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A bitter-sweet remembrance

Helen Baggott compares the bleak view of a 1960s Swanage with today’s town

In the early 60s the writer Nicholas Wollaston embarked on a tour of England. Travelling from town to town he later published his observations in the book Winter in England.
Wollaston came to Swanage during November 1963. With a thinly disguised cynicism he witnessed the town commemorate Remembrance Day. But this wasn’t his first visit to the area. Until 1939 he had studied at the Old Malthouse in Langton Matravers.

Swanage and New Swanage with Ballard Point beyond and Bournemouth in the distance

Swanage and New Swanage with Ballard Point beyond and Bournemouth in the distance

After his father’s murder in 1930 his childhood was further blighted by bad health. An education on the coast might have improved his asthma, but it did little for his spirit. As he returned to the school in 1963 he was almost alarmed at the lack of change. The same lockers and desks filled the classrooms, as did the ‘dry smell of chalk dust’. The diagonal window panes were still there too, offering ‘the same view of stone buildings…only the dark green paint that had covered everything was missing’.
A childhood without a father and the harsh routines imposed at the school clearly left a deep wound – still raw, decades later. Towards the end of his life Wollaston was able to bridge the chasm of loss by writing his father’s biography. Diaries and letters would allow an insight into the man he never knew, but his sombre mood prevailed during the 1963 visit. Swanage was, he wrote, ‘left to the caretakers, waiting for next Easter, or Whitsun or August. Most of the hotels and cafés were shut…even the dodgems’.
Waitresses now share space with takeaway and self-service, as cafés recognise the rambling visitor who might prefer to eat alfresco – even in November. There’s no denying that a brisk easterly wind will see only the diehards venture along Shore Road, but visit the town when its natural buffers keep the strong winds away and there’s no finer place than the seafront, stretching on past the old quay and towards the pier.

Wollaston's sometimes cynical record of his  journey around 1960s England

Wollaston's sometimes cynical record of his journey around 1960s England

The Mowlem Theatre dominates that seafront and offers the promise of entertainment. Built in the late 60s with bars, a restaurant and shops, it replaced the Victorian Mowlem Institute. In Wollaston’s time the Institute struggled with meagre audiences. He commented that Gem Lloyd’s season of plays might have delighted summer visitors, but on a Saturday night in November it attracted only twenty-six.  With 400 seats, the recently refurbished Mowlem faces similar challenges during the winter.
One hotel open during the visit was the Wolfeton in Victoria Avenue. Although demolished in the 70s, it’s still possible to pick out three garden walls that fronted separate houses, eventually joined to become the hotel. Despite considering that Swanage was closed, Wollaston was not the only guest at the Wolfeton. ‘There were parents with their sons out from one of the preparatory schools…they looked so bored, both parents and sons’. Other guests had retired to Swanage and he noted they had ‘once ruled an empire…spoke impeccable Swahili…
built railways and sentenced natives to death’. Again, a jaded view casts a shadow over the words as he dismisses the value of those lives now drawing to a close in a
seaside hotel.

Swanage looking south to the pier head and sailing club, which are overlooked by modern developments

Swanage looking south to the pier head and sailing club, which are overlooked by modern developments

An advert for the Wolfeton declares it had a licence and a mention in a good food guide. Today’s visitor looks for more than ‘interior sprung mattresses and hot and cold water’. They demand satellite TV, an en-suite bathroom and free Wi-Fi – with even the smallest B & B providing them as the norm. It’s a competitive business and standards have risen to meet expectations.
The short stretch of Victoria Avenue where a number of hotels have been replaced by either residential or holiday flats might indicate a collapsing market – hotels along Ulwell Road have suffered a similar fate. But that’s not necessarily the case – it’s merely adapting to meet different needs. Long weekends and mid-week breaks bring a new kind of visitor to the town. Families may no longer book their two weeks in a hotel, but other, more positive trends are developing.
David Corben, from estate agents Corbens, believes that even with the loss of so many hotels, Swanage remains a holiday resort. ‘One third of our recent buyers have been purchasing holiday homes, which they will be using for themselves or to let out. Most have had an association with Swanage over many years and you hear the same story time after time – that they came here with their parents.  They choose Swanage because it hasn’t changed in the same way as many of the other resorts along the south coast have.’

St Mary's church on Remembrance Day

St Mary's church on Remembrance Day

Wollaston presumed that many of the town’s residents were ‘retired people, marooned…by the comparative failure of their careers’. With more effort they may have made it to the brighter lights of Bournemouth, he thought. In spite of that view, many do dream of retiring in Swanage. But does this mean it’s becoming an extended home for the elderly? Until at least the 1970s there was a reliable trade with hotels catering for an older generation. Today, retirees want to retain their independence – they may even choose a flat in one of those former hotels. Retiring by the sea isn’t a new idea, it’s a changing one.
In his own later years Wollaston conceded a need, both individually and nationally, for remembrance. Back in the 1960s he was sceptical about demonstrating a collective conscience. Recording the Remembrance Day service in St Mary’s church, he ridiculed the attempts by veterans to salute. Mocking the hymns, he observed that a town like Swanage could not be further from the events of the Somme, so why remember?
For Remembrance Day services in the 21st century the pews of St Mary’s are filled to capacity. Along the route from the seafront visitors and residents alike acknowledge the parade. Richard Drax chose to participate in the town’s services during his first year as Member of Parliament for South Dorset. As a former military man, he is passionate about the need to remember: ‘Remembrance Day is not only important for me, but also I believe for the public at large. The day commemorates those who have given the ultimate sacrifice: their lives. The debt we owe is huge and these services and parades ensure we respect our dedicated service men and women. We must never forget this sacrifice and I am confident that each year a grateful nation will bow their heads in silence in memory of
our fallen.’

The Swanage war memorial with wreaths from those honouring the town's fallen from two world wars

The Swanage war memorial with wreaths from those honouring the town's fallen from two world wars

The memorial on the Recreational Ground carries the names of the fallen, including civilians killed by enemy bombs dropped on the town. Wollaston doubted that even in the 1960s anyone would know those men and women. But the names belong to Swanage. The Rose brothers, killed in the First World War, were from the family of jewellers who had their shop on the corner of Station Road and Mermond Place. The siblings of Kenneth Tatchell, killed in the Second World War, had families and those nephews and nieces who live in the town today. Each and every name on the memorial is more than just an inscription.
As Wollaston watched the wind beat against the hastily laid wreaths he spotted children playing on swings ‘quite uncurious about the ceremony’. Today, Paul Mason, headmaster of Swanage First School (Mount Scar), believes it’s important for even young children to learn about remembrance: ‘Every year we participate in a service at the War Memorial with other schools. We take part in a minute’s silence and then plant wooden crosses upon which the children have written the names recorded on
the memorial.’
Glimpsing the lights of Bournemouth across Swanage Bay, Wollaston listened as the Last Post echoed around the exposed memorial. Perhaps it was this, accompanied only by the lapping of waves upon the beach below that struck a chord. He mentioned his irreverence, maybe he felt ashamed. But as the final notes soared above he recalled that ‘something suddenly brought a tear to my eye, a tear that I couldn’t pretend was brought by the sea wind’.
The passing years have seen many changes to the
town, but the people provide a constant. Today’s children, who learn of remembrance and plant their wooden crosses, will be the wreath layers of tomorrow. Swanage will always remember.

Resolving Nicholas Wollaston’s grief
Nicholas Wollaston was four years old when his father Sandy was killed in 1934 – shot dead by one of his Cambridge students. In his book, My father, Sandy, 70 years on, Nicholas finally confronted his loss and went in search of the father whom he hardly knew. Sandy Wollaston was a doctor, botanist, explorer and lived in the last great age of discovery. On extraordinarily tough expeditions to New Guinea, the Sahara and the Himalayas, he collected new flora and fauna of lasting importance and, in 1924, in tweeds and leather shoes, he accompanied Mallory on his first trip to Everest.

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