Clive Hannay draws and Rodney Legg writes about the charms of Purbeck's mini-village between the hills
Published in March ’10
The neat cul-de-sac village of Steeple is the smallest in the Isle of Purbeck. What it lacks in size it makes up for in character. Fine stone buildings are set between the hills around an almost archetypal time-warp green. Legally, however, it is not one, as it failed to be registered in the 1960s, and has now been fenced into a couple of sheep pastures. Not that it was either flat enough nor wide enough for a game of cricket, though that did not matter, as a place this small would have had difficulty fielding a team.
It would have been different in the Middle Ages, as the outlines of house platforms and closes can be seen on the ground behind Manor Farm and on the top of the slope beside the churchyard. Steeple has a Christmas cake version of the English parish church, with a 12th-century nave, but the 16th-century tower is without the spire that provided the original place-name. Locals insist, however, that Steeple is merely the Dorset vernacular for ‘steep hill’.
The earliest known rector was John of Gloucester, instituted on 1 November 1222, when the patron of the living was King Henry III. Just three members of the Bond family held the parish for a period of 147 years, from 1742 to 1889. The last, Prebendary Nathaniel Bond, unfortunately re-built the Norman south doorway of the church of St Michael and All Angels, when he added the porch.
The surprise – unless you have just come 4,000 miles with this in mind – is that both inside and out, in that porch, above a side door and on ceiling bosses, there is a vintage American connection. Bars and mullets of British heraldry have become the stars and stripes of the flag of the United States of America. A stone panel at Steeple carries the initials of Edward Lawrence, who died in 1616. They are identical with those on the signet ring of George Washington, the first President, and in both cases derive from the marriage of Edmund Lawrence (represented by the Crusader cross) of Creech Grange and Agnes de Wessington (her bars and mullets) in 1390. The local Lawrences lie in a sealed family vault beneath the aisle. Their symbols famously appear on the signet ring of the first President, George Washington, who was descended from the younger line of the Washington family.
Coincidentally, Steeple has an American barrel organ, but it was bought for neighbouring Tyneham church in 1872. It came to Steeple after all the land to the west was evacuated, in December 1943, for training Sherman tank crews who were to face the Panzers in the upcoming Battle of Normandy. Steeple church, after wartime neglect, was restored and re-opened in 1954 after a public appeal fronted by Sir Arthur Bryant. Recurrent repairs were needed, as the belfry was infested with death watch beetles.
Facing the church, in matching grey Purbeck stone, Steeple Manor dates from before 1600 but was rebuilt in 1698 with a crest and the initials ‘R-C-R’ for Roger and Ruth Clavell from Smedmore House at Kimmeridge. In the 19th century it was acquired by the Bond family from Tyneham who sold it to Major Holland Swann in 1920.
The cluster of buildings at Blackmanston is typical in showing the continuity of habitation in Purbeck. The present farm incorporates a two-up, two-down dwelling of the 16th century and was impressively extended in the 17th century and later.
As with most of the small scattered settlements across Purbeck, there was something hereabouts at the time of the Domesday Survey, in 1086. In particular there are the levelled platforms of ancient house sites on each side of the Corfe River, which separates them with a steep channel. Ploughing has turned up quantities of rough stone rubbles, amongst which are blocks of cut facing-stone to indicate the presence of something more prestigious.
Steeple was cut off by deep snow in the severest winter of Victorian times, in January and February 1895, when Douglas Filliter was living at the Rectory. He recalled the household being rationed to half a loaf of bread for three days as milk pans froze in the dairy and could not be skimmed. The hillsides became walls of ice and avalanches of snow crashed off roofs. The parson’s surplice was frozen stiff as he took a funeral.
A three-mile walk from the village brings in Blackmanston in the east and Steeple Leaze in the west, plus the seaward ridge which overlooks Kimmeridge Bay. The inland view is to Steeple and its scattered settlements, etched from a great green backdrop along the Purbeck Hills.
Park and start in the parking places facing the steps on the far side of Steeple church (OS reference SY911810 in postcode BH20 5NY). Set off back towards the village to the next churchyard gate and turn right across the stile. Walk straight ahead across the pasture to the double stiles in the hedgerow. Bear right across the length of the field to the barns and Blackmanston. Here turn right, up into the next field and walk round in front of the house to the lower gate on to the road.
Turn right, down across the valley, and then up to the top of the ridge on the other side. Its view is over the Clavell Tower and Kimmeridge Bay. Proceed almost to the hilltop junction where there are two paths signed to the right. Take the first – 30 yards before reaching the actual junction – and follow the sign to Steeple Leaze. Ignore those for the Lulworth Range Walks as our path turns off before reaching the red flag and does not enter the danger area.
Walk the length of the field, with the Purbeck coast spreading out to your left, and then enter the next field. Continue to follow the same fence westwards for a further 100 yards and then bear right, across to a bridleway gate, in the middle of the right-hand fence. Turn right into the scrubland, down a rocky cart track, which becomes a grassy path. It then resumes as a stony green lane into Steeple Leaze Farm. Follow the farm drive uphill for 75 yards beyond the buildings and then turn right through the field gate.
Bear left and cross the pasture diagonally up to the top right-hand corner. Cross double stiles in the scrubby hedgerow. Bear left, diagonally down to a gate beside the grassy earthworks of medieval house sites. Turn right to a stile and gate between Manor Farm and the cottage garden. Follow the drive down to the asphalt road and turn right to return to the church.