A romantic and unforgettable old town, it lives within its earthen walls, with ramparts north, east and west and a river to the south.
It is England’s little town between the rivers, built on a high strip of land embraced by the Piddle and the Frome, an ideal place for a settlement in the old days when ancient Britons threw up marvelous ramparts of earth to guard their fortress. Its origin lies far back in centuries but its ramparts have been defensive walls for Caesars and Alfreds men and were not dismantled as a fort until the days of Cromwell.
The Britons set them up, the Romans reinforced them and they remain an astonishing spectacle in a 21st-century town. The Romans laid out the four main streets of Wareham following the points of the compass and everywhere in this town is something to remind us of the past. Wareham has had a castle, a priory, and eight churches of which most of them, along with most of its old houses, have been destroyed by fire.
There is a fine new bridge across the Frome replacing the 18th century one on which a curious stone, now in the museum, threatened transportation to anyone who dared to damage the bridge. A similar stone is still existing on the bridge in Wool.
Near the bridge is the neat old warehouses and the quay belonging to Wareham’s active past.
The house called the Priory stands on the site of the priory the Saxon Aldhelm founded and reflected in the waters of the Frome is the embattled tower of the old church of St Mary’s. This great church with a thrilling history of something Roman, something Saxon and something Norman, it still preserves within its walls the stone coffin in which they laid poor King Edward who was murdered by his stepmother Queen Elfrida at Corfe Castle.
The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for March 18, 979, tells us:
- “This year, King Edward was slain at eventide at Corfe Castle, and buried at Wareham. No worse deed has been done than this among Englishmen since they first sought Britain. Men murdered him, but God glorified him.”
Here Edward is said to have lain in unhallowed ground for three years until Dunstain took him away and buried him in Shaftsbury. There he lay for a thousand years in a little lead coffin in which his bones were found in our time, having been transferred from this stone coffin in St Mary’s.
One of the chief treasures of St Mary’s is its lead font, a unique member of only 38 in England but is especially unique because it has six sides whereas all but one of the others are round.
Near the font is a small room with a great fascination for those who love old things and old tales. In this room are cases containing Roman pottery and medieval tiles dug up in Wareham’s fields and gardens, between two pewter Cromwellian flagons is a handsome brass almsdish with a decorative rim embellished in the middle are two men carrying grapes slung from a pole resting on their shoulders.
This ancient dish has a remarkable story, something incredible but known to be true. One night towards the end of the 19th century a lady staying at the rectory had a vivid dream, which she told the rector. In it she had been told that if the panelling of the chancel were taken down something (she knew not what) would be found behind it. The rector and all who heard her tale laughed but at her insistence the panelling was removed and the almsdish found. It is thought it was hidden away during the Commonwealth period.
One of the most captivating place in Wareham is the little church of St Martin’s-on–the-Wall, made new 700 years ago but with a Saxon window in its saddle back tower and the long and the short work of the Saxons. It was founded by Aldhelm.
It is thrilling to think that this small building was set up by the founder of Sherborne Abbey. Deserted for years, it has now been restored, reconsecrated and brought into almost daily use again. It has something in it almost one thousand years old, the chancel arch the Saxons built, with the rebuilding of the Normans and of the many ages since. There are old roof beams and some painted stars of great antiquity.
One of its chief possessions is the fine figure of Lawrence of Arabia given by his brother. Sculptured by Eric Kennington, it shows him in Arab dress lying with his head on a camel saddle,his sandled feet supported by a Hittite stone whilst by his side the three books he always carried with him. His house which is cared for by the National Trust, and open to the public, is at Clouds Hill near Bovington and his remains lie in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church at Moreton.
Wareham has a vivid history, from the Danes ravaging the town and then establishing themselves there, through the brutal Judge Jefferys hanging his victims on the walls and King John sending to death poor Peter of Pomfret, who had prophesied his doom.
Apart from its fine bridge, its wonderful earthen walls, its fascinating churches and its little quay, there is much to make Wareham lovable. Its bright streets, charming squares, enchanting houses, splendid views and delightful riverside walks makes it a must for visitors to the Purbecks.