Clive Hannay’s village walk – Worth Matravers
Clive Hannay in Purbeck’s deservedly renowned village
Published in January ’14
What makes an essential Dorset village? Stone cottages, a village green, a pond with ducks on it, an interesting church and a picturesque pub make a pretty good start. Worth Matravers ticks all these boxes, but is also set in beautiful countryside with the added advantage of long views down to the sea in all its changing moods. It is also one of the oldest villages, with evidence of continuous occupation for around 6000 years. Once a village for quarrymen, fishermen and farm-workers, today it welcomes visitors from many countries with its mix of affordable houses for local people, houses for the retired as well as active and some 20% second or holiday homes. On a warm summer weekend the village car park bulges at the seams.
One of the attractions is the Square and Compass, surely one of Dorset’s most idiosyncratic pubs and certainly one of its most popular. Your beer or cider is still served through a hatch and the food menu may be summed up as ‘anything as long as it’s a pasty’. It has been run by the Newman family since 1907 and the present landlord, Charlie Newman, displays the important and impressive fossil collection built up by his father and himself in a museum which includes all sorts of other items of local historical interest. The name of the pub comes from the stone trade, referring to tools used to make right-angles and circles respectively.
Until the 19th century, quarrying was much more important to Purbeck than tourism – the road following the ridge from Kingston to Herston was in use long before the present A351 along the bottom of the valley was thought of – and Worth Matravers was of more significance than Swanage. Its parish church was the mother church of Swanage, the two places being connected by the Priest’s Way, still a popular walking and cycling route.
The church at Worth is dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, who is the patron saint of sailors, children – and pawnbrokers! It is an important example of Norman church architecture with a 12th-century tower, chancel and nave. It was not spoilt by extensive 19th-century restoration. Its most striking feature is the chancel arch with classic Norman chevron moulding, so magnificent that most authorities believe that it was brought here from elsewhere – probably Cerne Abbey, which owned farms in the area – but there is actually no documentary evidence that the arch was imported.
In the churchyard lie Benjamin Jesty and his wife, Elizabeth. Jesty was a farmer who knew that his milkmaids who had contracted cowpox from cows’ udders appeared immune to the much more serious smallpox. He therefore used a darning needle to scratch the arms of his wife and his two oldest sons and to introduce into the scratches matter from the pustules caused by cowpox – the first-ever vaccination. What his family thought about being used as guinea-pigs for such a hazardous experiment is not recorded, but much of the credit given to figures like Edward Jenner, more qualified and sophisticated than a Dorset farmer, for their work on vaccination belongs to Jesty, who was some twenty years ahead of them. Jesty actually did his experiments while living at Yetminster, near Sherborne, but he was tenant of Dunshay Manor at Worth Matravers for the last twenty years of his life.
The village played its part in World War 2 as home to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), which did vital work on the development of radar, particularly enabling it to detect low-flying aircraft and to be carried by night fighters and sea reconnaissance aircraft. Worth thus played an important role in both the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic. Following the successful Bruneval raid by British commandos on a similar German establishment on the French coast in February 1942, it occurred to the authorities that if we could do it, so could the enemy, and TRE was hurriedly moved to Malvern, where it still exists as the Royal Radar Establishment.
Start this 2-mile walk in the Renscombe car park (Postcode BH19 3LL; OS ref SY964774), which is reached by heading south from the B3069 Kingston-Langton Matravers road at the turning signed to Worth Matravers, turning right at the T-junction by the Square and Compass and driving all the way through the village and out the other side. Take the left fork in front of Renscombe Farm, and in a few yards the road becomes a track. The car park is on the right in about 100 yards.
Leave the car park through the further opening onto the access track, go straight across and through a gate, then walk along the left-hand edge of the field. In the next corner go through a gate, along a short track and through another gate into Weston Farm. Turn left, then right at the road. In ¼ mile turn right down a lane signed ‘Winspit 1. Private Road’. Follow the lane down and round to the left. A few yards after it abruptly becomes a rough track, turn left on a path that leads to a gate.
The open field beyond forms a shallow valley and the path climbs along its left-hand side to reach a gate. Follow the path beyond to a road where turn right, then right again to walk up the right-hand side of the village green. At the top is the Tea & Supper Room and the Old Post Office. Turn right once more. The Square and Compass is straight ahead, inviting a visit, but the route of the walk bears left immediately before it. Opposite the end of the pub’s buildings on the right, turn left up some steps onto a narrow path.
At the end of the path turn left through a gate, then go through another gate in about 40 yards and follow the left-hand field-edge. At the end of the field, turn left through a gate onto a grassy path that leads down into the churchyard of St Nicholas’s. Follow the path down – the Jesty graves are on the left, under a yew tree – and round the church to its front porch. Continue down to the road and turn right.
Walk back to Renscombe along the road. Shortly before passing Weston Farm, St Aldhelm’s Head with its distinctive square chapel is visible away to the left. Between Weston Farm and Renscombe, the David Donald Field Studies Base is housed in a much-converted TRE building and immediately opposite its drive there is a remnant of hard standing at the entrance to the field. These are the only traces of TRE in the vicinity of the village, although there are some ruined buildings and a memorial on the cliff near St Aldhelm’s Head.