The river that’s been in my bones since before ever I was born

River Wey at Upwey

“For a lot of us in the UK, chalk streams are our water-wells. But they’re much more than that too. They’re part of our landscape and our natural environment – our history, culture, geography and economy as well as our ecology.” WWF-UK The State of England’s Chalk Streams 2015

I have always loved chalk streams; perhaps explained by the fact that they have quite literally been in my bones since before I was born.

Before going any further,  you may wish to know that if you click on them, most of the pictures in this blog have a link to further information.

Twenty years ago, I had a PET Scan on my head. The radioactive solution was fed into a vein in my arm, and my head was slid into the business end of the scanner. After about 20 minutes it was clear that something wasn’t going right and I was removed from the machine where the consultant was waiting to speak to me. It turns out that despite using the maximum strength of radioactivity that they were licenced to use; the scanner was not able to pick up and map any emissions from within my brain.

PET Scan of a Normal Brain

 By now it was 4.30 on Friday afternoon, but the consultant insisted that I spend two hours undergoing a series of tests. These were to determine whether there was something wrong with me; for example, having no brain or no blood supply to my head; or whether it was just that I had particularly dense bone in my skull.

Fortunately, they concluded that the latter was the case. I put this down to having grown up close to the South Dorsetshire Ridgeway, and drinking water extracted from the local chalk aquifer at the Friar Waddon and Sutton Poyntz pumping stations.  Even by hard water standards, this was hard water – furred up kettles were just a fact of life. It appears that all the calcium going into me, resulted in an abnormally dense skull.

Bincombe Bumps South Dorset Ridgeway
Growing up I had taken the beautiful crisp water that could be scooped from local springs, or that came out of the tap, for granted. Likewise, the clarity of the local chalk stream; the Dorsetshire River Wey.

The River Wey from Watery Lane Broadwey

One of my earliest memories is of rolling down the slopes of the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ field at Radipole.  This was a sloping field with numerous undulations in it. In my memory, it seems that it was always covered in buttercups. It was also incredibly noisy – full of grasshoppers and crickets, whilst the level of birdsong was something I have not heard now for several decades.

Once I had tired of throwing myself down the slopes, we would cross the lane to the bank of the River Wey. No more than 5 miles long, this was a minor chalk stream, but no less thrilling as it meandered under mature willow trees. When the water flow slowed in summer, stones would appear above the surface and could be used to cross to the other side. This toddler discovered that they were too far apart for him to use! 

Buttercup Field

The ‘Humpty Dumpty’ field is on the left in the picture above, whilst the river is just beyond the bushes in the foreground. Also, in the picture is the Norman, St Anne’s Church, built in the 12th century. Behind the church is the roofline of the 16th Century manor house. A few years later I attended a newly built junior school  just above the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ field. 

Cows by the River Wey

The view above is just a few yards further along the river before it splurges out into an area of wetland which is now the RSPB Radipole Lake Nature Reserve.

Radipole Lake Wetland Reserve

As a young child, one thing I always wanted to do was to have a ride on the miniature railway. It ran alongside the western edge of the lake. Living locally, this could happen at times when there were no queues and, sometimes, no other passengers.

Miniature Railway Radipole Lake

A few years later I was working in the hamlet of Holwell which appears in the Domesday Book (1086) as the Manor of Halegewelle or Holy Well. The autumn chores included ensuring that some of the streams that fed into the Wey were clear and running freely. The reason was not environmental, but to ensure that field drains were clear. I never did find that holy well.

The River Wey at UpweyTitbit on road toupwey

The Wey rises in the ancient hamlet, recorded in 1212 as Helewill, of Elwell.  Modern Upwey has totally subsumed it – the last reminder found in the name of Elwell Street.  Helewill is thought to have derived from haele, or healthy (safe), well. Haele has a northern European origin which is not surprising as the area was settled by Saxons in the 7th Century. The local Anglo Saxons must have been a hale and hearty bunch as archaeologists have found a burial pit nearby, containing the remains of dozens of Vikings which they had executed.

As you might expect of an area with rich lands, mild climate and plentiful supply of clean fresh water, the history of the area goes back much further in time. Archaeological records show that the earliest settlement of the area was by Mesolithic hunters in about 8000 BC. A nearby Neolithic Causeway Enclosure has also been discovered along with evidence of it having come to a sudden and violent end around 3400 BC. It is thought that it was in the Neolithic period that areas of the Ridgeway were first cleared for cultivation.

Artefacts recovered from Radipole lake show that it was used for fishing by these early inhabitants.

Bronze age round barrows on Bronkham Hill Dorset

There was plenty of activity all along the South Dorsetshire Ridgeway throughout the Bronze Age. More than 400 barrows, or burial mounds, are still clearly visible today.

Around 600 BC, one the greatest and most complex Iron Age hill forts to be found anywhere in Europe was created. Maiden Castle is thee or four miles from Upwey and to the north of the Ridgeway.

Aerial photograph of Maiden Castle 1935

It covers an area equivalent to about 50 football pitches and was thought to be the main base of a Celtic people called the Durotriges, or water-dwellers.  Time Team investigated an Iron age settlement at nearby Waddon.  

Time Team Video link

The Durotriges appear to have been more of a federation of local population groups rather than one distinct tribe. Whatever form their alliance took, they were organised enough to have a good old dust up with Vespasian and his legion when the Romans invaded Britain in AD43.

Old Roman Road on Dorsetshire Ridgeway

The Romans used the inlet where the Wey drains into the sea, and which now forms Weymouth harbour, to access Radipole lake which they used as port. Being Romans, one of the first things they did was to build a long straight road to connect it to Durnovaria; modern day Dorchester.

The road went over the Ridgeway just to the east of Upwey, connecting to it by what is now Elwell Street.

Old Roman Road and Ship Inn Upwey
Local folklore has it that in times of national crisis Vespasian, and his legendary ‘Legio secunda Augusta’ of Roman soldiers appear and march along this stretch of track at Ridgeway Hill, between Dorchester and Weymouth.  This story and the road were known to Thomas Hardy, who told it in verse form in his poem, “The Roman Road”.

Hardy The Roman Road

No one knows when the springs at Upwey became known as the ‘Wishing Well’ although the springs in the area may have been used for votive offerings as far back as the Neolithic era. The author, Hawley Smart refers to “Upwey Wishing Well” in his 1874 novel ‘Broken Bonds’. If you click on the picture below you can download a copy, or read it on line.

Broken Bonds

StatueKing George III Weymouth

Prior to that King George III visited Upwey well several times around 1770, whilst at the seaside at Weymouth.  A seat adjacent to the Wishing Well was constructed for his comfort and, it is said that, the original Ascot Gold Cup was made for him to drink the water from the well.

Wishing Well at Upwey

On the third visit he had his feet washed at the foot of the steps. Perhaps his ‘madness’ and delusional behaviour was already developing, and he got the bit about Christ washing his disciples’ feet the wrong way around.

Upwey Station post war

The fortunes of the wishing well were boosted again by the coming of the railways and the desire of better off Victorians to broaden their horizon. Broadwey station (later renamed Upwey), on Great Western Railway Abbotsbury branch line opened in 1885 and was ¾ of a mile away from the village. As it could also be used to visit a swannery at the end of the line, it became a popular with tourists. It eventually closed in 1952. Twenty years later I used to visit the station building as it then housed the trade desk and offices for a farm machinery supplier based in an attached new industrial unit.

Upwey Wishing Well halt

Upwey Wishing Well Halte opened on the Weymouth to Dorchester main line in June 1905, close to the tunnel through the Ridgeway. It was closed in 1957.  Due to the distance to the village at various times both the above had a connecting charabanc service to the wishing well.  Today the ‘Upwey Wishingwell Tearooms and Water Gardens’ remain both a popular attraction and wedding venue.

Upwey Wishing Well and Water Gardens

In the early 1970s I would, from time to time, load a tractor and trailer with hessian sacks of grain and trundle around to the watermill at Upwey.  This was grain that had been riddled out as too small to be sold. At the mill it would be put through the stones and ‘rolled’ so that it could be used as animal feed.

Upwey Mill

Although this mill was built in 1802, records show that there was an earlier one on the site. This most likely was a fulling mill, as it was operated in the late 16th Century by Edward Sprague who was a fuller by trade. In 1628, three of Edward’s sons; Ralph, Richard and William, set sail for New England aboard the “Lions Whelp” They were founding members of Charlestown in Massachusetts.


In 1896 Upwey Mill was the scene of tragedy. George Scutt, the 13 year old son of one of the mill workers, and a friend decided to explore the mill. This despite having been chased out of the mill a few days earlier, by the owner, and warned that it wasn’t a safe place for children. George and his friend climbed to the top floor, where George clambered on a barrier to peer down at the water wheel.  He overbalanced and fell. By the time the alarm was raised and the wheel stopped, the boy was dead and his body mangled.  He was laid to rest in the nearby St Laurence Church.

Church of St Laurence and Churchyard Upwey

Today, even with modern health and safety provisions, agriculture and related industries are the most dangerous to work in and, according to the Health and Safety Executive, ‘Children and young people up to the age of 18 are regularly killed and injured on farms…’  Their leaflet ‘Preventing accidents to children on farms’, can be downloaded for free.

Thomas Hardy by William Strang1893

The Dorset author Thomas Hardy wrote in a letter, that ‘Overcombe Mill’, portrayed in his novel ‘The Trumpet Major’, was part based on Upwey Mill. This connection is cited as contributing to the reasons for it being made a listed building

Upwey Mill Near Weymouth

It is described by Historic England, in the listing document as:
Corn mill. Dated IG 1802 on stone under hoist. Squared and coursed Portland stone, large flush quoins, slate roof. PLAN: a compact building in 4 floors plus attic, with overshot wheel fed from a leat immediately behind (to the W), and prominent projecting hoist clad and roofed in corrugated-iron. EXTERIOR: in 5 bays, the central bay with hauling doors. Windows are all 3-light horizontal bar wood casements to stone voussoirs with projecting key, but no sills. Bay 3 has a narrow pair of plank doors from a stone landing to a paired stone stair flight with simple iron rail containing a gate opposite the doors; above are plank hauling doors, and the deep projecting hoist housing on props. Low right is a very wide opening with segmental arch, to the wheel. The half-hipped gables each contain a Diocletian window with small-pane glazing, and, in the S end, a 12-pane sash at second-floor level. In the right return is a wide opening giving to the very large iron wheel, approx 7m diameter and approx 2.7m wide.

Upwey Mill Postcard

One thing I found interesting at that time, was that the mill had two sources of water supply – one from the River Wey and the other from a spring.  This enabled the waterwheel to operate as either overshot or, when water levels were lower, breastshot.  About 15 years after its last commercial use, the owner of the mill decided to once again harness the potential power of these water sources. In 2006 sluice-gates were restored and a turbine capable of generating 15kW of electricity per hour installed.

The Mill and House Broadwey Dorset

Downstream from Upwey is Broadwey with which it is now combined. Broadwey also had an impressive mill which, in the late 1800’s, was run by the Luckham family.  An article on the Dorset Echo website back in 2017 caught my attention. An envelope, and love letter in the form of a poem, from 140 years ago had been found in their archives. It was addressed to Richard Luckham – the miller himself.

Dorset Echo love letter

All pretty unremarkable except for one thing; Richard Luckham was the same age as I am now, but probably wealthier. If you are curious enough to want to know what words might soften the heart of a Dorset boy, click on the picture of the envelope. It will take you to the Dorset Echo website where you will be able to read it as well as see pictures of the actual letter.

As a teenager I loved cutting grass for hay on the water meadows at Nottington close to the Wey. They had not been ploughed in living memory, and the sward was full of wildflowers, herbs and vetches. The smell of that hay was always fantastic and in the middle of winter would still smell of summer. It was given as a Christmas Day treat to the cattle.  

Water Meadows Nottington

At somepoint in their history a ridge and furrow system had been created, and can still be seen  in the screen grab above from Google maps. Upwey is in the middle distance snuggled under the sunny side of the Dorsetshire Ridgeway.

Water Meadows near Puddletown

Traditionally water meadows would be deliberately flooded in spring similar to those above, a few miles away on the Piddle. This was to help the ground warm, add nutrients from the river silt and to encourage new plant growth. 

Sluice gate and weir Nottington

Overlooking both the water meadow and the adjacent weir in the river was a strange octagonal building.  It was built over what originally been a spring in a roadside field. There are record showing that certainly in the 17th Century it was being credited with various healing powers; for animals as well as people. 

Nottington Spa House

Various ramshackle buildings were constructed around the spring, but it really became popular when in 1791 King George III and his wife, the rather gloriously named Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, visited. Same water as at Upwey but a mile and a bit closer to their digs in Weymouth. It really gained a reputation as a spa and even greater reputation for its powers.  This led to demands for an appropriatly fine spa house to be built and, in 1830, the Octagonal House was built. It contained a pumproom, with warm and cold showers, and vapour baths. It was topped off with a rather grand weathervane in the form of an heraldic pelican. Sadly this has not survived and currently the house has no weathervane on it.

octagonal spa house Nottington

In the late 19th century a pumping station was built at Gould’s Hill above Upwey to abstract water directly from the aquifer that feeds the Wey.  This was to supply piped water to the Isle of Portland.   By 1914 water source was not adequate and was replaced by a new pumping station at Friar Waddon Road. To gain a sufficient ‘head’ of water to reach the top of Portland, a reservoir was constructed high on the Ridgeway.

Portland Water Works

In late November 1914 the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment were guarding the reservoir, although against what seems less clear. At the time the men were housed in tents or incomplete huts, and may not have had the best of rations.  In what appears to have been a drunken prank an attempt was made to pull down a non-commissioned officer’s tent.  When challenged by a guard, a brawl broke out and someone started shouting, “mutiny”.

Other troops picked up guns and some started firing blindly in the dark. What happened next is not clear but despite strong winds and stormy weather, local Upwey residents claimed to have heard about 100 shots.

Dorsetshire Regiment Badge

By the end of the night one soldier was dead and another seriously injured. The dead man received a military funeral with shots fired over the grave.  Five others were charged with mutiny although in the end, as far as I can determine, the only sanction was that one soldier was found guilty of manslaughter. Following the strongest of recommendations from the jury for clemency, the sentence was for six months imprisonment with hard labour.

Friar Waddon Pumping Station

In its current configuration the pumping station is powered by electricity The hatches that can be seen in the roof are for pump changes. Provided its not a windy day, a giant crane can set up and lift the borehole pumps straight in or out of the roof hatches.  Perhaps, even now, this building is pumping out water that is carrying the chalk that will be absorbed into a developing cranium.

When its time to meet the maker who knew me before ever I was, perhaps my mortal remains will be returned to the river that’s been in my bones since before ever I was born.

River Wey and Sheep Beneath Willow

Most of the pictures in this blog post are being used courtesy of a common use licence. The details of those licences can be found by following these links.

Wikimedia Commons

Old Stone Bridge over the Wey

2 thoughts on “The river that’s been in my bones since before ever I was born”

  1. Thank you for this. So inspiring. I’m just about to do a little project on Upwey for my genealogy group. I descend from Upwey stonemasons, a couple of whom are buried in the churchyard. I visited nearly 30 years ago but had a young child with me – I need to go back and explore properly!

    Your piece is so very comprehensive. Again, thank you.


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