Dorchester is a delightful little village of timbered houses, thatched cottages, old pubs and interesting shops. It is in fact on the River Thame but is only a short walk from the River Thames where moorings are usually available both above and below Day's Lock.
The village is steeped in archaeological and historical heritage. It was an important Roman town, it was the first ecclesiastical centre of Wessex and was the seat of Anglo-Saxon bishops. But today the village is dominated by the medieval Abbey Church which is one of the most significant buildings in this part of the Thames Valley.
The Abbey Church
There is evidence to suggest that there have been settlements in and around Dorchester since about 2500 BC. To the south is Castle Hill, an Iron Age fort on top of the Sinodun Hills which are more commonly called Wittenham Clumps. The footpath from Day's Lock, on the Thames, to Dorchester passes the remarkable earthworks of the pre-Roman settlement known as Dyke Hills and the village itself lies over the important administrative Roman walled town known as Durocina or Dorcicon on the Roman road fron Silchester to Alchester.
Sinodun Hills (Castle Hill to the Left and Round Hill to the Right)
Dyke Hills with Round Hill in the Background
Dorchester is also remembered for a famous baptism. St.Birinus, a missionary bishop sent from Rome, baptised Cynegils, King of the West Saxons, in the river in 635 AD. A year later St.Birinus baptised Cwichelm, the King's son. In the year after his baptism Cwichelm died and it is perhaps he who is remembered in the 'Poem Tree' on Castle hill.
(See Places to Visit - Wittenham Clumps)
That ancient earthwork form'd old Murcia's bounds.
In misty distance see the barrow heave,
There lies forgotten lonely Culchelm's grave. ...........
It was also in Dorchester that St. Birinus set up his see and founded a cathedral and by about 870 AD, Dorchester was the centre of a large Mercian Diocese which extended from the River Thames to the River Humber. However, after the Norman Conquest, the bishopric moved to Lincoln and in c.1140 AD an Augustine Abbey was founded on the site of the former Saxon Cathedral.
Much of the Abbey was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 but the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was saved by a rich benefactor, Richard Beauforest, who purchased it for £140 and gave it to the Parish and has remained the Parish Church since that time.
The South Entrance Porch
The 16th century south entrance porch to the Abbey Church leads into the People's Chapel, the east wall of which bears the fading remains of a 14th century fresco. Also in the People's Chapel is a lead Norman font, the only one to survive from a monastic church, which is decorated with figures of 11 apostles. The Abbey Church has many splendid windows but its pride and joy however, is the world famous 14th century Jesse Window in the north wall of the sanctuary. In its glass and stone carving it shows the family tree of Jesse, the father of David, rising from the reclined body of Jesse himself.
The Norman Font
The Jesse Window
The only other monastic building to survive was the Abbey Guesthouse, which used to accommodate Pilgrims, but now houses a museum containing many local artifacts. However, many of the Roman relics found in the area can now be seen in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The entrance to the Abbey grounds from the High Street is through an impressive Victorian lychgate believed to have been designed by William Butterfield.
The Abbey Guesthouse
The Victorian Lychgate
The High Street has a variety of timber-framed brick and gabled period buildings with thatched or tiled roofs, many of which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Dorchester was an important coach staging post along the London to Oxford Road. In the 18th century, there were no less than ten pubs in the village! Unfortunately, many have now gone but three notable coaching inns remain, the George (c.1495), with its restored 19th century coach standing outside, the White Hart (c.1690) and the Fleur De Lys (c.1520). They have all retained much of their old character.
The High Street
The White Hart
The Fleur De Lys
Rotten Row, off the south end of the High Street, has a number of 17th century half timbered brick cottages and is well worth a visit. Just down the High Street from here, towards the bridge, can be seen the old octagonal Toll House which is contemporary with the bridge which was built in 1815.
The Toll House
Also at the south end of the High Street, in Bridge End, stands the Roman Catholic Church of St. Birinus which was designed by W W Wardel, architect of Melbourne Cathedral, and built in 1849.
Dorchester Footbridge Over the River Thames
Finally, the World Poohsticks Championships are held each year on the River Thames on the Little Wittenham and Dorchester Footbridges next to Day's Lock. The game is described in A A Milne's book "The House at Pooh Corner", written in 1928, where Pooh Bear and his friends stood on a bridge in the Ashdown Forest and raced twigs on the stream below.
The event was started on the Thames in 1983 by Lynn David, the former lock-keeper at Day's Lock, as a fund raising event for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). He put out a box of sticks and a collection box and it soon became an annual event. It originally took place in January but in the icy weather of 1997 it was moved to March. It is now organised by the Rotary Club of Sinodun and supported by the WRVS and Oxford Ditch Cruising Club.
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