IF you happen to be driving through the village of Mapperton near Bridport, it's likely that your attention would be drawn by Mapperton House, the magnificent Jacobean manor with Italianate valley gardens, and not the slender sycamore sapling planted at the junction where Dead Man’s Lane branches off from the road to the village. Planted in 2015, this young tree replaces a leafy predecessor with a far greater provenance - Mapperton’s ‘Posy Tree’.

When the Black Death first struck England in 1348, Melcombe Regis holding the dubious distinction of the port where the plague first made landfall in the summer of that year, the consequences were devastating: “the cruel pestilence, terrible to all future ages, came from parts over the sea to the south coast of England into a port called Melcombe, in Dorsetshire. This plague, sweeping over the southern districts, destroyed numberless people in Dorset, Devon and Somerset.”

While it was said that “scarce one man in ten escaped”, though this might have been an exaggeration, the ‘numberless’ estimation has since been set in the region of between one third and half of the population of England succumbing to the disease, which at the time was somewhere approaching the five million mark.

(It has been further estimated that the lives of 50 million people - 60 per cent of Europe’s entire population - were claimed by the Black Death in the 14th century.)

And the plague’s progress was fast, “At first it carried off almost all the inhabitants of the seaports in Dorset, and then those living inland, and from there it raged so dreadfully through Dorset and Somerset as far as Bristol.” Indeed, amongst those affected, ‘living inland’ were the villagers of Mapperton, and as the death toll mounted, they were faced with a decided problem in burying their loved ones.

Because of the difficulty in digging graves in the churchyard of All Saints, the church sited on very rocky ground, Mapperton burials, with very few exceptions, took place at Netherbury, the Parish of Mapperton paying an annual fee of 3d for the privilege.

Ordinarily, this arrangement didn’t pose a problem, funeral parties carrying the deceased down the aptly named Dead Man’s Lane and across the hill to Netherbury for burial.

However, when the plague struck Mapperton, the villagers of Netherbury, armed with staves and cudgels, met the cortege of the first plague victims at the parish boundary where the old Mapperton and Netherbury tracks crossed, at the head of Dead Man's Lane.

Refusing to allow them to pass any further for fear of infection, this enforced quarantine resulted in a bitter skirmish between the respective villagers, but after some negotiation, it was agreed that the bodies would be buried a mile away in a mass grave within a small enclosure on the summit of South Warren Hill. (In fact human bones sometimes still surface in that area.)

The ‘Posy Tree’ then, marked the spot where the dead of Mapperton were collected prior to their final onward journey, and so named as the mourners carried posies of sweet smelling herbs and flowers in an effort to cover up the smell of the corpses and in the belief that such measures would protect against infection, dropping their posies under the tree on their way back from the burial.

While the tradition of the Posy Tree is invariably an old one, it has been suggested that it might have been a later outbreak of the plague which occasioned the story however and that the original tree was, in fact, an oak. As outbreaks continued to occur in isolated villages, towns and cities throughout England for the next 300 years or so, the bubonic plague which struck Mapperton in 1582, supposedly resulting in the deaths of eighty villagers, might well have been the original root of the Posy Tree so to speak.

While there is the suggestion that the later visitation of the plague in 1665 was responsible for all but wiping out the village, as there are no indications in the parish records for that year of a large number of deaths, the 1582 outbreak, therefore, seems to be a more likely candidate.

As for the original Posy Tree which had so long marked the opening to Dead Man’s Lane, as it was very old and had become unsafe, in August 2011 the gnarled, ivy-clad trunk of this overly mature sycamore was cut down and removed. Yet the planting of the new Posy Tree has assured that the memory of this age-old tradition will not be lost and carried over to future generations.