Clive Hannay draws and Rodney Legg story-tells from the hamlet in the shadow of Creech Barrow Hill
Published in September ’08
My grandmother taught in the little single-storey brick house that is now the Old School House between East and West Creech. She was Alice Jane Kearley (1872-1930) from Ridge, near Stoborough, who at the age of 24 married gardener Robert George Legg from Damerham on Cranborne Chase. They became townies in Pine Road, in the Winton suburb of Bournemouth.
Alice’s usual Creech clientele were the children of clay workers and heath-croppers. Gentry and gypsy youngsters occasionally widened the social spectrum. Into my father’s time and then mine, there were pits and shafts across what seemed to be the entire heath on the north side of the Purbeck Hills, served by their own rail-trucks below ground and an over-ground mineral line with its own little steam engines, operated by Pike Bros from Furzebrook. We went down the cable-operated adit-mine that raised grey ball clay from below Creech Barrow for the Staffordshire Potteries.
With my mother, at blackberry time, we explored an enormous multicoloured hole into the sands and clays of the Bagshot Beds. Looming above, at 634 feet above sea level, Creech Barrow Hill is my all-time favourite place-name and viewpoint. Three times its name says the same thing – ‘Creech’ is from crich, the Celtic word for hill, ‘Barrow’ from the Saxon for mound, and with ‘Hill’ itself in our own currency, ‘Hill-Hill-Hill’ is the translation. The Creech element is a particular rarity, as only a dozen Celtic place-names have been traced in Dorset. Criz of the Domesday Book and crich of 1280 derive from the Old English cryc.
Conical in shape, Creech Barrow looks like an extinct volcano, but its origins are relatively recent. This uplifted section of strata comprising clay, gravel and sand was raised along with adjacent chalklands by a collision of tectonic plates as Africa collided with Europe. Creech Barrow is just high enough to peek over the chalk ridge of the Purbeck Hills. It is an intimate view of Purbeck: from Lulworth to Shell Bay with a glimpse of Corfe Castle and the whole sweep of the heath northwards to the River Frome, Wareham and beyond.
It is and was a classic viewpoint. Medieval maps show King John’s hunting lodge on top and there are still the foundations of floors and walls, though these may be from a parkland feature for nearby Creech Grange Mansion. Much older, there is a Bronze Age round barrow burial mound smothered by bracken on the lesser twin peak just before the summit. In the last century it acted as a magnet to Wareham landscape photographer LF Pickford and his successor, Herbert Stevens.
In the foothills, scrub covers the remains of Arthur Cobb’s Creech Brickworks. This dated from Victorian times. Grass at Cocknowle hides the course of a 19th-century two-track incline railway that brought marl down from a hilltop quarry. Chalk is still dug from across the valley, for its part in the clay processing industry, by Wareham Ball Clay Ltd.
It was during clay extraction that a Roman villa, with mosaic floors and columns, was discovered between East Creech and Cotness in 1869. Clay-firm owner Walter Pike removed a four-feet high Tuscan column. A red and white mosaic floor was uncovered here in 1888, together with a pavement of thin slabs of stone, which had been cut into patterns. There was also ‘the basement of a hypocaust’. Other finds, in 1912, indicated that there was a nearby workshop producing armlets and other items of Kimmeridge shale.
Some forty people live in East Creech (in the parish of Church Knowle). A similar number live on the northern and western foothills of Creech Barrow (in the parish of Steeple) but most of West Creech was depopulated in December 1943 for a big extension of the Lulworth Ranges for training tank crews who would fight in the upcoming Battle of Normandy.
The principal building is East Creech Farm, which is on the site of a manor house. The low part on the east side dates from the 17th century. It was counterbalanced by a lofty block of Flemish-bond brickwork to the west in the 18th century. The third part of the house, on the north side, is from about fifty years later.
Roger de Belmont farmed East Creech in 1086. The Domesday Book lists two hides, sufficient land for two ploughs, which were operated by two villeins and four serfs. John le Frank – ‘the French’ – held the manor in 1327 and his family endowed the Frank Chapel in St Peter’s Church at Church Knowle. The farmers at East Creech in my grandmother’s time were Robert Dorey and James Vincent, who was also a shoemaker. In recent generations they were James Bradford, Frank and Charles Green and Harold Abell.
The hamlet and its hills can be walked in a three-mile circuit, which would be a doddle apart from the fact that it includes two stiff climbs and their consequent descents. It is delightful throughout, with colourful cottage and cameo settings, to a big-country backdrop of the Purbeck Hills.
Park and start in East Creech, beginning from the pond beside East Creech Farm (OS ref SY929825 in post-code BH20 5AP). Set off downhill (E), away from Creech Barrow, to the junction beside Lilyhays Copse in 325 yards. Turn right (S) and head for the hills, to the foot of the main slope in 450 yards. Here turn left and ascend the north side of the Purbeck Hills (SW) along the inclined path straight ahead. A Victorian railway for marl-extraction went off to the left, directly up the side of the hill, to quarries on the summit, which is reached at the tarred road. Turn right (W) for 50 yards to the bend at Bare Cross, 371 feet above sea level. Continue straight ahead from here, quitting the tarred road for the chalky track.
This leads along Ridgeway Hill to a crossroads of ancient tracks above Whiteway Farm in ½ mile, at the 600 feet contour (shortly before the 622 feet high-point). Turn right here (N), down another unpaved public road, towards Creech Barrow. During the descent into the trees below Stonehill Down, pass a disused chalkpit and a Dorset Wildlife Trust nature reserve with a rare oval barrow of transitional shape between a Neolithic long barrow and a Bronze Age round barrow.
In 550 yards, come to the tarred road at the brow of a hill and proceed straight ahead on a diversion to conquer Creech Barrow, to the Ordnance Survey trig point on the summit. This path is a strenuous ½ mile there and back. Make sure to spot the site of the hunting lodge.
Having returned to the roadside, now with Creech Barrow to the rear, turn left (NE). Descend towards Corfe Castle and pass Squire’s Farm. Return to East Creech in ½ mile. Bear right at the junction. East Creech Farm is at the other end of the hamlet in 325 yards.