WEDNESDAY 23 JUNE – Visit to Dawe’s Twineworks, West Coker

Twist or bust

At first thought a visit to a restored 19th century twine works might be regarded as one for the nerds. Definitely not, judging from our tour of Dawe’s Twine Works at West Coker. The fine summer weather, the open-sided buildings, the guides taking us in small groups meant we all kept well within the Covid guidelines in force at the time while getting a fascinating tour.

The works came into their own supplying twine to stitch together sailcloth for the Royal Navy and the merchant marine in the 18th and 19th centuries.  How was it that such a successful business could be set up and thrive so far from the sea? Firstly, despite the lack of salt water(!) the area of west Dorset and south Somerset is abundant in springs providing a great supply of fresh water. The stratum of soil, known as Yeovil Sands is conducive to the growth of hemp and flax – basic requirements for twine and sailcloth respectively. The “sands” stretch all the way to Bridport, hence the sail cloth industry expanding 25-30 miles inland from the sea.

Consider the prime customer, the Royal Navy. HMS Victory was equipped with 37 sails and carried 17 spares. The smallest sail required 1.25 miles of twine. The working life of a sail was eight months. Multiply this by the number of ships, add the requirements of commercial shipping, and it is not difficult to see why there were so many twine/rope making and sail making factories in the area and why they were so interlinked, and why it was such a profitable and long-lasting industry.

As sailing ships were superseded by steam and oil the businesses declined and twine makers found new markets for their products. John Dawe took over the works in 1877 and developed ‘rope walks’ and other buildings, eventually installing motors to drive the twisting processes in 1899. The business continued until 1968 when the works were shut down.

The place remained unused until 1996 when various parties came together to repair and preserve the works. It took nearly another twenty years for organisations such as local authorities, trusts, government bodies, societies and the Lottery Fund to bring it all together.  Lots of ingenuity was needed too, e.g. a near matching original diesel engine to drive the machinery, found in Scotland and transported to West Coker, and a starting system powered by the casing of an old WW1 torpedo.

We finished up with tea and cake al fresco. Another good visit. Congratulations and thanks to the organisers.

                                                                                      John Ferretter


FRIDAY 11 JUNE 2021 – Visit to Tyneham Village

Our first outing since July 2019! What a strange sensation it was. A feeling of childish excitement came back. A gang of mates and a picnic lunch. The latter, along with tea and coffees, supplied on site by Sarah Hedin and team. What a pleasure. A great big thank you to Sarah, her husband and Kelly for all the hard work.

Where was this fest? Tyneham Village – frozen in time since 1943. We had the whole village to ourselves and an excellent guide in Major (Rtd) Sterling who has a detailed knowledge of the military history of Tyneham.

Tyneham has been associated with tank training since development of the tank in WW1. Leased from the Bond family, the estate owners, in 1916 it is the oldest tank range in history. But it is perhaps more famous for its role in the preparations for the D-day invasion in WW2. In 1943 around 250 villagers were asked to leave their premises on the promise they could return when the war was over. The majority were re-housed in Sandford and Poole where in some respects life was an improvement: it was the first time they had hot and cold running water, electricity and gas.

Touring the village was quite a poignant experience. The School House brought back memories for many: nursery rhymes on tablets, the cane on the teacher’s desk. Sadly, the school was closed in 1932 for lack of children – not enough to warrant the payment of a teacher. The Laundry Cottages were the only place supplied with running water; the rest of the village had to walk to the church to the pump to fetch theirs. At the church there was a copy of a letter from the vicar’s wife left pinned to the door for the US 1st Division who took over Tyneham:

Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”

It was not to be. The demands of the subsequent Cold War followed by the continuing needs for military training meant the properties were never handed back. There was a high-profile campaign in the 1960s/70s led by Rodney Legg. The people never returned but the compromise was that the public could visit on 140 days in a year. And it is well worth a visit.

John Ferretter


Updated 10/08/21 – EJ