The face of Dorset — South Dorset
John Chaffey continues his series looking at the origins of Dorset’s varied landscapes
Published in October ’09
South of the Chalk escarpment which forms its northern boundary, South Dorset is a far from uniform lowland running down to the sea. Different rock types within the Jurassic sequence bring a pleasing variety to the landscape both to the east and the west of Weymouth. To the east Sutton Poyntz lies within a neat little lowland of its own, drained by the tiny River Jordan that slips into Weymouth Bay at Bowleaze Cove. This lowland results from an upfold in the Jurassic rocks, the centre of which has been eroded away to reveal the Kimmeridge Clay on which the village is built. Surrounding the village is a rim of hills formed of Portland and Purbeck limestone, with the dominant Chalbury Hill, with its hill fort, lying immediately to the west. Much of the housing of Preston and Overcombe is built on a ridge of Corallian limestone that swings in from the coast at Osmington Mills.
Westwards the Jurassic rocks have been folded into a much larger structure which has resulted in an east-west orientation of the strata. As a result of their varying resistance to erosion a series of low ridges and intervening vales extends westwards from Weymouth to the coast at Abbotsbury. Most of Weymouth itself is built on the Oxford Clay, with the two reedy Nature Reserves of Lodmoor and Radipole Lake, rich in bird life, bringing welcome relief to the spread of housing. Wyke Regis, built on the higher land of the Corallian limestones enjoys magnificent views across Portland Harbour and Lyme Bay to the west.
Between Abbotsbury and the western suburbs of Weymouth, the limestones of the Forest Marble, the Cornbrash and the Corallian form the higher ground and the ridges and it is here that the main villages and hamlets and found. Langton Herring spreads across Forest Marble and Cornbrash, the former being widely used in its buildings. Buckland Ripers and Chickerell lie on the Cornbrash, which also yields a valuable, durable building stone. Abbotsbury lies partly on the Corallian, used in a splendid and colourful way in many of its buildings, which also include Portland limestone from nearby Portesham. From Portesham eastwards, Portland limestone forms a fine hogback ridge in Corton and Friar Waddon Hills which affords superb panoramas across the whole of South Dorset.
The River Wey, rising at the prolific springs in the village of Upwey, flows across the South Dorset lowland as its main stream to the point where it enters Weymouth Bay between the Nothe Fort and the piers opposite. In Upwey its clear waters are an attractive watercourse that runs centrally through the village. Its Wishing Well still attracts tourists who can also enjoy Upwey’s other fine buildings such as the mill, the 19th-century school and the church of St Lawrence. Thomas Hardy visited the mill on several occasions but it is unlikely that it is the Overcombe Mill of The Trumpet Major.
Downstream the Wey flows through its shallow valley to Broadwey, where, off the busy traffic-infected main road, Mill Street and Watery Lane remind us of the river’s presence. Here are the 18th-century mill, and other well-preserved stone cottages. The river flows on to Nottington, which once had aspirations to become a spa with its health-giving spring. Its old malthouse, dating from the early 19th century, has long since been converted to flats. If the Wey has been temporarily relegated to semi-obscurity, it emerges from under the main road bridge to enter the Radipole Lake Nature Reserve, whose reeds and waterways bring a wilder rural element contrasting with the housing estates of Southill and Radipole. Conveniently adjacent to one of Weymouth’s main car parks, the RSPB Reserve has much to offer both local ornithologists and tourists, with its well-equipped information centre.
The Wey now becomes part of Weymouth’s urban scene. It flows into the busy Backwater marina, flanked by the old gasworks on one side and the new shopping centre on the other. It then enters the port of Weymouth, with its commercial fishing, ferries to the Channel Islands, and pleasure vessels. Here on the northern side are the brick-built Custom House and the Harbour Master’s Office and beyond are the ferry terminals and Weymouth’s Pavilion. On the southern side, set back from the water, is Devenish’s old brewery, now the Brewer’s Quay development, with interesting and varied shops, café, and the informative Timewalk. Seaward lies the Nothe headland with its Palmerston fort and guns, today another important tourist attraction.
Weymouth inevitably dominates the South Dorset Lowlands. In 1906 Frederick Treves described it as ‘ a popular twentieth century holiday resort, a place of lodging-houses and hotels, and of villas for the “retired”.’ A hundred years on it is still a popular seaside resort. Its sea front, the Esplanade, lined by elegant Georgian terraces, is still one of the finest in southern England, and stands out prominently even when viewed from the distant White Nothe. Although British holiday habits may have changed, Weymouth’s fine sands, grand hotels and wide-ranging tourist facilities still exert a perennial attraction. Just behind the Esplanade, Weymouth’s shopping centre, now pedestrianised, and newly refurbished in part, serves a wide area in South Dorset, with only Dorchester for immediate competition. A growing industrial function sprawls in the estates towards Charlestown and Chickerell. Urban housing has spread, almost engulfing Wyke Regis to the west and extending far along the Dorchester Road to the north. A new relief road to ease traffic problems is imminent, and the choice of Weymouth and Portland as the venue of the water sports for the 2012 Olympics will bring both recognition and prosperity.
If Weymouth has encroached on the nearby once-rural settlements, others farther to the west and east have retained quite separate identities. Treves lamented the ‘once pretty village of Sutton Poyntz’. He found the village mill quite unappealing, and chided the new waterworks for its ‘exceptional ugliness’. Although commuter and retirement developments are part of the village now, the pond retains an essential charm, with its weeping willows and bobbing ducks. Although the Wessex Waterworks are still used in part, they now house an interesting museum featuring the changing technology of water supply. Set in its own lowland, in the distant shadow of the figure of George III cut in the chalk, Sutton Poyntz is still an attractive village in the South Dorset scene.
Westwards, beyond the sprawl of development along the Dorchester road, few villages enhance the rural fabric until the Chalk downs push down towards the Fleet above Portesham and Abbotsbury. Small hamlets, such as Buckland Ripers, Shilvinghampton and Coryates neatly tuck into the landscape of low ridges and valleys. Occupying an outstanding site, beneath the Portland Limestone escarpment, overlooking much of the South Dorset lowlands west of Weymouth, is the splendid Waddon House. This was built by Harry Chafin in 1700 in classical style using Portland Stone from local quarries: other parts of the House to the north and east date from an earlier time.
Langton Herring could be described as South Dorset’s quietest and most remote village. Over a mile from the Fleet to the south, it shelters in a slight hollow, but parts of the village command great open views of the Fleet and Chesil Beach beyond. It has a slight maritime feel to it, and Coastguard Road leads directly to Langton Hive Point on the enclosed waters of the Fleet. More associated with smuggling is the village of Fleet to the east. Some of the original village was destroyed in the great storm of 1824, when the sea broke through Chesil Bank, and the new church was re-located farther inland; literary immortality was bestowed on it by J Meade Faulkner in his novel Moonfleet, an absorbing tale of smuggling in the eighteenth century.
Frederick Treves chose to make a stark comparison between South Dorset’s two most westerly villages. He found Abbotsbury a ‘fat, comfortable, well-to-do village’ whilst Portesham was a ‘somewhat dull settlement’, although, relenting a little, he admired the ‘clear and rapid rivulet which chatters down the street’. A century later there is still some validity in his judgement. Abbotsbury, with its numerous tearooms, galleries and inviting ascent to St Catherine’s Chapel, is a lively village, much admired for its thatched buildings built of the delightful yellow Corallian limestone. With its swannery, tropical gardens, church and abbey remains, it has an immediate attraction for tourists. Portesham has none of these, but its stream still gives some character to the village. Admiral Hardy, of Trafalgar fame, lived in Portesham as a boy, and in later life he often, endearingly, referred to the village as ‘Possum’.
From Abbotsbury’s Chapel Hill the view eastwards of South Dorset is comprehensive. In the foreground are the distinctive Corallian limestone features, Linton Hill and Merry Hill. The other ridges and valleys of the west lead away to Weymouth’s western suburbs. In the distance the long, low, dark shape of Portland broods away to the south of one of Dorset’s most appealing landscapes.