We are lucky that the weather in West Dorset is generally very mild and our particular area has what is almost its own micro-climate. As a result we have very few frosts and very rarely get more than a smattering of snow. This perhaps explains why Abbotsbury Sub-tropical Garden just a few miles away is so successful for growing plants which would not normally survive here.
However, I have lived in the village long enough to remember two occasions when the snow was so heavy that many people were blocked into their houses and vehicles could not get out of the village at all. Many people say that the UK is not organised to deal with bad weather but in this part of West Dorset we rarely even think about it, let alone have any organisation or contingency plans to deal with it when it comes.
In the winter of 1962/3 I was at boarding school and came home for the Christmas holidays as usual, but then it snowed so heavily that the village was cut off for some days. There are a few things I can remember about that Christmas holiday in the snow my clearest memory is of walking up Bonscombe Lane on top of the hedges, or rather where we thought the hedges were, because the snow had completely obliterated the lane and the snow level was the same in the fields on both sides as if the lane didn t exist at all. I was with Jim Chaplin and his youngest daughter Hazel. Jim and Irene Chaplin lived at that time lived in a bungalow in Gullivers Orchard. Jim kept pigs in his field at the end of Bonscombe Lane and was naturally worried about them in the snow. We eventually managed to get to the field but there were no pigs to be seen just about four feet of snow covering the whole field. We dug about with our hands and managed to locate the pigs under the snow and dragged them out and resuscitated them one by one. As far as I can remember they all survived. The bungalow that now stands on this field, The Croft, was built by Jim and Irene Chaplin some years later and they lived there for many years until after Jim s death, Irene moved to Cumbria to be with her children until her death during the 1990 s.
My other memory of that day in 1963 was of Hazel and me then making our way through the snow up to Bonscombe Farm, which was then owned by Mr and Mrs Hill who lived there with their son Michael. The snow had drifted right along the front of the farmhouse, covering the ground floor doors and windows. We helped the family to get out of the house by climbing down from the first floor on ladders, with us holding on to them in the freezing cold so that they wouldn t slip in the snowy ground. No vehicles were able to get out of the village for days and the first one that did was an old Jewett s Javelin owned by Bob Chaplin, Hazel s older brother, and I remember us all climbing into it and sliding and skidding down the road to Burton Bradstock it was a great adventure for a 16 year old!
1978/9 was the winter of the great West Country freeze. It was the only other year that I can remember the village being virtually cut off from the outside world. The blizzard came during the night and in the morning a group of people were gathered in the road outside the Mounting Block looking in wonderment at a wall of snow about six feet high that stretched across the road where it had been blown by the wind. The snow was relatively light, only a foot or so in depth, up to this point and then just this enormous wall of hard packed snow. We didn t know at that time that this continued right down Shipton Road to Innsacre. Later a snow plough tried to make its way through from Bridport but even it became stuck in the drift half way up the hill past Innsacre.
The farmers in the village had been issued with snow ploughs to fit on their tractors in the event of snow, but these were useless when they too were snowed in! Very quickly a group of villagers formed an ad-hoc emergency committee and went around all the houses where they knew there were people living alone, to make sure that they were alright and to see if they needed any supplies. Of course, in most cases it was necessary to clear the snow to their houses to get to them. Then small groups set off to walk over the snow drifts into Bridport to get the emergency supplies that were needed I recall coming back with a lot of bread milk and many bottles of whisky!
At that time there was still a village shop and post office, in the centre of the village, run by David and Dorothy Dewar. This quickly became busy with people buying what they could in preparation for a siege, as indeed it turned out to be. I cannot remember how many days it was before vehicles were able to get down the road to Bridport but it was certainly quite a few days, and seemed much longer.
The New Inn became the most popular focal point in the village and probably had one of its busiest weeks ever! As nobody could go anywhere the pub was the obvious place to pick up news about what was going on, to meet other people, arrange work parties, have a drink and pass the time.
The farmers in the village became more and more concerned about how they could dispose of their milk as each day passed. The milk tankers couldn t get into the village to collect it and they couldn t get out of the village to the temporary collection point that had been set up in the coach park in Bridport. They were storing their milk anywhere and everywhere they could and so were grateful that some, albeit a miniscule amount of their total, was being collected from the farm by people in the village who were of course very grateful for it. Eventually one of the Symes family managed to get his tractor down to the main road by by-passing the snow drift altogether, going into the field next to the Mounting Block and carrying on through the other fields until he re-joined the road below Innsacre. Once this lifeline had been established the milk could be taken into Bridport and supplies collected before the journey back.
It may sound as if Shipton Road was the only road that was impassable out of the village but all the lanes were blocked. The efforts to clear a way into Bridport naturally focussed on this road, it being the most direct and shortest way to the main road. The A35 at Askers is always one of the first roads in the south of England to become blocked with drifts when there are blizzards and the snow ploughs were out in force to try and clear this as quickly as possible but it took some days. One of our local residents, Grayham Rosamond, was at the time of the blizzard tending his horses that were kept at the Travellers Rest Pub, became trapped there and spent, what I understand was a very jolly few days waiting for the snow ploughs to clear the road. In fact Grayham recalls that it was four days and three nights in total, at the end of which the pub had run out of whisky but they were not too despondent as they hadn t yet started on the brandy when rescue arrived! When a path was finally cut in the snow to allow traffic to again travel between Bridport and Dorchester it was a great relief but rather strange driving along a narrow strip with six foot high walls of snow on both sides.
This was before the days of 4 wheel drive cars being available but Landrovers and some tractors did had have this facility. Roy Symes and his wife, Lynne, lived at Bennetts Hill Farm and just before the blizzard Roy had taken delivery of a brand new 4 wheel drive tractor. It is an indication of the severity of the snow that he couldn t get down Bennetts Hill lane, even in his brand new tractor!
I also remember at that time that Tony and I had a desperate phone call for help from Mrs Childs in Virginia House. She was an old lady living alone and we were very used to calls from her when she needed groceries bought or odd jobs done. However, this time she was only worried about her chickens. They were shut in the barn and she was concerned that they wouldn t have any water or food. Could we go and see if we could get to them and see they were alright? Of course we could! Tony spent hours digging away the snow to make a path to the barn, he finally opened the door, only to find that there were just two chickens happily clucking away and making the most of a 25kg bag of chicken corn that was beside them! Still we were all snowed in and there was nothing else to do and it was very good exercise!
The community spirit that suddenly appears when the village is isolated is quite amazing, although at that time everyone in the village knew everyone else so it was relatively easy to know who might need help, whereas now with more new people coming to live in the village and with no village shop as a meeting place, things have changed in this respect.
It is impossible to imagine now how nice it was to be able to go about the village, albeit walking very carefully, and know that there were no cars coming down the lanes. It gave one an inkling of how it would have been centuries ago. Walking across the fields was fascinating too, as it always is when there has been a fall of snow, as you can see the tracks of all the animals that have been out and about very clearly. It was eerily quiet, very beautiful and a very, very pleasant time to be in Shipton Gorge, despite the weather.