The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the footsteps of Treves — West Lulworth and Lulworth Cove

The first in the new series by Steve White and Clive Hannay


Joseph Pennell’s original illustrations of Lulworth Cove for Highways and Byways of Dorset

Sir Frederick wrote the following lines about Lulworth Cove and its surroundings: ‘West Lulworth…where is the famous and romantic cove known to so many holiday makers and “steamer folk”…. The village of West Lulworth lies along the foot of the blunt-ended Bindon Hill, in a valley curving to the sea. It was years ago as picturesque a hamlet of thatched cottages as could be imagined, with its spring of clear water issuing from the hill, its mill-pond where a great sheep washing was held once a year and its mumbling old mill. Now numerous red brick villas and lodging-houses have done much to rob it of its ancient charm.’

The red brick villas of West Lulworth are as much a part of the village now as the more ancient buildings. Who knows – in another hundred years people may consider the monstrous building on the car park a natural part of Lulworth! The mill-pond mentioned by Treves is the duck-frequented pond passed when walking down to the cove. The mill, now gone, used to exist on the seaward side of the mill-pond; it was a long, low, thatched building with a steeply pitched roof and a sea-facing veranda. The pumping station now sits on this site.

Treves laments the fact the costume worn by the farm workers to church in Lulworth – a ‘picturesque smock frock’, ‘vivid neckcloth’ and ‘shapeless felt hat’ – had in 1906 ‘almost ceased to be a feature of English costume’. This is a relatively rare look at the fashion of the day by Treves and gives us a particularly colourful description of how an agricultural labourer would have looked in his Sunday clothes.

Capturing a glimpse of the leisure scene of the day, Treves’s mention of the ‘steamer folk’, refers to trippers who arrived at Lulworth Cove on shallow-draught steamers from Weymouth, Bournemouth or Swanage. For over a hundred years this was a daily event during the summer months. The most common form of transport, though, was rail and holiday makers would arrive at Wool station and travel the remainder of their journey in a ‘char à banc’ (a horse-drawn taxi). Cars, of course, were still very much a rarity.

The section on Lulworth Cove goes on to say, ‘Perched on a pinnacle on the eastern side of the entry is the coastguard’s look-out.’ The look-out, known as Nelson Fort, was built during the Napoleonic wars and was still operating in 1946. It was still there in the 1980s, but now all that remain are the foundations.

One of the most dramatic recollections in Treves’s book is the story of a girl falling from the cliff at Lulworth Cove. Treves was actually staying in his Lulworth cottage at the time and mentions the fact that purely by coincidence, he happened to be reading a book by the father of the unfortunate girl at the time of the incident. The father was not at Lulworth at the time of the accident, nor had Treves previously made his acquaintance. The story goes as follows: ‘The cliffs that shut in the cove on the land side are steep and terrible. On the beach at the foot of the highest precipice is a board with this inscription on it:-
This marks the spot whereon
E.H.L.
Aged 11 years,
Fell from the summit of the cliff,
A descent of 380 feet,
September 7th, 1892.
She miraculously escaped without
Sustaining lifelong injury.
S.T.S.L.’

Treves himself attended her ‘terrible injuries’ and speculates that ‘the catching of her garments on the rough face of the precipice’ helped to explain ‘the incredible fact that she escaped with her life, and still more happily without permanent ill effect.’

The girl’s name was Edith H Leckie of 1 Morningside Road, Bootle, Lancashire. Her mother was an Australian called Elizabeth, her father an Irish Squire and this is where the initials S.T.S.L. come from – Squire T.S. Leckie. This incident is recorded in a number of local newspapers, including the Dorset County Chronicle and the Poole & Dorset Herald.

Lulworth once had a ‘queer old church’. Treves writes very fondly of this church and seems to have attended Sunday service as a child. He explains: ‘It was a very small, ancient church. Its dwarfed tower was so low that it would have been no desperate feat to jump from the top of it into the graveyard which was heaped about its foot’. Today, a plaque is sited opposite Spindrift and the Old Bakery; ‘The site of the old Parish Church – pre-Norman in foundation. Demolished in 1869 when present church was built.’ A document, ‘Instrument substituting the new church for the old church’, is dated 16 June 1870. Plans for the ‘new’ church were actually drawn up by a young architect named Thomas Hardy.

Treves also recalls attending services as a small child and remembers the church orchestra: ‘…the music consisted of a violin, a bass viol, a flute, and an instrument called, I believe, a serpent.’ The serpent is an ancient instrument apparently much favoured in Dorset and Hardy makes a number of references to it throughout his books. Its proper name, the ophicleide, is of Greek derivation (ophis = serpent; kleis = keys).

An ancient stone harbour once dominated Lulworth Cove. Treves wrote: ‘There was once in the cove a little stone harbour, surrounded on two sides by a pier. A line of seaweed-covered rocks, laid bare at low tide, still shows where this humble marine work was laid down. In Hutchins’s book will be found a picture of this miniature harbour, which none now recollect.’ Volume 1 of Hutchins’s four-volume work does indeed show a print of the stone harbour. Several books suggest that this was the broad stone bench upon which a fair was held every Easter Monday. Rodney Legg’s Lulworth Encyclopaedia talks of a woman, still alive in the 1980s, who claimed to remember the fair. There are also some early photographs of steamers in the cove which show clearly the remains of the pier.

Lulworth’s long association with smuggling is mentioned by Treves when he writes about the smugglers’ cave near the Fossil Forest. ‘I remember aged fishermen at Lulworth who forty years ago [ie. around 1866] told me heart-stirring stories of this retreat, and of feats with barrels which they and their forefathers had wrought therein.’ A recent Lulworth walks leaflet states that this cave, visible from neither the land nor the sea, has now collapsed. Originally named ‘Bacon Hole’, it was a cave forty feet deep and twenty-five feet wide, with a false back wall eight feet high.

Joseph Pennell’s original illustrations of Lulworth Cove for Highways and Byways of Dorset

Dorset Directory