Clive Hannay captures the moment as Rodney Legg enthuses over quarrying past and present
Published in March ’07
Some of England’s earliest stone quarries, of Roman times for Purbeck marble, stretch along the valley-side to the north of Langton Matravers and were extended westwards along the slope for the building of medieval cathedrals. Above them, Purbeck’s Langton no longer resembles an Anglo-Saxon ‘long farm’ but, in terms of shape and size, this remains a linear village crowded around a single mile-long street. The Matravers element here, for the Maltravers family whose notorious member was the regicide of Edward II, distinguishes it from Langton Wallis on Middlebere Heath and another, very different Langton Herring in the Fleet hinterland.
Workmen discovered a vase containing a hoard of Roman coins when Leeson House, a Victorian country house in 29 acres of parkland, was built for the Garland family in 1842. Another significant find showed that the Prioress of Ivinghoe, from a nunnery near Leighton Buzzard, was the earliest known visitor to Langton Matravers. She must have been in Purbeck, probably to purchase marble for an effigy, because she lost her seal here in the 1370s. That loss became a discovery in 1845 with its re-appearance during the digging of foundations for the National School (now St George’s Hall).
Langton, despite rampant gentrification, remains a stone village. Many once-separate homes have been merged to provide modern amenities and space. Little Fig Tree Cottage, for example, was the archetypal ‘one up, one down’ home. In such buildings Purbeck stone extends from the bedrock of the foundations through to the apex of the roof. These distinctive stone-slates are of downsvein, dug here from 1650 till 1900, but no longer obtainable from the ground since underground mining ceased through health and safety concerns. This bed lies too deep for modern open-pit extraction of the sort that continues around nearby Acton hamlet.
The King’s Arms was first licensed as the Mason’s Arms in 1742 and its landlord used to be a member of the Ancient Order of Purbeck Marblers and Stonecutters (who held the coat of arms). Re-building in the early 19th century, with a new porch, was accompanied by an uninspired re-dedication to George III who did so much to popularise Weymouth and Lulworth but never ventured this far into deepest Purbeck.
Dinosaur traces abound in and under Langton Matravers. A miniature shrew-like dinosaur was first found at Sunnydown Farm. Footsteps of bigger inhabitants of the Jurassic Coast can be spotted in the least likely habitats including walking up a wall in the Ship Inn. The first British footprints of Diplodocus came from a Langton quarry in 1986.
The squat 14th-century tower of St George’s Church is dominated and surrounded by two 19th-century renovations after the medieval fabric was described as suffering ‘general decay’ which caused it to be in ‘an unsafe condition’. Kegs were being stored by Charles Hayward (1796-1879) and fellow smugglers in concealed attic space. Hayward made good in the transition from contraband-dealing quarrier to parish clerk, sub-postmaster, churchwarden and sexton.
George Crickmay, the Weymouth architect of Hardy associations, designed a spire for St George’s Church, but uninspired it remains. The battlements, torn down for its addition, were eventually replaced – 75 years later – in the 1950s. Those restorers threw away the rest of the parish history, with the exception of the font, Serrell family monuments and a broken brass to a couple of medieval Havellands from Wilkswood.
The suicide burial of John Ball, the landlord of the Ship Inn, led Langton rector Rev. Lester Lester to protest that John Ball had been ‘buried like a dog’. Suffering depression, he had attempted to kill his wife, Mary Holmes Ball, and then turned the shotgun on himself, on the night of 18 December 1878. the campaign resulted in changes to the law to enable such unfortunate outcasts to be given churchyard funerals. The old Ship Inn of John Ball’s time was the two-storey cottage immediately south of its three-floor replacement.
Street Well is the original 50-feet-deep water supply for the village on the south side of the High Street. Putlake takes its name from the puckish behaviour of the intermittent Puck Lake stream. On the east side, Stepeshill (medieval) became Steps Hill (Victorian) but has reverted to Steppes Hill (modern). Crack Lane, running downhill to the north, is said to have been Creek Lane when the former tidal backwater from Swanage flowed inland as far as Herston.
Durnford House was converted from the Durneford family farm into a country house by the Serrells in 1725. The final member of that family to be in residence was Captain Serrell Roberts in the 1890s, following which it became Durnford Preparatory School. The headmaster was Thomas Pellatt whose famous daughter, born in 1899, became Tudor biographer Hester Chapman. The Air Ministry followed in the Second World War and Lady Savage was the subsequent private owner. Meanwhile, concealed in the leafy grounds of Langton House, Group 8 of the ‘most secret’ Telecommunications Research Establishment had developed and perfected H2S airborne ‘Town Finder’ radar for installation on Lancaster bombers. Its use was decisive in the devastation of German cities.
By the 1930s where were a host of preparatory schools based in the village and most were similarly requisitioned. Memorials to boys from the Old Malthouse include a special mention for Second Lieutenant DGW Hewitt VC of the Hampshire Regiment in the Great War. The notable Second World War plaque commemorates Admiral of the Fleet John Cronyn Tovey, 1st Baron Tovey, who as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet between 1940 and 1943 is remembered for having been in charge of the operation that sank the Bismarck.
The dividing line between old and new Langton was the death of Harry Ryall in 1955, when the doors closed on Forge Cottage which had been the workplace of a long line of blacksmiths. Beside the church wall, cremation tablets mark the passing of local worthies Ernest William Suttle (1918-78; George Medal hero), George Hooper (1928-2003; ‘happy quarryman and poet’), and David Lewer (1919-2005; architect and historian).
The village is encircled by an idyllic country walk, less than four miles, across the stone plateau. The landscape belongs to the National Trust, having either formed part of Ralph Bankes’s great estate or been acquired after his death in 1981.
Park and start in the vicinity of the Old Rectory in St George’s Close in the middle of Langton Matravers (OS reference SY998789). Set off downhill from the parish church and the late Mary Spencer Watson’s millennium sculpture of a Purbeck quarryman. Head eastwards along the High Street, past the Post Office and King’s Arms, to Crack Lane, Putlake Adventure Farm and the Ship Inn on the top of the hill in 600 yards.
In a further 50 yards turn right, southwards, into Steppes Hill. Pass the gaunt lines of the Ship Inn, which is more welcoming inside than out. Then, in 100 yards, turn left, between the well and Well Side. The heading is now south-east, skirting the leafy grounds of Leeson House field study centre, still guarded by a wartime pillbox, across National Trust grassland to a kissing gate in 40 yards.
Cross the next pasture diagonally and exit from the opposite corner, over a stile, in 700 yards. Bear left for 250 yards in the following field, to a stile between the stone wall and the fence on the other side, towards the buildings of South Barn. Then turn immediately right, through the gate, up the unpaved track. In 100 yards pass South Barn limekiln, which has been restored by the National Trust.
In a further 50 yards the track bends to the right and becomes part of the Priest’s Way from Swanage to Worth Matravers. It bends left and then right beside the modern buildings of Spyway Farm. Follow this track into open ground in 900 yards and then bear right, keeping the building of Spyway Barn across to your left. Head for the present-day quarries of Acton on the skyline. Langton House is clearly visible over to the right.
Having passed the sycamore tree and a milestone in 20 yards, continue straight ahead towards Worth. In 800 yards, after the first modern quarries as you approach Acton and its initial cluster of buildings (with the bungalow) at Blacklands, look out for a gate on the right that is followed by a stone stile set in the wall. Turn right here and follow the wall northwards, passing a barn in 50 yards, and continue for a further 600 yards.
Here pass a terrace of six cottages and turn left beside no.1, to pass the gable end of the next row of cottages. In 100 yards the path enters a field, where turn right – north again – up and over old quarry workings. Head for the left-hand end of the visible section of the Purbeck Hills for 200 yards.
Leave the field at the gate and cross the main road to Court Pound and Castle View. The pound for stray animals is beside the cottage. In 200 yards, opposite Stonecroft, the National Trust has preserved Norman’s Quarry, which is complete with its capstan, spack, rails for carts and half-concealed shaft. Ernie Norman, whose widow re-opened the workings in 1995, was the last quarryman. Castle View used to be known as Mount Misery. It looks across to Mount Pleasant (which retains its original name).
Turn right, over the stile and into the field. Head east towards Langton and the Isle of Wight. Cross the stile in 300 yards and continue straight ahead along the lane, beside the dormer bungalow, in 50 yards. Continue straight ahead behind the Old Malthouse School playing field along an unpaved road which becomes a narrow path at Windward in 300 yards. Also continue straight ahead at the next junction of paths and enter a sheep pasture at Mount Pleasant in 100 yards. Woods to the left conceal the ancient marble quarries. Follow the old stone wall for 250 yards and look out for gravestones on the other side. Here turn right beside the Victorian cemetery and follow its wall to the High Street. Emerge in 200 yards, just below St George’s Close, opposite the Post Office.