My bike has largely been unused this winter. In me a minimum of, lockdown impressed a must stroll relatively than cycle, however immediately I took a brief journey by the lanes of north Dorset to the village of Fifehead Magdalen.The early April solar was weak, the timber budding later than I would love, however it was time to be out. That is the Blackmore Vale – hundreds of acres of farmland devoted largely to cattle, bounded by hills on three sides. It’s additionally Thomas Hardy’s Vale of the Little Dairies: Tess of the d’Urbervilles opens within the village of Marnhull (Marlott, he renamed it) and Shaftesbury, perched on a close-by hill, turned Shaston, dwelling to the doomed and obscure Jude.It’s good territory for the unpractised bicycle owner – largely flat, slender lanes winding by a patchwork of small, high-hedged fields, dotted with veteran oaks, survivors of the royal looking forest of Selwood. Brooks and streams empty into the River Stour. The vale has a cussed magnificence, however it’s virtually unknown, a lot much less visited than Dorset’s glamorous Jurassic Coast or the Purbeck Hills to the south.Shillingstone Hill, Melbury Beacon and the iron age hillforts of Hambledon and Hod loomed above me. A decade after transferring right here, I’m nonetheless discovering new roads to discover, and immediately was like that. This was a meander, unrushed. The just lately lower hedgerows have been brightened by splashes of white blackthorn flowers. I felt I used to be reaching again into the previous – one thing about this place encourages wistful pondering, nostalgia’s unusual and unreliable pull. I ended to test my map – I had deliberate to journey or push the bike alongside a part of the Stour Valley Approach, a footpath that runs alongside the banks of the river, however I missed it and as an alternative made the straightforward climb to Fifehead on the slender highway, crossing the Stour the place makes a leisurely diversion south of the village.The village of Marnhull (Marlott in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles). {Photograph}: AlamyFifehead is just a few minutes journey from the A30 however feels distant. It’s historical – William the Conqueror, carving up his new kingdom for household and mates, gave the village to a noble stated to have been his nephew, and his Domesday E book decreed it may assist 5 Hides (a disguise being sufficient land for one household), therefore its identify.I used to be greeted by rooks calling from nests in excessive timber, however in any other case it was as quiet as all the time, a single lane assembly one other on the crest of the hill, miles from a pub or publish workplace. It will be straightforward to name the hamlet “timeless” or “ageless”, however time isn’t standing nonetheless right here, simply because it doesn’t anyplace – just lately I had seen indicators on the noticeboard protesting towards a proposed photo voltaic farm.I’d come to search for what remained of a grand home. It is marked clearly on the 1919 OS map, however it’s lengthy goneI’d come to search for what remained, if something, of a grand home. On the 1919 Ordnance Survey map, Fifehead Home is marked clearly, however it’s lengthy gone. It may be laborious to seek out forgotten locations, however immediately it was merely a query of searching for the appropriate indicators.I left the bike subsequent to some nice, padlocked, wrought iron gates, with stone pillars on both facet, one nonetheless topped with a easy spherical finial. Past was what gave the impression to be a grassed-over driveway, lined with beech timber, a profusion of daffodils and primroses at their ft. Unable to enter, I wandered up the adjoining church path.Saint Mary’s was locked – companies wouldn’t start once more for one more week, however on a earlier go to I had been greatly surprised by its magnificence – a curved ceiling, a shiny, stained-glass window set into the tough stone west wall. I’ve no affiliation to any religion, however English parish church buildings’ stripped-back, undemonstrative faith carry a way of restrained peace, extra the burden of lengthy historical past than of God’s presence. Saint Mary’s has a bit facet chapel close to the altar, dedicated to the household who constructed the mansion that preceded Fifehead Home. Set towards pale-pink partitions, the big and lavish 18th-century memorial commemorated Richard and Frances Newman and their seven youngsters, three of whom died younger.Fifehead Home was demolished within the Nineteen Sixties. {Photograph}: Misplaced Heritage (lostheritage.org.uk)I walked among the many shaded graves outdoors, trying to find a straightforward means into the outdated grounds. On the fringe of the churchyard the land dropped away, retained by a thick wall with a brief drop to the bottom on the opposite facet. I’m normally not averse to a bit, innocent trespass in the reason for discovery, however I didn’t fancy the potent younger nettles beneath, or having to scramble out once more.Why come right here in any respect? Fifehead Home was nothing particular, actually. If I had wished particular, I ought to have been just a few miles additional east, the place the fabulously rich, gifted, eccentric, bisexual and nearly actually unbearable William Beckford constructed Fonthill Abbey. His dwelling was an unlimited gothic folly full with a 90-metre tower, which collapsed shortly after he bought it in 1822. He’d moved to Tub, the place he constructed one other tower which nonetheless glowers over town.The few footage of Fifehead Home present a relatively modest three-storey Georgian constructing, with a smaller wing bolted on. A neatly trimmed garden and flower border encompass a sleek curving drive, presumably working to the now-padlocked gates. Timber brush near the home. It’s summer season within the pictures, the vast and tall sash home windows are open. Regardless of the season, smoke rises from a chimney, possibly for the kitchen. It’s laborious to not think about the crack of croquet balls and an England of stability and peace, however that is illusory.Saint Mary’s church in Fifehead Magdalen. {Photograph}: Jon WoolcottBetween 1900 and the Nineteen Seventies, lots of of grand homes disappeared. An extended and sluggish melancholy had swept the countryside, ruining the agricultural economic system – the poor, already robbed of their entry to frequent land by the Enclosure Acts, fled to a sooty different within the cities. Their lords – the aristocracy and “Squire-archy”, a sensible, unsentimental bunch, largely – ready to do no matter was essential to retain their standing and affect, and started promoting their estates and turning their backs on ancestral properties.Between 1900 and the Nineteen Seventies, lots of of grand English homes disappearedThe wars got here and homes have been requisitioned for hospitals, for troops, for coaching. The nice homes have been typically left irreparably broken. Within the opening chapter of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder returns to a desecrated Brideshead, prompting a deluge of suppressed reminiscences stretching again to his romance with the aristocratic, alcoholic Sebastian Flyte at Oxford within the Nineteen Twenties. After metropolis raids, the Luftwaffe would typically drop unused bombs on land round Fifehead Magdalen, however they did no injury.In London, palaces have been knocked down. Within the countryside, grand homes fell or have been considerably lowered. Down and down they got here, lowered to rubble or left till they turned harmful, which frequently was not lengthy.The padlocked gates to the previous Fifehead Home. {Photograph}: Jon WoolcottA little means down the lane I hopped over a method right into a subject. Sheep and lambs watched me with their typical mixture of impassivity and anxious curiosity. A lost-looking sequoia tree, nearly with out branches however a transparent the rest from an property, stood alone. Timber have been organized in little clumps on the sloping floor, which spoke of design relatively than farming practicalities.The view throughout the vale was spectacular, taking within the close by village of Stour Provost and the wooded bulk of Duncliffe, the place bluebells would quickly emerge. Inventory fencing saved out the sheep, and me, however the excessive, red-brick wall of the outdated kitchen backyard was clearly seen, whereas the stays of the ha-ha nonetheless made a definite mark on the sting of the sector. I discovered a flat part of land – was this the place the home as soon as stood? My guidebooks have been largely silent. The home got here down earlier than the primary version of the Dorset Pevsner. Frederick Treves left it out of Highways and Byways in Dorset. Solely the Nineteen Sixties Shell Information made transient reference to it, saying the home was invisible from the highway; by the point the ebook got here out, the home wasn’t seen from anyplace, having been demolished simply earlier than publication.As I returned to my bike, I discovered a campervan parked in entrance of the iron gates. A person in center years, bald, with thick, rimmed glasses and earrings, poked his head out. He labored the farm right here, was involved {that a} sheep and lamb have been wandering unfastened close by, however was glad to speak. He instructed me a neighborhood hearsay – Fifehead Home was demolished as a result of the proprietor had been a senior determine in MI5, and he most well-liked a extra secluded spot – constructing a brand new dwelling deeper within the timber, and with higher safety.I used to be happy to have discovered the bodily stays of Fifehead Home, and somebody who knew of its previous, however I questioned if the true story had eluded me – was it actually considered one of spooks relatively than decay and decline within the rural economic system? In any case, on this modest Dorset hill there was one thing left behind: the timber, the descendants of earlier rigorously planted daffodils, the slight undulations within the earth, all hinting at a wider historical past. These homes might have vanished, however their ghosts left shadows on the panorama.Jon Woolcott lives in north Dorset and works for Little Toller Books. He’s writing a ebook concerning the southern counties of England. Observe him on Instagram @dorsetjonw