Two Days in Splendid Sherborne: Day One, Castleton

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Two Days in Splendid Sherborne: Day One, Castleton

One day is not enough to absorb the history, culture and beauty of the fascinating town of Sherborne in Dorset. Where else can you wander through the gardens of the castle that Sir Walter Raleigh built followed by lunch in a former workhouse?

In 1840 the proposal that the railway should come to Sherborne in “Dorset”:“ caused a division amongst its inhabitants. When it finally arrived in 1860 it resulted in a natural geographical partition of the town into two areas – the old parish of” Castleton”: on one side and the centre of Sherborne on the other – each one has a fascinating history and a wealth of beautiful, historical architecture. The River Yeo flows through the old district of Castleton and it was the seat of a scandal in 1859. The water from this river was deemed unfit for human consumption and the cause of a disproportionate number of deaths in the town. I found out more about this at the Sherborne Steam & Waterwheel Centre in Sherborne, Dorset.
River Yeo in Sherborne, Dorset
The River Yeo in Sherborne, Dorset

Sherborne Steam & Waterwheel Centre in Sherborne, Dorset

The Victorians were the first to regulate the quality of public drinking water. The Public Health Actof 1848 ordered every borough with an annual death rate of 21 or more per thousand of the population to set up a supply of fresh, clean water. At the time Sherborne had a death rate around 22/23 but this rose to 62. This was thanks to the dirty water of the River Yeo due to a leak from the town sewer and the discharge of effluent from local slaughterhouses. Clean water was brought to Sherborne in 1869 by an ingenious method using a waterwheel that pumped water from three different sources – two new boreholes and an underground feed from Sherborne Lake. Each feed was at a different height so a source of water would always be available to turn the waterwheel. One of these feeds had once filled the mill pond at Castleton Mill that had been demolished to make way for the railway. Lift pumps pumped the water to a reservoir at the top of the town. The wheel was taken out of service in 1959 by which time its pumps were beyond economic repair. Within seven years the water wheel could no longer cope with the increased demand of the town and a steam powered pumping station was built on the same site. But it was very expensive to run. In 1969 most of the machinery on the site was dismantled and removed for scrap but the waterwheel remained in place.
Waterwheel and Wheelhouse in Sherborne, Dorset  6240059
Waterwheel at the Sherborne Steam & Waterwheel Centre in Sherborne, Dorset

In 1975, a group of volunteers obtained listed building status for the old pump house on Oborne Road. This saved it from demolition. Since then the pump house building has been restored and the waterwheel has been rebuilt. A visitor centre has also been established which includes a small museum. The Sherborne Steam and waterwheel centre designated open days during the summer when the wheel can be seen working. A steam engine, similar to the one that was used in conjunction with the waterwheel, was donated to the centre. This is now in working order and occupies a period engine house specifically built for the purpose. This engine runs under its own steam when the centre is open. The centre is well worth a visit and will accommodate groups by appointment. I was lucky that Geoffrey Ward, an enthusiastic volunteer, opened up the centre to give me a personal guided tour which was fascinating. But I have yet to see the wheel and steam engine in operation – a good reason to go back one day. I walked back towards the town through the old borough of Castleton now an integral part of Sherborne.
Waterwheel and Wheelhouse in Sherborne, Dorset  6240101
Steam & Waterwheel Centre in Sherborne, Dorset

Castleton in Sherborne, Dorset

Some of the old buildings that once formed the heart of Castleton can still be seen on the Castleton Road that leads to the Castleton Church. Raleigh Lodge, Middle House and Lattice House, all Grade II listed buildings, form an attractive terrace of houses all built in 1625. No doubt when Roger de Caen, Bishop of Salisbury and Chancellor of England built a church close to his castle during the twelfth century it was his intention that it should be the centre of a growing community.
Raleigh Lodge and Middlt House in Sherborne in Dorset 6260554
Raleigh Lodge and Middlt House in Sherborne in Dorset

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene is the third church to be built on this site. All three were built when Castleton was a Borough with its own court and peculiar rights and liberties. This Borough was founded during the Norman period and for several centuries was considered part of the old castle. The original Norman church on this site was built when the old castle was built and it was still there, nearly four hundred years later, when Sir Walter Raleigh acquired ownership of the old castle. However, Sir Walter decided to build a new church and got permission to demolish the old church and build a new one on the site of the present church. This second church, consecrated in 1601, only lasted for one hundred years. It is possible it was badly damaged during two sieges of the old castle in the Civil War. The present church, a grade II listed building, was built by the fifth Lord Digby, the current owner of Sherborne Castle that was built in the grounds of the Old Castle. He paid part of the cost the rest being raised by subscription. It is worth a visit. Although it was planned as a ‘preaching’ church (pulpit and pews) it was still built in the traditional Gothic style of the period. It is probably one of the last of its kind.
The Church of St Mary Magdallene Castleton in Sherborne, Dorset  6240104
The Church of St Mary Magdallene Castleton in Sherborne, Dorset

The Old Castle in Sherborne, Dorset

At the end of Castleton Street is the entrance to the Old Castle, well, the ruins of the Old Castle now in the care of English Heritage and, in particular, Lee. The site, on a gentle hill above Sherborne, is just a lovely place just to sit and enjoy the panorama of trees and fields below. After wandering around the ruins admiring what is left of the walls, the gatehouse and the unusual sloping outer fortifications that is just what I did. Lee joined me and outlined the history of the castle. It was built as a fortified palace during the twelfth century by Roger de Caen, Bishop of Salisbury and Chancellor of England to administer the western part of his large diocese. It came as no surprise to learn that Sir Walter Raleigh fell in love with this, the original castle in Sherborne, now known as the Old Castle as he journeyed between his family home in Devon and his duties as a courtier in London. He coveted this castle (by then the property of the Crown) and as a favourite of Queen Elizabeth was able to persuade her that it should be his. He acquired the castle in 1592. After failing to modernise it he abandoned it and converted the ruins of a Tudor hunting lodge in the Deer Park into an Elizabethan mansion. When Raleigh and his family took up residence there they called it Fortune’s Fold.
Sir Walter Raleigh's Elizabethan Mansion now Sherborne Castle in Sherborne, Dorset 6260604
Sir Walter Raleigh’s Elizabethan Mansion now Sherborne Castle in Sherborne, Dorset

Following the succession of” King James 1 to the English throne Raleigh fell out of favour. He was eventually charged with treason and executed in 1618. King James seized the old castle and all its estates and gave it to his friend Robert Carr. When Carr died in 1645 it was given to Sir John Digby. His descendants still own it today. During the English Civil War, the castle was seized by General Thomas Fairfax in 1645 and subsequently demolished. When the old castle was destroyed Raleigh’s house took the name Sherborne Castle. In 1950 the ruins of the old castle were placed under the guardianship of the Ministry of Works and in 2013 came under the protection of English Heritage. Visitors to the Old Castle in the summer should look out for the pretty pink flowers planted all over the estate by the wife of Sir Walter Raleigh and known as Lady Bess’s Pinks.
The Old Castle in Sherborne in Dorset 6260552
The Ruins of the Old Castle in Sherborne in Dorset

Sherborne Castle in Sherborne, Dorset

Although the old and new castles of Sherborne are neighbours they operate as separate attractions. I had to return to the main road and walk along it to the entrance of Sherborne Castle, the new castle. Since Sir John Digby inherited Sherborne Castle later generations have modernised and extended the building. During the eighteenth century Georgian sash windows, panelled doors and white marble fireplaces were added and the house was filled with elegant furniture. An extension was also added to the west side of the house providing more bedrooms, improved staff accommodation and kitchens. In 1789 George Wingfield inherited the castle from his bachelor uncle, the last Earl Digby. He was the first Wingfield Digby owner taking the name and arms of Digby by royal licence. As well as being a private residence the castle has been used as a Red Cross VAD hospital for wounded soldiers and a base as Commando Headquarters for the D-Day landings. Since 1969 the doors of Sherborne Castle have been open to the general public and visitors can enjoy twenty beautifully furnished rooms and the lovely views of the old castle across the sweeping lawns of the gardens created by Capability Brown.
View from Sherborne Castle to the Old Castle in Sherborne, Dorset 6250432
View from Sherborne Castle to the Old Castle in Sherborne, Dorset

Sherborne Castle Gardens in Sherborne, Dorset

Sherborne Castle is surrounded by extensive parkland that includes some beautiful gardens and Sherborne Lake Sherborne Castle Gardens. Although Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with having re-directed the River Yeo through the grounds of Sherborne Castle it was Capability Brown who was commissioned to create a lake in 1753 by damming the river. He was to return to landscape the gardens. It was one of his first commissions and his well-preserved English Landscape Garden is protected as a Grade 1 listed garden. The story of his work here is told in the Cellar Museum in the castle.
The Gardens at Sherborne Castle in Sherborne, Dorset 6250410
The Gardens at Sherborne Castle

I really enjoyed my walk around the lake and appreciated the labelling of the trees which allowed me to identify the species including cedars of Lebanon and a Gingko tree. At the far end of the lake is a very pretty Fossil House built in 1969 to celebrate four-hundred years’ ownership of the castle by the Digby family. Inside the Fossil house is a picture of the family emblem – Digbert the Ostrich holding an upside down horseshoe. The ostrich is a symbol of power and the horseshoe is upside down draining out the luck because they don’t need it. This symbol can be seen on properties around the town that are/were owned by the Digby family.
The Fossil House in the Grounds of Sherborne Castle in Sherborne, Dorset 6260581
The Fossil House in the Grounds of Sherborne Castle in Sherborne, Dorset

Purlieu Meadow in Sherborne, Dorset

Rather than walk back along the main road into the centre of Sherborne and my hotel I took a path across Purlieu Meadow. On the bank of the River Yeo this lovely meadow is owned and maintained by Sherborne Castle Estate. The public have been granted the right to walk in it and it is a great favourite with the locals. It is also used as a venue for festivals and other public events
Purlieu Meadow in Sherborne, Dorset  6240038
Purlieu Meadow in Sherborne, Dorset

My walk took me through the Pageant Gardens which commemorate a pageant, known as the Mother of All Pageants that was held in the ruins of the Old Castle of Sherborne in 1904. This pageant was organised to celebrate 1200 years since the founding of Sherborne Abbey. It involved a cast of nine hundred and attracted visitors from all over the world. These public gardens, opened in 1906, were created on land donated by the Digby family (owners of Sherborne Castle) and paid for from the proceeds of the pageant. A lovely way to link the town and its castles. More about the town and Sherborne Abbey in my next article.
Pageant Gardens in Sherborne, Dorset 6240194
Pageant Gardens in Sherborne, Dorset

Where to Stay

Ideally situated close to the centre of Sherborne the Eastbury Hotel offers a relaxing retreat from the busy lives we lead. After exploring the local attractions guests can relax in the tranquil walled garden at the back of the hotel. Two cosy lounges are available should the weather be unfavourable.
Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne, Dorset  6240002
Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne, Dorset

The hotel offers a variety of rooms including bedrooms in the main building and suites outside in the garden. A new addition, in the summer of 2019, will be five Victorian Potting Shed suites in a quiet area of the garden. All the rooms and suites are elegantly furnished and well-equipped. Reception rooms include two small cosy lounges.
Lounge in the Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne, Dorset 6240020
Lounge in the Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne, Dorset

Facilities include a lovely walled garden where guests can simply sit back and relax or enjoy a variety of games. The terrace outside the Seasons restaurant is the perfect place for a pre-dinner cocktail before enjoying a delicious meal prepared by chef Matt Street.
Seasons Restaurant at the Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne in Dorset 0870
Stunning Cheese Brûlée Starter in the Seasons Restaurant at the Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne, Dorset

I felt very welcome here and enjoyed my stay. I wished I could have spent more time enjoying the lovely garden but there is just so much to see in Sherborne …

Getting There

There is a direct, regular train service operated by South Western Railway from London Waterloo to Sherborne which takes 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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This article was based on the personal experience of Valery, an ExperiencedTraveller.