I grew up in Stalbridge | Tales from the Vale


I grew up in Stalbridge and went to the primary school there, St Mary’s, under the wise and kind authority of the head master, Geoff Mallet.  They were called headmasters then, bit too binary for now, not very woke.

Geoff Mallet was a great man who I remember with unbounded affection.  His French lessons even made him laugh – I was 10 at the time and was surprised that a grown-up man, who wasn’t my dad, could be so funny. And I mean funny. Mr Mallet would pick up on a wild theme, after joking with us kids, and just run with it. He loved puns  – one kid’s surname was Jex and Mr Mallet enjoyed saying, ‘don’t vex me Jex’ – and made us kids roll in the aisles. I think that may have locked within me. And my mum taught infants there too.  It was a great and happy school with really dedicated teachers. Looks like it still is.  Took my retired mum there a while ago.

Hambledon Hill and the view across Blackmore Vale

And then I went to school in Stur (very good academically), and the Grammar in Weymouth (surprisingly lax) and then university (piece of cake) and then I worked in the South East before moving back to Dorset. I didn’t really know the new Dorset to which I was returning.  I wondered if it was a mistake.

My very first morning in the Blackmore Vale was a revelation.  I drove through a narrow country lane to the next village to get a paper – The Erotic Review, if you’re interested (actually it was The Times) – and a curious thing happened. A 4X4 travelling towards me pulled-in and flashed me.  I stopped, perplexed, and asked if they were OK. ‘No, just letting you through,’ they replied cheerfully.

I was genuinely moved.. I mean this sincerely. If you live in Dorset you maybe won’t understand this. No-one in the South East who drives a Chelsea Tractor, as they’re called there (naturally not one such spotless 4X4 has ever been ‘off-road’), would in a million years pull-in to let a modest car go by. Actually my car then wasn’t that modest. It was a big Audi which used slightly less fuel than a standard Apollo moon mission, but you know what I mean.  It just would not happen. And this consideration wasn’t a one-off. It happens every day. I still feel quite emotional about it and mention this to mates back in the snarling horror of the South East.  They don’t believe me.  

I’ll mention in future columns the many things that also impresses me about Dorset, but one thing is my Parish Council which actually does good things and communicates with the parishioners and, on a less parochial scale, those that run Sturminster Newton, and I think we’ve got a lot to thank Councillor Pauline Batstone for.  Pauline has recently stepped down from the stresses of being Chair of Dorset Council. Her hair has gone quite auburn with grief.

Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival

Stur could easily be a dying town.  But the locals, which includes Pauline, are fighting with market days, car rallies and, as I write this, a small alternative to the fantastic annual Cheese Fair – an event organized with brio, as well as brie. 

Thank you. Thank you for smiling or wincing at my joke. Cheese isn’t that easy to pun with – so any suggestions, mail the Editor and I’m sure she’ll pass them on to me – claiming them as hers, obviously. She’s like that.  I’ll be waiting for a reader to say that they went to a cheese festival in Wales and they drove Caerphilly.

I like and admire Pauline Batstone. She’s a very hard-working woman with a great sense of humour, she’s achieved a lot.

Pauline used to be a Probation Officer.  Here’s a funny she told me.  As a Probation Officer she handled the usual rum mixture of cases, including a posh elderly bloke who specialized in nicking old E-Type Jaguars.  He’d take them to his workshop and very skillfully and conscientiously refurbish them.  I’m unsure if his intention was to re-sell them or profit in anyway, but it would seem he couldn’t bear to see an E-Type that needs attention. I feel the same way about smoky bacon crisps.

Such was his notoriety among our rather benevolent police – and believe me, I’ve worked in other countries, our police are the best. – that whenever such a Jag was swiped, our boys in blue would unhurriedly drive to the eccentric old geezer’s workshop and as often as not find the ‘hot wheels’ being over-hauled.  And the police would be professional, but understanding about his little ways.

The E-Type thefts got to the stage where when a distressed E-Type owner reported her or his car missing, the police advised the owner to hang on a month or two then report it, as they’d then deliver a perfectly re-conditioned classic motor – and all for free.

Inn some trouble

A lot of tired old pubs have changed hands recently in north Dorset – with significant money and imagination spent on their refurbishment.

I include here, The Three Elms in North Wooton, near Sherborne, (now re-named The Elms Farmhouse Kitchen) which looks a super smart coffee shop selling cakes and tucker.  They’ve got the ace chef from The Udder, the big posh farm shop near Shaftsbury, and he’s obviously working his magic at his new stoves. The EFK’s car park is crammed.

The Green Man in King’s Stag has had a tasteful refurb and is now run by the owners of Stock House, with its famous deer park. Hopefully when Covid has passed they’ll make a decent buck out of it.  Hosting Stag parties.  Make lots of doe. Too much? (yes – Ed).

The Green Man at King’s Stag

The Plough at Manston is still undergoing extensive building work but their media page doesn’t suggest an opening date – or it didn’t last time I looked.  The White Hart in Sturminster has re-opened and looks great – although a medium glass of Sauvignon Blanc costing £8.40 (it’s on the wine menu) and a pint at £4 may be worth reconsidering.  This ain’t Knightsbridge.  This be Dorset.

The beautiful old Antelope in Hazelbury Bryan has been acquired by an apparently nice bloke who’s minted, as he’s also bought The Elm Tree, just outside Weymouth, which used to be the in food place, when people wore flared trousers and medallions.  A really lovely family, Greg, beautiful Rhiannon and their smiley smart daughter Hannah, friends of the owner, are running The Antelope.

Greg and family are South Africans who were doing the round-the-world trip but now seem committed to upping the Ante. 

They’ve started offering cream teas on Thursday and Friday afternoons which are doing well.  They do Thursday evening specials, including a South African beef curry which they insist is called Bunny Chow – no amount of explaining that that might be misinterpreted would convince them not to put it on the notice boards.  

All these hard working Dorset entrepreneurs are struggling.  If just 10% of The BV’s vast readership visited their local just once a week even for a coffee than that would go some way to help the community.  The average pub puts £150,000 back into their community in the way of wages, rates, local suppliers.  Lose a pub and you’ve lost your best community asset. 

But pub managers, a quick word.  I had a pint this week at a pub whose tenants I really like, but that pint cost £4.30. I won’t name the pub – it’s not one I’ve mentioned, but I will not go there again.  This pub was a tenancy so their wholesale price will be dictated by the brewery, in this case Palmers of Bridport.  Directors of Palmers – do not jeapordise your hard-working tenants. Your tenants are struggling.

A criminal thought

Driving through Blandford I was always intrigued to see a road named Peel Close.  I take a keen interest in street names. One can usually date when they were named, eg Mafeking Close was during the Boer War, Albert Road was named after the Prince Regent, and Total Cock-up Street obviously is named in honour of Matt Hancock’s handling of the corona virus.  Or the Education Secretary’s mastery over exam results. Or the Tory secretary of state Chris Grayling, who during the Brexit talks gave a shipping contract to a business which had no ships and no experience of sea freight.  Thank God most senior civil servants are Firsts from Oxford or Cambridge. What a wreck we’d be without them.  My solution would be to clear out the effete elite over-educated and replace them with practically-minded Dorset farmers.  If you can keep a farm going, you can do anything.

Peel Close, Blandford

So, with Peel Close, I thought the naming committee of the council either really liked fruit, or were fans of the 1960s TV programme The Avengers, whose beautiful star Diana Rigg (who played Emma Peel) has just died. Then it struck me that as the police station is there, it’s obviously named after Robert Peel, founder of the police. It took me about three years to make this connection, so it would appear that if I joined the police my promotion as a detective would not be swift.  

However, I did think the name of the street lacked a certain connection with modern society and the language our rogue elements use.  Perhaps the name Peel Close is too aggressively authoritative, too fuddy-duddy, maybe it would alienate criminals and give them issues with self-esteem. All very worrying.

I suggested it be re-named more appropriately, ‘You’re Bang to Rights My Son Road’ or ‘Leave it ‘aht guv’nor I ain’t done Nuthin Street’.

But my wife came up with, yes, you’ve guessed it, ‘Letsby Avenue’. 

Please write to me via the magazine if you’ve got a better suggestion or with street names that are curious. 

My wife has a way with words, and it’s not always the right way. Her ability to mix metaphors is legendary.  Over media speculation of Harry and self-effacing, modest Meghan she said, the press are giving them enough rope for them to dig their own grave.’  She then paused and said, ‘that doesn’t sound right’.  ‘It was perfect,’ I told her, after I’d stopped laughing, and had phoned my brother to pass on this gem.  We do this often. For example, when Tim found that his wife, Ali, genuinely thought the Battle of Trafalgar was fought in London’s Trafalgar Square (this woman went to university and was a teacher!)  No, I’m not making that up, I don’t have to. There’s enough amusement in every day life.

Andy Palmer


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