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In the Footsteps of Treves, The Isle of Purbeck – Corfe Castle

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Treves to the historic castle and village

Sir Frederick Treves was famous throughout the British Empire by the time he toured Dorset on his pedal cycle during 1904/5 collecting information for his book Highways and Byways in Dorset. His involvement with Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’ and the timely operation he performed that saved the life of Edward VII, just prior to his Coronation, had ensured his fame and fortune. Born in Dorchester and later in life moving back to the county, he would have known this part of Dorset well. He begins by describing Corfe Castle in his typical prose;
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‘The village is ancient and grey, a dim, mumbling place of tales and gossip. It has changed but little in the last century or so, and has remained unspoiled, although the canker of red brick has begun to gnaw at its vitals.
In many respects Corfe Castle could still claim to have changed but little since Treves’s time; most of the buildings that he would have seen still exist and the core of Corfe Castle remains as it has for centuries. Whilst there has been significant development along the Swanage Road south of the village (for Corfe Castle, once a town, must now be referred to as a village) this seems to have taken place predominately during the middle of the last century. Otherwise, the biggest change (and one which Treves would have been unable to foresee) is the manifold increase in traffic which has blighted Corfe Castle and the lives of its residents. This is a mixed blessing as much of this traffic brings tourists. Treves’s despised ‘canker of red brick’ mentioned throughout his book would be more conspicuous in Corfe Castle; stone being easily sourced, it is essentially a stone village. A house of red brick built in the centre of Corfe would stick out like the proverbial ‘sore thumb’. In apparent deference to this concept Church Villas in East Street, built in the early 1900’s, are constructed mainly of red brick but are rendered in such a way that only from the back of the properties can any exposed brickwork be seen; the front and sides being pebbledash or stone work. This same principle is also evident in a number of properties in the village, especially in West Street. Treves continues;
‘It is a wrinkled old place in the winter of its age, lying at the foot of its Castle like a faithful hound. Its three little streets lead humbly to the Castle gate. The keep rises high above the village, and looks down upon it as a sacred image would regard an adoring worshipper. The small town has ever been dependent upon the Castle, and is dependent on it still, for it brings to the place hungry tourists in char-a-bancs, with their holiday money in their pockets.’
The centre of Corfe retains its ancient street plan, possibly laid out around 700 years ago. The ‘three little streets,’ now metalled and extremely busy, still lead to the gates of the castle. Does the village still depend on the Castle? Well, Corfe Castle, sans Castle would probably be a tourist attraction in its own right; as ancient stone settlements go it is undoubtedly beautiful and the steam railway only adds to its attraction. The Castle, nevertheless, still dramatic and imposing, continues to be the mainstay of its tourist draw. Swanage Steam Railway and its park and ride facility running from nearby Norden have indisputably enhanced Corfe all the more. The rail tracks were taken up in 1972 and a great deal of work has brought back the tracks and the steam trains that Treves would have known. Like the use of Purbeck stone for walls and roofs in many new buildings around the Isle of Purbeck, it is a wonderful irony that many of the norms of a hundred years ago are once again evident today.
‘Even the humblest cottage may boast a strong buttress or an ancient outhouse of good masonry’. Writes Treves; ‘Stone-mullioned windows are common, while gables and flagged courts have never been démodé in Corfe. Opposite to the village cross is the Town House, with an especially fine bow window of many panes, capped by a roof of rugged stone.’
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The village cross, on an ancient base, was placed to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, therefore the cross and inscription would have been a very recent addition when Treves saw it. The square is still dominated by the Town House, as it has been since the building was constructed in the late 18th century; its beautiful wooden framed, curved bay window remarked upon by Treves is very impressive and must have been an attraction in its own right when it was first unveiled over 200 years ago. Rooms at the rear of the building, entered at the upper level (due to a difference in ground levels) are now used as church rooms but were once the Mayor’s Parlour and Robing Room. The Town House, like many other buildings in Corfe, is owned by the National Trust
Corfe has a disproportionate number of drinking establishments for its size but would have had yet more a hundred years ago. Studying one of them, Treves notes: ‘The inn has a porch with a small room over it, like a miniature house. This chamber is held up, with no little dignity, by three stone pillars, which have their time afforded comforting support to the backs of many carters while they drank their cider.’
The inn with the porch was and still is the Greyhound Inn; reputedly the most photographed pub in England. The porch, a later addition to the building and dated 1773, has in fact a relatively large room above it; now used as a staff bedroom it has been used as a Honeymoon Suite and a luggage room. As for the stone pillars; over the years I have seen many a drinker using them as a support while supping their libations but it is doubtful that many of them are carters nowadays!
‘Near the north entrance of Corfe are the picturesque remains of an old building, once the residence of the Uvedales, while on the Swanage road is an E-shaped, gabled house, with a paved court full of flowers, which was at one time the manor house of the Daccombes.’
John Uvedale became Mayor of Corfe in 1582 and it was he who built the house that Treves makes reference to. The building can be found as you enter the village from the direction of Wareham in East Street, built around 1575, it is at present 4 or 5 separate cottages and is another National Trust property. The E-shaped gabled house is now Morton’s House Hotel. Built in 1590 to the classic Elizabethan design, it became a hotel in the mid 1980’s. Treves continues: ‘Hutchins, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, describes the people of Corfe as of ‘‘supine disposition,’’ as well as with ‘‘a propensity to idleness.’’ He goes on to say that ‘‘the appearance of misery in the town is only too striking.’’’
Rev. John Hutchins was Rector in Wareham from 1744 until his death in 1773. He spent much of the later years of his life gathering information for his book, The History and Antiquities of Dorset, from where Treves found the above quote. Living in the locale, Hutchins would have been very familiar with Corfe, which makes his comments on the people of the village all the more interesting. I have to state that there is absolutely no evidence of Hutchins’ comments being true today! Finally, Treves looks to the Castle itself;
‘The glory of Corfe is the ancient Castle, now a picturesque ruin. Its position is most imposing. The Purbeck hills run from east to west across the isle in the form of a long rampart of smooth grass downs. In a sudden abrupt gap, or gate, in this Titanic barricade stands the Castle upon the summit of a precipitous mound. It rears itself against the light—a grim, menacing figure, the guard of the pass, the silent sentry in the breach. Beyond the breastwork of hills is the sea, and here, in the only passage for escape, the Castle strides across the highway.’
When Treves came here to research for his book the castle was the property of the Bankes family, as it had been since 1635. Upon the death of Ralph Bankes in 1981, the Castle and many buildings in Corfe Castle, the Studland Estate and Kingston Lacy Estate were all bequeathed to the National Trust. This was and still is the single largest handover of land and property in over a hundred years of the trust’s existence.

We would like to thank the large number of residents of Corfe Castle (too many to list here) for their help in researching for this article.

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