England's oldest operational letter-box, Barnes Cross, HolwellThe present village of Holwell located on a branch road leading south east from Caundle Marsh consists of two separate settlements. To the south is Barnes Cross dating mainly from the 19th century and where can be found the oldest pillar box still in use in Britain. The octagonal box was made by John M Butt & Co. of Gloucester between 1853 and 1856, and is cast with Queen Victoria’s cipher. The box is about five feet high and each angle of the eight sides is fluted, which gives it a distinctive appearance. The slot for the letters is very small and is vertical rather than the more familiar horizontal. A swinging flap, on the inside of the hole, keeps out the rain.

The original medieval settlement is located on the river to the north and contains the church, a large early 18th century rectory and a few stone cottages, a thatched stores, and an inn on the cross roads by Crouch Hill.. Known as The Borough it forms a perfect little hamlet.

The church of St. Lawrence is located up a road to itself, and is said to go back to Saxon times, but the building we see today dates from about 1480. It was restored in 1885 but much of interest remains. The nave has a barrel roof and the arcade pillars are decorated with little angels bearing scrolls. Two ancient tiles and some fragments of carved stone are let into the chancel wall. The fluted pulpit is Elizabethan.

Holwell House is believed to have started life as one of King John’s hunting lodges. Replaced by an Elizabethan house, it has since been much altered. If Holwell House was indeed a hunting lodge there could be something in the local tale of King Henry III and the White Hart.

Legend has it that Henry III while out hunting near here came across ‘a beautiful and goodly white hart’. So moved by was he by comeliness of the startled creature that he spared its life and further decreed that henceforward the hunt should do the same. Some time later, Sir Thomas de la Lynde, Bailiff of Blackmore Forest, came upon the same beast, and after a chase slew it at the foot of the graceful old stone bridge to the east of the village which crosses the river to Kings Stag, (thus giving the place its name).

When Henry heard of this he was so enraged that he seized Sir Thomas and his companions, cast them into prison and fined them very heavily. As if this were not enough he laid a tax upon the land its feet had trod. Thus for many years ‘white hart silver’ was paid by squire and yeoman into the exchequer and the Vale of Blackmore became known as the Vale of the White Hart.

Many doubts have been cast on the story but there can be no doubt that a tax called white hart silver was still being levied some three hundred years later when Thomas Fuller wrote, ‘Myself hath paid a share for the same who never tasted meat’. Wootton Glanville church commemorates the tale in floor tiles depicting a stag-hunt and the stone figure in the church is said to be that of the bailiff.

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