The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Purbeck ‘volcano’

Martin Ayres recounts the history of a Dorset hilltop

Creech Barrow

Looking west towards Creech Barrow, with the village of East Creech nestling in the foreground on the left

Creech is surely one of Dorset’s most distinctive landmarks. Its conical shape rises up a little north of the main ridge of the Purbeck Hills, 2½ miles to the west of Corfe Castle. It has been remarked that it only requires ‘a furze fire in full blaze’ in order for it ‘to be taken for an active volcano’. At 637 feet it is by no means the highest peak in the county and yet it is the dominant feature of the Purbeck landscape, greeting visitors from all directions. It looms over the furze and bracken as you cross Hyde Heath, rises above the conifers as you travel eastward from Bere Regis and confronts you squarely as you traverse Wareham’s south causeway. Its large form can be foreboding but it is also a welcoming sight to locals, a potent symbol of home. Although much of its history is an enigma, both its name and its physical features reveal aspects of its past.

Geologically, Creech is something of a curiosity. Although adjoining the chalk of the Purbeck Hills, it is largely composed of material from the Bagshot Beds, the name given to the sand and clay that form the surrounding low-lying heath. One might expect it to have been eroded over the preceding millennia but it has been preserved by a cap of limestone, similar to that found at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. Thus, although its lower reaches are covered by heathland vegetation, its summit nurtures verdant grass.

The shape of the hill has not, however, been entirely formed by nature. If one approaches from the west, climbing up from the entrance drive to Creech Grange, it has the appearance of having a double summit. This peculiar effect is a result of the round barrow, a Bronze Age burial mound, which stands on a spur some distance south from the highest natural point. The well-worn track through the gorse leads directly from the nearest lay-by to the barrow, which is now almost cut in two as a result of visitors climbing up to admire the view. It measures 6 feet high and 75 feet in diameter, and dates from between 1700 and 1000 BC.

The barrow was possibly excavated in 1861 and found to contain the skeletons of three bodies in a foetal position located inside a flint cairn, together with a round section of a child’s skull. There were also two later skeletons fully laid out. Little is known of these people, and it was noted in 1903 that the barrow appeared to have been ‘diligently rifled’ years before. In finding their last resting place on such a prominent point, it is difficult to resist the assumption that these were individuals of some note, although such locations are by no means unusual in Dorset.

Creech Barrow

The view west from the top of Creech Barrow, with the Purbeck Hills curving away to the left, Povington Heath on the right, and the Georgian chapel of Creech Grange visible in the woodland on the right

The place-name Creech, despite being younger than the barrow, is amongst the oldest in England. As AD Mills notes, it derives from the Primitive Welsh crug, meaning a mound, hill or barrow, and dates from the last four centuries BC. This is the period when Dorset was occupied by the Iron Age Celts, responsible for the development of that most-impressive of hill-forts, Maiden Castle. Most English place-names east of Cornwall and the Welsh border are Old English, coined by the Angles and Saxons from the 7th century AD onwards. Surviving Celtic names are a tantalising indication that pockets of British culture survived the Anglo-Saxon invasion and that there was contact between the two peoples.

A climb to the very top of the hill can reveal, on close inspection, the other principal feature that provides a clue to the hill’s history. This is a rectangle of foundation stones that are largely buried on the small plateau at the hill’s natural summit. The Royal Commission on Historic Monuments identify these as the footings of a stone tower, most likely to have been one of the three hunting lodges shown on Ralph Treswell’s map of Purbeck in 1586. During Hutchins’s time, in the mid to late 18th century, the ruins were said to be still visible, but today the remains are not obvious. Only short stretches on the east and west of the modern triangulation point are not protected by a blanket of grass. Nevertheless, the remains indicate a substantial building measuring 30 feet by 25 feet, with walls 4 feet thick.

Hutchins described this building as ‘the principal lodge of the isle and forest of Purbeck’. A forest was not necessarily a well-wooded area but one in which the king reserved the hunting rights. Purbeck was granted this status by King John who hunted in the area during stays at nearby Corfe Castle. Purbeck did not, however, remain a forest for long and in 1217, the year after King John’s death, a Forest Charter removed this designation from all private lands. From then on Purbeck was a warren, an area in which the king granted rights to local lords to hunt small game such as hares, rabbits, woodcock and pheasants.

Creech Barrow

Viewed from the west, Creech Barrow appears to have a double summit: the one on the right is a Bronze Age round barrow

It was Purbeck’s deer, however, that were most coveted. Red deer were numerous on the open heathland to the north of Creech and hunting was an important activity. Not only did hunting on horseback provide entertainment for the king and his favoured nobles, but venison was a high status food, not available on the open market. Venison was often eaten at banquets on feast days or could be given as a gift to favoured nobles. On 28 August 1225, during the reign of Henry III, the huntsman of the Earl of Surrey was sent with his hounds to the warren of Corfe to take forty bucks for the king’s use. The venison could be salted down, packed in barrels and dispatched to the location of the next feast. In 1251 five bucks were taken from Purbeck to King Henry III at Glastonbury and three to the Queen at Marlborough.

The precise use of the lodge at Creech is unclear. Some were permanent residences, suitable for royal visits, while others were more akin to workshops, used for storage and salting down the meat. It appears most likely that the lodge at Creech was a base, whether temporary or permanent, for the keeper or warrener with responsibility for protecting the deer from poachers. Hutchins cites a number of cases of poaching in medieval Purbeck. Damage was reported to the building in 1583 but the finding of 16th- and 17th-century potsherds suggests that it remained in use until at least 1615, when James I was the last royal to hunt in Purbeck. However, it seems unlikely that the lodge survived much later than nearby Corfe Castle, destroyed in 1646, and Hutchins believed that the number of deer declined sharply during the Civil War.

Creech Hunting Lodge

All that remains of Creech Hunting Lodge

Over the last two hundred years, Creech has been a part of an industrial rather than a hunting landscape. On its lower slopes have been a sandpit and, until 1908, a brickworks in Cotness Wood. Today the hill is surrounded by open-cast clay workings, both redundant and active, but it is easy to forget that for the best part of half a century the hill itself was undermined by clay workings. In his classic work Purbeck Island, published in 1978, Paul Hyland described the huts and timber to be used as pit props that could be seen from the road and the noise of a compressor that pumped fresh air 350 feet down into the mine. In the early 21st century, all signs of industry have been removed and there is little human activity now to disturb the peace.

Indeed, Creech today exudes an elemental attraction, its hue indicating the changing seasons. The climb to the summit is always well rewarded regardless of the weather: leaning into the wind on a gusty day is exhilarating and as life-affirming as picnicking in the summer sunshine. On the clearest days views open up in all directions: to Wareham with its church and the masts of the yachts on the Frome, across the Harbour to Poole and the glittering tower blocks of Bournemouth beyond, over the heathland to the west towards Lulworth, and to the east over Nine Barrow Down to the wide sweep of Swanage Bay. Admiring this view, from a hill that was named by our ancestors more than two thousand years ago, it is difficult not to feel a powerful sense of continuity. Creech is a prominent example of the interaction between man and the natural world which continues to shape the landscape that we see today.

Sunrise over Purbeck: East Creech

Sunrise over Purbeck: East Creech is on the left and the Purbeck Hills stretch into the distance, with Corfe Castle hidden in the gap where the line bends southwards

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