav postcode is BH20 5DR. The nearest main line railway station is Wareham, and bus number 40 (Swanage to Poole) stops at the nearby Village Centre.

Wessex Attractions: Shaftesbury Abbey

Shaftesbury Abbey was founded by Alfred the Great in 888, and continued until it was dissolved in 1539 by order of Thomas Cromwell. At the time, it was the wealthiest convent in Wessex, and the second wealthiest in England, exceeded only by Syon Abbey in Richmond, Surrey.

For a long time, the Abbey was the home of a shrine to Edward, King and Martyr. The translation of the relics in February 981 from Wareham, their previous home, was overseen by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia. The latter was a rather ironic choice, as he was a supporter of Edward’s stepmother Ælfthryth, whose servants were behind the murder, and who was widely believed to be the instigator. His involvement appears to be a way of distancing himself from the killing. The procession was reenacted in 1981 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary.

In Jude The Obscure, Thomas Hardy wrote of the ruins of Shaston Abbey (his name for Shaftesbury) that “Vague imaginings of its castle, its three mints, its magnificent apsidal Abbey, the chief glory of south Wessex, its twelve churches, its shrines, chantries, hospitals, its gabled freestone mansions—all now ruthlessly swept away—throw the visitor, even against his will, into a pensive melancholy which the stimulating atmosphere and limitless landscape around him can scarcely dispel.”

Today, the abbey survives as a museum and herb garden. It often hosts open air events such as movie screenings during the summertime. Interestingly, their website features the Wessex coat of arms in its masthead.

The museum is open from March to October. The nearest rail station is Gillingham (Dorset), and bus numbers 2, 6, 7, 27, 29 and 86 serve the nearby Town Hall bus stop. The satnav postcode is SP7 8JR.

The Character of Wessex: The Forest of Dean and Lower Wye

The Forest of Dean and Lower Wye character area is a triangular area bounded, for the most part, by the rivers Severn and Wye, and the A40 around Ross-on-Wye. It has been a mining area since antiquity, due to its large deposits of iron and coal. 40% of the area is woodland; mostly oak, ash and chestnut, but in recent decades, the Forestry Commission has inflicted its unpleasant habit of planting conifers in areas where they don’t belong.

The local sandstone has a distinctive pinkish hue, which in the past made it much in demand as a building material, though brick and concrete have supplanted it over the years. Pantiles and Welsh slate are widely used for roofing.

The area is noted for its orchards, with local varieties including the Blaisdon Red plum, excellent for making jam; Evan;s Kernel, a general purpose apple found in Ruardean, which is listed as critical on the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust website; . and the sweet-tasting Merrylegs pear.

Tourism is an important industry for the area. The Picturesque movement in art began there, and tourists still flock to popular beauty spots such as Tintern Abbey and Symond’s Yat, both (just) outside the bounds of Wessex.

The area is home to one of the UK’s largest populations of horseshoe bats. However, these ate threatened by wind farms upsetting their flight paths and messing with their sonar. It would be ironic if the transition from the traditional coal found in the region to cleaner forms of energy ended up endangering the local wildlife.