A Shaftesbury farmer who is selling a much-loved area of fields and woodland says that he’ll make sure that the land isn’t built on.
‘The Wilderness’ slopes down towards French Mill Lane from the side of Hawkesdene Lane, near to the medical centre’s rear entrance. The land has been in the ownership of Jim Clarke’s family since the 1940s. It will be put up for auction in December. “The land being sold will be about 26 or 27 acres,” Jim confirmed.
The Shaftesbury Tree Group heard about the sale. Rose Ouston says that their members have been concerned. “It’s important in all sorts of ways because it is absolutely beautiful to look at and to walk through. You can stop and look right across the valley, which is beautiful. The trees are lovely, the bushes are lovely and it’s particularly good for butterflies. One of the best places in Shaftesbury.”
Bernard Ede said that the group voted unanimously to request that the woodland, fields and the adjacent public right of way are protected ‘in perpetuity’ through the Neighbourhood Plan, the blueprint for Shaftesbury’s future development currently being drafted. “It’s an element which we would like to see contained within the body of Neighbourhood Plan, albeit that it is evolving and will take several months, if not a year, to get through the official channels,” Bernard said.
The Tree Group believes The Wilderness has unique qualities because of its situation at the top of the green slopes, overlooking the valley and St James. This part of the landscape hosts rich biodiversity. “I’ve seen peregrine falcons whizzing across there,” said Rose. “I have seen kites hovering above. I’ve looked across the vale at all sorts of times of day. I’ve been out there in the evening and looked at the stars, which are particularly good. There’s a man who has peacocks. He lets them out at night and they roost in the trees. It’s an extraordinary place. It’s quite magical.”
The ancient quarries gouged into the steep, green, woodland-covered slope played an important role in the formation of the town, too. Angela King told Wednesday’s meeting that ‘Shaftesbury came from there’ and Bernard says The Wilderness is part of our history. “It’s a valuable geological feature. I guess that the green sandstone quarry would have been the origin of the stone for the Abbey,” said Bernard.
Mr Ede says there are fine specimens of trees growing around The Wilderness, too. “There are large oak, beech, ash, sycamore and lime trees. It is a very significant ecological habitat zone. It’s a shelter belt and a visual, wooded ridge, which is part and parcel of what Shaftesbury is all about.”
Rose Ouston agreed. “As a member of the Tree Group I appreciate fully the trees, but The Wilderness is exceptional. It’s really important and it mustn’t be lost.” The group will request that the footpath running adjacent to the woods, along the plateau, must be documented as an important local asset in the Neighbourhood Plan.
Bernard feels strongly that people should continue to have access to this special area. “It is very valuable in terms of linking from the town out into the countryside and vice versa. It’s a corridor.”
The Tree Group stress that they are not opposed to the sale of the land, as long as it is looked after. “It’s private land anyway. If it’s sold, it will be private land. It’s just that I think there should be a policy that it should be conserved in perpetuity – that it shouldn’t be built on.”
Bernard accepts that the site would be quite difficult to develop, but he says that he doesn’t want to take any chances. “It hasn’t got depth. It’s long and narrow but, having said that, there is always somebody who can squeeze houses in somewhere. Bungalows, in particular, seem to be in short supply. We would be fearful that there would be a string of bungalows on there. This is really a watching brief. We need to keep our eyes on it. We need to be cognisant of what could happen and how its character could be changed forever.”
I met landowner Jim Clarke outside his bungalow, next to The Wilderness, which offers views down the slope, across the vale up toward the Trinity Church tower and town. Jim described the woods as ‘wonderful’ when we chatted. He said that he will ask his solicitors to ensure no house building can take place on the land when they draft the contract of sale. “It won’t be built on. There will be a clause,” he said, adding, “I should be a fool with the view that I have, if I had a bungalow in front of that. You needn’t worry about that. There won’t be any building on that.”
Tree Group members approached Dorset Wildlife Trust to see whether they could help, but the Trust was unable to buy the land. Jim is hoping that a farmer will want to bid for it. He says he’s had plenty of interest from people who want to rent his acreage, so he reckons that the purchaser will soon find tenants if they don’t wish to farm themselves.
“It’s wonderful sheep grazing land. I had contact the other day from a man who told me that he knew somebody in The Donheads who wanted to rent it. Then, the other day, I had the phone go and somebody from out at Twyford asked if they could rent the land. Whoever buys it, they can keep animals themselves or they would have no trouble letting it.”
As we walked across his field, Jim explained that he is Shaftesbury born and bred. His father bought Brinscombe Farm in 1942 and the family bought Hawkesdene Farm two years later. The farmland all joined up then but the site became difficult to farm when the Shaftesbury School playing fields were cut through the land.
Jim pointed out the row of greensand cottages lining one side of Hawkesdene Lane. One used to be a slaughterhouse, one a barn. He has converted and sold the former agricultural buildings over the years. Jim lived in the farmhouse in Cann until his parents died. Then he moved to his current bungalow home. He’s sold off parcels of land over the decades. “Years ago, I had 170 acres but I’ve gradually gone down bit-by-bit. Not having a family does make a difference,” he said.
Jim says he’s selling now because he wants to reduce his workload at his time in life. “I’ve got no children. I’ve got two nephews and a niece in London, Bristol and St Albans. They’re not here and Judith, my partner, is not from farming stock. I’m in my eighties and I just don’t want it any more. I’ve loved it. I’ve enjoyed it but that’s my position.”
Jim says he doesn’t know the reserve price for the land at the moment. “I haven’t a clue,” he replied. The auction sale is being handled by Sherborne-based Symonds and Sampson.
The Shaftesbury Tree Group will be waiting to see who is the successful bidder. They’re hoping it will be someone who is sympathetic to their cause. “Everybody you meet walking along the path has a story about it. My children used to play here. They always ran up and down. When it froze, we sledged down there. It has got those sorts of memories for everybody in Shaftesbury and that’s important,” said Rose.
The Wilderness clearly has a special place in the hearts of many Shaftesbury residents. The Tree Group wants to make sure that this unique place remains unspoiled for future generations.