The road to Cerne Abbas wends a path through acres of rolling Dorset countryside dotted with sheep and the occasional grand country pile hidden in among the trees. This chocolate-box village in Hardy’s Wessex lies eight miles from the county town of Dorchester and is probably most famous for its neighbouring landmark, the so-called ‘Rude Man’ or Cerne Giant, etched into the hillside, bashfully facing away from the local populace. Of all Britain’s chalk hill figures, the naked giant is the most amusing, with visitors flocking to the village in all weathers just to see his 180ft tall chalk outline. Also just outside the village is the Wessex Ridgeway Trail, a majestic route that once formed an ancient highway between Devon and Norfolk and now offers excellent terrain for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.
On a midweek morning, a thatcher rustles quietly on a rooftop as a pub prepares to open its doors; the sign above the entrance declares that Cerne was once famous for its beer with several pubs serving a community of 1500 in the 16th century. A host of well-maintained townhouses and cottages with curious names such as Ad Hoc, Billey’s, and Manse border streets named Duck, Long, and Piddle. Each dwelling is one of an assortment of colour, size and age. A leat flows through the main street, its destination the River Cerne and later the Frome in Dorchester. Water has been a key part of Cerne’s survival – the village’s very name is part taken from the river that skirts it, as well as the abbey that the village grew up around from the year 987.
Cerne was selected as an ideal location for an order of Benedictine monks to settle from the 10th century. Local literature states that the village’s religious connections can be traced back to 870 when St Edwold, brother of St Edmund the Martyr and King of East Anglia, refused the crown after Edmund’s death in battle and came to Cerne to live as a hermit. His arrival in Dorset is thought to have inspired the monastic revival under King Edgar until 975.
Long before this, excavations have revealed evidence of Iron Age life, and it is thought that the village was a staging point on roads that crossed the ancient landscape.
For more than 500 years until its dissolution in 1539 Cerne Abbey was the heart of this small community. It was a vast landowner, one of four prosperous county priories, and provided well for the community building the Parish Church of St Mary around 1300AD. On a tablet inside the abbey you can see the list of vicars inducted there from the year 1317.
A good section of the monastery still remains despite King Canute’s efforts to destroy it in 1000AD and Henry VIII’s vanquishing of is protectors. Today, its golden Ham stonework melds beautifully against the sheltered flower-strewn grounds. The abbey’s guesthouse has accommodated notable visitors, including Queen Margaret of Anjou in 1471, King Henry III, and Winston Churchill. Next to it is the South Gate House, built after the dissolution to form the main entrance to the village. This is now a private residence, but visitors are welcome to look around the grounds when open for a small fee.
Perhaps the most interesting building among the ruins is the Abbot’s Porch, a three-storey structure that would have formed the entrance to the Abbot’s Hall. Against the odds, this relic has survived, complete with ornate oriel window. This was where the abbot would have lived, studied and received visitors. It may also have held the prized Book of Cerne – a book of prayers dated between 818 and 830, which is now housed at Cambridge University. In its prime the abbey complex would have formed quite an impressive and self-sufficient estate, with its own onsite mill and ponds.
In the neighbouring parish burial ground headstones sit like unchecked teeth – and among them stands the remains of the village preaching cross, dated to the 15th century, which would once have been used by travelling priests giving Communion to local inhabitants. Its relocation to the graveyard is something of a mystery.
A path through the burial ground leads to the sacred St Augustine’s Well, also known as the Silver Well, and an informative panel lends insight into some of the truths and superstitions surrounding it. According to legend St Augustine of Canterbury, (responsible for bringing Christianity to England), visited the county and offered a group of shepherds the option of water or beer. After sensibly asking for non-alcoholic refreshment, the saint struck the ground with his staff and thereafter pure water sprang from the soil. Enclosed for centuries by the abbey’s long since fallen chapel, the well now makes an ideal rest stop for walkers and until recent years was still used by locals for drinking water. Some believe that its iron-rich qualities have the power to cure infertility.
Cerne’s wealth was largely generated by the quality of the local water used in its brewing of beer, and from the water power harnessed to sustain small local industries such as tanning, weaving and milling. Sheep farming was central to the village prosperity until the 18th century and the wool textile industry flourished as a result, though it suffered in later years when people began to turn to distant cities and towns for employment opportunities.
A half mile walk from Cerne Abbas leads to a viewing point for the giant; alternatively follow a path from the burial ground up to the hillside. The figure’s origins are speculated about – some say he is thousands of years old, others that he is a much younger man. Whatever the truth, parish records make no mention of the site before 1694. Could he have been created to spite Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical rule or is he a depiction of the Roman god Hercules? This question is one of many that springs to mind when faced with the giant for the first time.
Now managed by the National Trust, the site is overseen by head warden Rob Rhodes. “The giant needs an annual cycle of maintenance to keep him visible,” he explains. “We use sheep to nibble the grass short, and we edge the outline as you would a lawn and sweep up any debris twice a year. The bigger task is repairing erosion. Situated on a hillside, his legs tend to get washed out in winter, so every five to seven years we rechalk him with the aid of a team of local volunteers.” It’s an arduous job – even with 100 willing workers, it took nine days to clear 20 tons of old chalk by hand in 2008.
Rob enjoys not knowing its precise origins of the Rude Man as it prolongs the myth and fascination. The giant is an obvious fertility symbol, and people have visited the site for centuries with the hope of increasing their chances of having children. One amusing fact is that the giant’s (not very) private part is growing due to constant erosion and repair. He originally had a navel but that has now disappeared! Just above the giant’s head is a small square Iron Age earthwork called the Trendle, which is thought to have been the site of a temple. Throughout the centuries, the May Day custom was to erect a Maypole there which barren couples would dance around. Although this tradition is no longer practised, the Wessex Morris Men continue to perform their traditional dance on the hillside and also in the village Market Square.
Today Cerne is reliant on passing trade and tourism to keep its shops open. It has not been an easy time in recent months but the village is no stranger to hardship, particularly during the 1539 dissolution when it lost its livelihood, and again in the 19th century when the dawn of the railway led potential trade away from the village, while the decline of farming left vast numbers destitute. The community does pull together in times of need. Its current Mill Project is aiming to resurrect Cerne’s former mill trade to enable production of a range of artisan products including cider, juices and preserves. Thankfully an abundance of natural attractions bring a steady stream of visitors pausing for refreshment or out of curiosity. Those passing through from 19-20 June will not be disappointed on either count: the annual Open Gardens event will welcome the public to delve into some 25 private gardens, with refreshments in the vicarage garden providing a quintessentially English experience.