Home > Buildings > Dorset: Milton Abbas, Dorchester

Dorset: Milton Abbas, Dorchester

A black-and-brown day, the horizon of spindly trees and washed-out green only visible when the rain is not dropping. A subtle change of tempo as we push into Dorset: a faint feudalism in the air, huge tracts of villages untroubled by ‘A’ roads; empty fields lined with barrows like flying saucers of the blasted heath, low chalk scarps directing winding lanes.

There is a clean violence about Milton Abbas; the story in which an abbey and then its town were swept away in the C18 itself bleached out of the landscape, leaving the great orangey church – a Saxon minster that became an abbey that became a parish churh – effectively a private chapel; the gothicizing country house white and pristine beside it; the great tree-lined bowl in which they sit more suggestive of Cistercian deserts than Benedictine city-making. The town, of course, was moved by the nouveau riche eighteenth-century lord, and rebuilt, architecturally downgrading it to a village, safely out of site in a dry valley to the east. And then there’s the abbey, naveless, but otherwise in unusually good nick. More on the churches blog: joncannonschurches.wordpress.com.

On to Dorchester, which is as it should be for the town of a county like this, without the council offices and prison this would be no more than a market town, stretched along the slow chalk curve of a hill, yet with thrilling continuities of focus, the centres jumping from the extraordinary rewoked Neolithics of Maumbry and Maiden, then to the round barrows, then to Maiden II, then to the Chester and from it on to Casterbridge, still somehow feeling slightly temporary, as if it knows it could so easily be superseded. One parish church left of three: more on the churches blog: joncannonschurches.wordpress.com.

Back along winding black strips of tarmac, stuck between dark hedgerows, crashing through invisible pools of inky water; until it feels like half the curvature of the earth has been traversed.

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Categories: Buildings Tags: , ,
  1. xeth
    March 1, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    The churches link doesn’t seem to get me anywhere… hmmm.

    1) I wish you posted some pictures of these places. But maybe being a writer, that’s the point.

    2) I’m envious. I live in a country where you can drive 1000 miles (as I did last week), go from palm trees to snow and ice in a few days and encounter less visual memory (is that a sensible term?) and less cultural variety than you seem to find a few miles from your home. There is a vast architecture of “C20″ industrial scale construction, the highways themselves, the vast service infrastructure of national-international food, gas and lodging corporations that literally colonize and obliterate the existing environment at every interchange and exit, and between (if at all economically possible.) Lifestyles that were vibrant maybe 50 years ago… the mythical American Main Street, the self-contained manufacturing town, the proud local culture… are no longer relevant. I would say the majority of older small or middle-sized towns from New England to Florida are basically ghost towns, a few lucky to survive by unusually quaint or remote location, gentrification or half-baked self-conscious historical appreciation. Most are forlorn and nearly empty, filled with unwanted storefronts and undesired older houses, scarred with misguided renewal schemes, ill-advised traffic improvements or thoughtless bulldozed boondoggles. Whatever action there is exists on the sprawling strip of road(s) leading to the highway, no matter how many ‘visit historic so and so’ banners flutter on a few retro-style lamp posts. Modern life, economic life here depends on the highways and only a crackpot is going to even notice a ‘chalk hill’ or brood on something that can be so easily ignored or commercialized with a billboard. You got a historic site? Put a fence around it and build a visitor center far bigger than the original attraction with plenty of parking.

    3) As I slept in numerous motels off assorted interchanges (Jamison Inn, Quality Inn, La Quinta Inn…) I thought a bit about your Sleep Project. Each motel (most built or certainly renovated within the last 10 years) is a standardized product. Land was purchased in proximity to the highway exit. Whatever was there before (trees, streams, farms, older buildings) was removed or screened off as an economic inconvenience. Individual access roads and parking lots were built with apparently no regard (perhaps conscious disregard) for any other existing roads, or with any thought of rational future development or expansion. Humans are never expected or permitted to walk here. Standardization of the driver’s experience is the ideal. The individual business is an attraction that is designed to stand alone and take no account of its surroundings. Thus the impressive new ‘colonial’ Jamison Inn is typically plopped at some random angle within theoretical walking distance from the tasteful ‘neo-adobe’ La Quinta Inn. But each totally spacially ignores the other. Multiply by every other type of business. Parking lots may abut, but are not connected. Despite the vague landscaping and snippets of non-functional sidewalk, you cannot walk (Walk?!) to the Cracker Barrel ‘traditional southern cooking and gift shop’ marooned in its own parking lot just beyond the landscaped drainage ditch. Glowing signage on towering metal poles are the new steeples. In a way they are beautiful, these glowing oasis along the highways. Standardized gas stations and convenience stores fill in the gaps wherever possible. It all represents the total abdication and willful avoidance of every principle of sensible ‘urban’ planning or design. This situation is mass produced and duplicated across the entire vast and wealthy country, limited only by apparent economic demand. Ironically, a simple grid (if nothing more creative) arranging all these services more efficiently (from a land-use perspective) would make a fairly convincing ‘town center.’ But perhaps that would smack of Socialism, planning, some second-guessing of corporate instant gratification? Interestingly, these massive, soul-sucking, landscape-marring, quick buck, generic ‘Nowheres’ basically grow up precisely because they are NEAR somewhere. A destination. A beach. An interesting city. A national park. When did America become so stupid?

    What does it mean to sleep in such places? Beamed down to serve travelers as efficiently as possible, trying as hard as possible to exactly replicate themselves and their precisely calculated services whether a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico or in the foothills of Northern Virginia. Any incidental nods to actual location on Planet Earth, to ’sense of place’ are no deeper than the substitution of one mass-produced print a the wall for another. At 4am you hear the hum of traffic. Somebody walks in the hallway or outside the room where the cars are lined up. A car door slams early in the morning. The air smells like chemical cleaners, hopefully like what you can convince yourself is ‘clean-smelling.’ In the morning there is a ‘complimentary breakfast’ available in a common room area as the TV news chatters from a flat screen on the wall, consisting of cold cereal (hopefully individually boxed), watery juice dispenser, bad coffee, some packaged items unworthy of airline food, an the ‘exotic’ do-it-yourself waffle maker. It’s virtually identical in all these chains. When I was a kid most motels would be connected to a real diner, a ‘Howard Johnsons’ type thing… but that is long gone. It’s all part of America’s great rush to the bottom… the inability to fathom the value of providing real service or quality. Everybody in these places works ‘nowhere’ everyday. Everybody who passes through, is passing through a familiar ‘nowhere’ on the way to some other ‘nowhere.’ The notion of making the nowhere you are a ’somewhere’ does not compute. Where’s the profit in that?

    4) Hey, I’m a crackpot.

    • March 22, 2010 at 10:17 pm

      My God, Xeth, what a great comment. Unfortunately as my first and being a bit of a blogrookie I thought I’d published it and only now to my embarrassment find it in a previously unnoticed ‘pending’ place. Even more shamefully I’ve not replied.

      Firstly, I’m sorry about the lack of pics or live links (you can cut and paste the latter into a browser, of course). I find WordPress a little counter-intuitive in these respects; plus there’s always a narrow line between keeping this blogging thinggoing and expanding its ambition — and then *not* keeping it going because in a time-starved/sleep starved world it’s just taking a little too long.

      And yet I’m alwready realizing how one could, and perhaps should, get sucked into doign this so much better than I should.

      Oh flibbygibbet, now I can’t read the resot of your comment – the interesting bit – so this reply will read like I read it third hand or in another language. Firstly, the old UK of GB is not lacking in same same places, identikit edge-of-town places, sheds were people eat/shop/die, endless ribbons of concrete. Our town centres are being eaten up by chains and hollowed out by edge of tow ndevelopments, just like yours. I guess our oldness and crowdedness (and Euro-Commie-Surrender-Monkey strong-arm-of-the-state-ness) does mean our planning laws are tighter, but that’s only a matter of degree. The problem’s still here. One of the reasons I feel so moved to communicate the urgency and particularity and deep history of places that I respond to is partly because I feel very alive to them and partly because this vital quality is increasingly neutred, irrelevant, easy to ignore. But as you know, I also picked up something of this in America. I mean the chaos of the average edge-of-mid-western-town main road, all fast food joints and sudden malls and nests of overhead cabling, has a powerful place-ness of its own; and the thought that these places are identical over a land vaster and more physically varied than anything in my continent has an (awful) power of its own. But then there’s the suspicion – and it is only a suspicion, I need to spend time there to see if it’s not just my over-keen eye – that lurking beneath the tarmac there *is* an America of real places, deep places, with its own story to tell, at once unique and deeply intertwined with those of my own country. This is something I’d give my eye-teeth to explore, and if I return further attempts thereof would be high on my agenda. Certainly my 5-hour wander on the Illinois Michigan border left me hungry for more of this visceral difference, fascinating familiarity…

      That’s all I can say just now. It’s a Big One, worth returning to. Apologies for the silence once again. Bad e-etiquette, made worse for actually knowing you!

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