The tensions behind the ‘pretty’ façade of Dorset’s villages


Yetminster is in the Sunday Times’ Top 50 Villages, but not everyone is happy about newcomers pushing-up house prices, says Paul Birbeck

The Sunday Times recently ranked Yetminster 26th in its list of ‘The UK’s Top 50 villages.
The citation reads ‘This is a village that offers more than olde worlde charm, fresh eggs sold
by the gate and a plum position on the River Wriggle surrounded by the fertile farmland of west Dorset.
It has a well-regarded primary school, a shop, a pub and the delightful Old School Gallery café. There’s even a railway connection on the Bristol to Weymouth line.’

And the adulation for the village is not new. Its ‘unique features’ were concisely described by Frederick Treves in his 1906 Highways and Byways of Dorset, in which he described Yetminster as ‘…a picturesque townlet, full of quaint old houses and venerable thatched cottages. The dates on the buildings belong mostly to early part of seventeenth century. In the main street is an old thatched inn, as well as many houses in ancient stone with stone mullioned windows and fine gables. Many of the houses are covered by creepers, and none seems to lack a garden or orchard. Yetminster is probably the most consistent old-world village or townlet in the county, for modern buildings it has few examples.’

Sounds idyllic? Not everyone thinks so. As with any community, evolution benefits some but not everyone.
The 20th century saw the village undergo significant social and economic transformation. The traditional self-sufficient agricultural community that remained largely unchanged for centuries was to be transformed by modernity. Between the 1870s and early 1900s the combination of cheap, imported food products, poor harvests and cattle disease in the vital dairy herds caused 20% of Dorset farmers to give up their farms. The traditional activities of cider making, leather production and the making of Dorset cheeses like Blue Vinney, were abandoned as farmers concentrated on sending milk to large urban markets.

Only the wealthy benefited

The introduction of piped water and electricity supply meant the old wells and water mills were abandoned and the introduction of new farm machinery encouraged large-scale farming, benefitting only the wealthy landowners. By the 1960s changes in farming practice and government subsidies meant that chalk areas became productive for arable farming and intensive sheep production. The historical advantage of clay vales across the Blackmore Vale was reversed. Today, farming in the village of Yetminster is by just three or four farmers.

The pattern of village life has changed. Fine old farm houses remain, but not as working farms. However, not everything

was lost. The village hall acts as the hub for a lot of clubs and activity, and the Community Sports Club hosts football, tennis, croquet and informal recreation. Booming property prices have benefitted many in the village – but not everyone.

The local White Hart pub has been a victim of the pandemic as the leaseholders moved out when trade declined. In the 1990s ex-landlady Carol Bayfield remembers, ‘We used to open the doors and everyone would pile in, there were a lot of thirsty farmers in those days.’ As for today, she adds, ‘there is a real community feel but there have been changes.’

Second home tension

A number of new housing developments have been added around the village. Second home ownership has increased and the recent influx of people from beyond the area can create a feeling of ‘us and them’ between locals and newcomers. Carol continued ‘There’s a large population of older people in bungalows in the side streets. There’s also a new estate by the school, which not everyone is happy about, but it’s brought in a lot of new life. It’s been a really positive move for the village.’

Like all Dorset villages, without new residents – communities can struggle. The most hotly-debated political issues today include the lack of a bus service which makes it difficult for some residents to get into towns. And there
is the inevitable problem for young, first time house hunters and lower income families who struggle to find appropriate affordable accommodation.

by Paul Birbeck


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