In truth, most tourists come to Cerne Abbas to gawp at the remarkable Giant of Cerne Abbas, a gigantic male figure carved into a steep chalk hillside just outside the village. It is difficult to be delicate when describing the Giant because he's, well, a big lad! The jury's out as to how long he's been there and what he represents, but it's certainly hard to ignore a 55m long nude club-wielding male striding over your local hillside!
The Giant's most defining feature is the fact that he is enormously well endowed, hence his other more descriptive monikers, such as the Rude Man of Cerne Abbas! Clearly he is excited about something, but he is trifle coy, as the slope that he is carved into is convex, so you don't ever really ever get a good look at him: more peek-a-boo than full frontal!
There is a wide divergence of opinion on how long the Giant has been there. The New Age humming fraternity claim that he is an ancient figure who depicts either a Saxon deity, a Celtic British hero or a homespun version of the Greek hero Heracles, whereas there is disappointingly no written record of his presence until 1694 (and let's face it, he'd be hard to ignore, so it seems unlikely that historians would 'forget' to mention him!). By comparison, the Uffington White Horse has been dated using optical luminescence as being 3,000 years old - I'm not sure why the same technique does not appear to have been used on this chap?
The whole subject of the chalk figures that adorn England's chalk downland is intriguing and although the same chalk formation (which forms the White Cliffs of Dover and the spectacular cliffs on the island of Ruegen in Germany) occurs elsewhere, I'm not aware of it being common practice elsewhere - although here I speak under correction. Across the south of England, there are a series of human figures and horses carved into the chalk (which is an extremely pure and white limestone). Chalk outcrops give rise to very thin, poor soils that tend only to support grassland rather than dense vegetation, so excavating shallow trenches into the chalk creates an image that is visible over long distances. Indeed one of the first references to the figure is a charge for 'repairing the Giant' which appears in parish records, and clearing of the trenches only has to be repeated every twenty to thirty years (or after exceedingly heavy rainfall events).
I was puzzled as to why the notoriously prissy Victorians in particular had not sought to cover up offending parts of the Giant to preserve the modesty of visiting virtuous females - perhaps with the inclusion of a strategically placed giant figleaf? In my subsequent research on the Giant after our visit, I was intrigued to discover that the only time that he seems to have been covered up (and then, in his entirety) was during World War II - not to avoid offending the sensitive with his priapic splendour, but rather to prevent the Luftwaffe using him for navigation purposes!
Regardless of how long he's been here and why he was carved in the first place, there is no doubt that the Giant is a remarkable figure, and attracts tourists of all sorts. Be he a fertility symbol (and, anecdotal records indicate that he attracts more than his fair share of fornicating couples, especially around auspicious dates such as solstices and equinoxes, who, unremarkably, tend to cluster around certain parts of his anatomy), an expression of devotion to an ancient deity or merely an obscene caricature commissioned by a local Royalist landowner designed to infuriate the deeply puritanical Oliver Cromwell (and my money's on this option), he certainly casts a long shadow over Cerne Abbas, and the ambiguity of this origins and purpose is part of his charm!
As a final comment, a figure as controversial as the Giant is wide open to parody. Wikipedia reports that, "as a publicity stunt for the opening of The Simpsons Movie on the 16 July 2007, a giant Homer Simpson brandishing a doughnut was outlined in water-based biodegradable paint to the left of the Cerne Abbas giant. This act angered local neopagans, who pledged to perform rain magic to wash the figure away". 'Nuf said!
Walking down Abbey Street away from the Abbey, on your right you will notice some lovely old houses. These houses once continued on both sides along the whole of the street. They were built by the Abbey in the early 16th century as accommodation for the Abbey's senior lay workers. Many have now been converted or demolished, but these few survive as a proud example of the striking Tudor architecture.
Built by Abbot John Vanne between 1458 and 1470 this is one of the very few monastic guest houses to survive. Guest houses were used to accommodate travellers and were part of the monastic duty of service.
The guest house is the most substantial part of Cerne Abbey to remain and probably survived due to its use as a farm building. It has some outstanding features, particularly the oriel window. It is said to have sheltered Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, and her young son in the spring of 1471, before their defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury later the same year.
The Abbot's Porch, a small tower-like building which stands partially ruined behind the present house, was originally a three storey entrance to the Abbot's Hall built by Abbot Thomas Sam (elected 1497 and died 1509). Around its magnificent two-storey oriel window can be seen panels enclosing the shields of arms and rebuses of Abbot Sam, Bishop Hugh Oldham of Exeter and other benefactors.
Above the entrance itself were the living quarters for the Abbot. These rooms were where the abbot would have lived, studied and received visitors, with space enough for a library; perhaps holding the Book of Cerne, but certainly the manuscripts which became scattered in 1539 following the Dissolution.
Just above the information panels to the left is a spy hole used by the porter to monitor who was going in or out! The abbot's entrance to the monastery was the nearby North Gate from which "all convenient high waies" radiated. The South Gate at the end of Abbey Street was normally kept locked and portered.
After the Dissolution the porch was left standing but fell into decline to become part of the farm buildings. It was in the 1990s that the roof was finally replaced with the building restored to the state you see now.
Cerne Abbey was founded in the 9th century and refounded as a Benedictine Abbey in the late 10th century. It remained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Most of its walls were reduced to the ground and considerable amounts of its stone were reused in later archtecture around the village.
At the north end of Abbey Street, you will notice 'Cerne Abbey' which is now a private house. Built on the remains of the main Abbey entrance after the dissolution, it incorporates part of the Abbey gatehouse.
To the right of the house is a passage with a gate - if the sign says open, you can enter to see the other buildings belonging to the Abbey. There is an honesty box for a small entry fee - currently £1 for adults and 20p for children (Feb 2011).
The Cerne Giant is nearly 60m high and 51m wide, and is one of three figures cut into the English Chalk Downlands (the others being the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex, and the White Horse of Uffington in Berkshire). The Giant is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and was given to the National Trust in 1920 to ensure its permanent protection.
Note - to provent erosion, visitors are not allowed to walk on the giant. It is possible to follow a footpath around the Giant however.
The exact origins of the Gant are unknown, and he is not mentioned in local records until 1694 - in the accounts of the churchwarden of St. Mary's Church in Cerne Abbas, which records that 3 shillings were paid for "repairing ye Giant."
There are many theories in existence - he carries a club, so many believe him to be a Celtic warrior god, or the Roman god Hercules, dating from around 2000 years ago. It has even been suggested that he was carved by a local landowner in the 17th century to make fun of Oliver Cromwell.
Above the Giant, on the top of the hill, you can see a rectangular bank and ditch, known locally as the the Trendle. Its purpose, like the Giant, is shrouded in mystery. Theories abound, including it being an ancient fortification, an Iron Age temple, an Iron Age burial mound - or that it was created in the late 1700s as a site for maypole dancing (for hundreds of years it was apparently local custom to erect a maypole here where childless couples would dance to promote fertility).
Sadly, looking at it with an archaeologist's eye, it is far more likely that it was merely a simple enclosure, most probably for livestock. I believe that it has indeed been dated to the Iron Age.
Just past the turn off from the main road is a small car park and a viewing point from which you get the best sight of the Giant. The foot path leading up to the Giant is a short walk from here, as is the village centre.
Cerne Abbas makes an excellent base for exploring Dorset. I've covered the village & its Giant as a separate tip.
The valley of the river Cerne is beautiful and lush: good walking country, with many footpaths. Just a few miles south, the smallest pub in the UK at Godmonstone - a short walk of about 4 miles there & back.
Houses and castles
A few miles north: are the gardens of the 'Arts & Crafts' Minterne House, home of Lord & Lady Digby. The gardens are known for their spring bulbs, and later (May - June) for their wonderful displays of rhododendrons & camellias.
Further afield, is Sherborne(12 miles north): you'll see castle ruins in a Capability Brown landscape; there's a more recent and less attractive castle, built by Sir Walter Raleigh, here too.
A third possibility is Montacute, a beautiful Elizabethan estate near Yoevil, open every day except Tuesdays.
Dorset is Thomas Hardy country - his Cottage at Higher Bockhampton is open to the public.
Cloud's Hill, where Lawrence of Arabia lived in, is also in the vicinity.
The Dorset coastline is famous : Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove are probably the most spectacular. Also in this area is the ‘lost’ village of Tyneham: requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence during the World War 2 for military training. Most of the houses are now ruins and one house contains a small village archive.
is the nearest market town and has several museums: a dinosaur museum, and the County Museum where you can see the extraordinary Ooser head that the Morris men dance with on May morning.
Near the town is a vast iron age fort, Maiden Castle - good for walks, views, sheep (open all year).
Poundbury borders Dorchester and is the Prince of Wales’s 'experimental' model village. It is a slightly ghostly place right now and when complete will increase the size of Dorchester by one third.
A village of handsome houses that once centred on a Benedictine Abbey. Not much remains now of the old abbey but you'll see remnants around town on the facades of some of its houses! The best way to see the village is to buy a very cheap (40p) map and guide from the Village Stores (opposite the New Inn in Long St) and wander.
Cerne Abbas is best known for the enormous giant carved out of the chalk landscape above it. There are many things we don't know about this figure -the one thing not in doubt is that this is the figure of a man. There is more information about him and a picture on the
National Trust website. They look after the site and access to it is currently fenced off because the chalk giant was being damaged. As there is a superstition that 'maids' who sit of the giant conceive more easily afterwards, it may be necessary to protect him! You can see him from a 'viewpoint' spot just outside the village: take a right turn from Long Sreet into Duck Sreet and keep walking - there are sign posts.
My main picture shows the market square. The 'Old Market House' (not in shot) is now a good cafe & restaurant. Near it, in Abbey street, look out for a wonderful black & white beamed Tudor house, 'the Pitchmarket' . Many of the houses here are C16th but rebuilt in the C18th when Cerne thrived as brewing centre. The town's underground stream helped the brewers and even today the delightful sounds of running water is everywhere; little streams run along many of its streets. Finally, on this watery theme, there is a peaceful well dedicated to St Augustine at the far end of the burial gound - if you get lost looking for it, follow a large ginger tomcat (I'm not joking!)
Cerne's s church, St Mary, is C12th - the stocks pictured (click on the pictures link) are just outside this church.
This is a stone and flint bridge which was built to carry cart traffic to and from Silley Court Barn (now Beavoir Court).