Dear Readers, as I headed back to the bus stop after my visit with Mum and Dad yesterday, I noticed this rather splendid flag fluttering in a cottage garden.
I pass two chaps, one tending to a privet hedge while balanced on a rather precarious stepladder, the other out for his morning constitutional with his small scruffy dog, and ask them about it.
“That,” says the chap with the dog, “Is the County Flag of Dorset. I salute it every evening when I walk past”. And the chap on the stepladder guffaws so loudly that he nearly falls off.
The flag was designed by Stephen Coombs and David White, who pursued a long campaign to persuade the council that a flag for Dorset was a good idea. In the end, the flag was chosen by a public vote back in 2008, which was open to all residents of Dorset. Bournemouth and Poole declined to participate – maybe they thought they’d have a competition for their own flags, or maybe there was some internecine skulduggery at work – local councils everywhere are often hotbeds of rivalry and political machination, However, in a rather nifty manouevre Town Crier Chris Brown managed to convince the town of Wimborne Minster to adopt the ‘Dorset Flag’ regardless of the outcome of the county-wide vote. Four alternative designs were presented, and they’re shown below. The yellow and red flag which was eventually chosen got 2086 votes (54% of the total). I think there is definitely a book to be written about the whole affair.
“Blue is for the sky and sea; yellow for sun and sand; and green for the fields and countryside.108 votes”
“The green background is synonymous with the county of Dorset and maintains our identity as a green and pleasant land. The yellow cross depicts the beautiful beaches we are fortunate to be blessed with. The oak leaf signifies the rural nature of this wonderful county, something most people living here are very proud of. The black border around the yellow cross signifies the black death that came to our shores and nearly wiped out the population but through our resilience as a people we overcame that threat and made us the proud people we are today. 856 votes.”
“The colours on the flag should show all the good things we have in Dorset. Blue for the sea and beaches; green for the countryside; and gold for the sand and because Dorset is a sunny place to live. 818 votes.”
The red and white in the winning entry is taken from the arms of Dorset County Council, but the gold is meant to represent the gold of the beaches and wheatfields of Dorset, and places such as Golden Cap on the Jurassic Coast. I guess the gold could also represent the fields of rape, maize and sunflowers that are being grown as biofuels these days too. I find it interesting that the flag chosen is the most ‘traditional’ of the designs, not surprising in what is a very tradtional county.
The white cross with a red border on the flag has also been linked to St Wite, an Anglo-Saxon holy woman who was (probably) martyred by the Vikings in the 9th Century, and whose relics are held at the church at Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset. Examination of her bones (which were found in a lead casket inside the tomb during renovation work in 1900) has revealed that she was about 40 when she died, and of small stature. St Wite is the unofficial patron saint of Dorset, and her feast day is on June 1st. Her shrine is a very rare survival, as many such sites were destroyed during the Reformation. It’s thought that perhaps the tomb was too modest to attract notice.
The bones of the saint are housed in the tomb at the top, which is covered with a slab of local Purbeck marble. Underneath are holes into which the afflicted could place their limbs, their children or, if the ill person was unable to travel to the church, a handkerchief or some other receptacle to collect the saint’s blessings. Letters of request and thanks could also be posted into the holes. The custom continues to this day, with people making a pilgrimage to the church to ask for intercession.
And just a mile to the south is St Wite’s Well, which dates back to 1630. The waters, especially if lit by the rays of the sun, are said to be a cure for eye complaints. What a pretty and peaceful spot this seems to be! Saintly help or not, I’m sure that being here would be good for whatever ails you.
And so, having noticed the Dorset flag once, I’ve now seen it several times fluttering in people’s gardens as my train heads back east to London and home. When I see the cross of St George I always think of a kind of toxic nationalism, but somehow the Dorset flag just speaks to me of local pride and a sense of belonging. The man who spoke about saluting the flag was displaying the kind of knowing humour that I find so much here, but I am equally sure that if I’d been foolish enough to bad mouth his county I would have been chased back to London by a man wielding hedgetrimmers. Getting the balance right between feeling pride in where you came from, and allowing other people to rejoice in their home towns or countries, feels imperative in these times of division and strife.