Purbeck and South Dorset
In the first instalment of a five-part, whistle-stop tour round Dorset's villages, John Chaffey travels along the county’s south coast and through the Frome and Piddle Valleys
Published in February ’14
Although the villages of Purbeck and South Dorset lie close to one of the South’s greatest conurbations in Bournemouth and Poole, and further west close to the growing urban spread of Weymouth, they retain much of their ancient form and character, often dating back to Saxon and Norman times. They possess the priceless asset of proximity to superior building stone in the busy quarries of Purbeck and Portland, which gives the villages much of their sturdy and timeless appearance.
Arne and Studland are Purbeck’s two heathland villages. Population has now fallen dramatically in pine-surrounded, somnolent Arne. At the end of its narrow heathland road, it is little more than a collection of farms and cottages, served by its small heathstone church of St Nicholas. Studland prospers behind its great stretch of golden sand. Ferry Road brings throngs of visitors from Bournemouth, and Swanage Road feeds in yet more from Purbeck’s own resort. Studland still keeps its Post Office stores and its rambling hotels. Erosion is eating away at its sand dunes, particularly at Middle Beach, and in fifty years its busy summer shores may look very different: the old cliff-line, set back from the sea now, may again form the coast.
Beyond the shapely line of the Purbeck Hills, villages and farms cluster thickly in the Vale of Purbeck, which is based on the sands and clays of the Wealden Beds. Corfe Castle reposes in the shadow of its now-ruined great medieval castle, built on the hillock isolated by the twin streams of the Corfe River and the Byle Brook. Its village square throbs with commerce with its pubs, shops and Post Office. The National Trust maintains an important presence with its shop and tea room. A new art gallery has appeared on East Street, where a prestigious jewellers still plies its glittering trade. Stone cottages and villas line both busy East Street, with its incessant traffic to and from Swanage, and the narrower West Street, which is steeped in the history of the stone industry and leads away to Corfe Common and distant Blashenwell Farm. It is said that some of West Street is underlain by up to twelve feet of chippings, where Purbeck marble was worked. Purbeck limestone, particularly the Broken Shell limestone or Burr, is the principal building stone in the village, although heathstone has been used in places
Westwards, Church Knowle sits comfortably on its ledge above the damp pastures of the Wicken or Corfe River. Its line of thatched stone cottages leads away from the medieval St Peter’s Church and its old rectory, to the New Inn and the animal sanctuary. Beyond Barnston Manor, Whiteway and Blackmanston Farms lies Steeple (built on one of the sandstone ridges within the clay vale) with its manor house, cottages and its church with its distant links with George Washington. Beyond, in the western Vale of Purbeck past Steeple Leaze and the forbidden lands within the Lulworth Ranges, lies Purbeck’s lost village, Tyneham (built on another sandstone ridge), whose villagers left in 1943, urging the military to ‘treat their village kindly’; sadly, they never returned, although today’s village has its restored church, its refurbished school and its History Barn to interest weekend and holiday visitors.
On Purbeck’s southern windswept limestone plateau, each of the three stone villages has its own appealing character. All three are built on the outcrop of the Purbeck Beds, which are still quarried around Langton Matravers. Its long street, with its pub, village stores and St George’s Church, leads steadily westwards from sheltered Coombe to the open quarry – scarred airy spaces around the little cluster of cottages of Acton. Further west, Worth Matravers nestles in a hollow, with its ancient church, duck pond, lively inn and recently re-opened café. Just to the north is the deep quarry at Swanworth, now in the last years of its operation. Kingston is Purbeck’s hill-top village, reached by curvy hairpins from Corfe Castle. The tower of St James’s, the Cathedral of Purbeck, pinpoints the village. It was built in the late 19th century (1874-1880) and is noted for its use of Purbeck marble in the interior.
Beyond, remote thatched Kimmeridge lies within its own limestone scarp-fringed lowland, with one of the finest seascapes in Dorset as a backdrop. Although almost a mile from the sea, it still has inhabited coastal cottages at Gaulter Gap; these originally housed the miners who worked the famous Blackstone Shale band. Kimmeridge Bay was the site of much industry in the past, using the Blackstone for a variety of purposes, but none survived for long.
Villages line the terraces of both the Piddle and Frome valleys. As the Piddle leaves its Chalk origins, Puddletown still revives memories of Hardy’s Weatherbury. Downstream, Tolpuddle forever enshrines the early struggles of agricultural labourers. Affpuddle, its fine Ham Stone pinnacled church in remarkable proximity to the Piddle, merges imperceptibly with Briantspuddle, with its cosy and substantial thatched cottages of Bladen Valley, built by Sir Ernest Debenham between 1919 and 1932. Eastwards, hidden Bloxworth, Morden and the Lytchetts lie pleasantly within their well-farmed, copse and hedgerow country. Here the lowest Eocene beds form a marked escarpment overlooking the lowest of the Chalk country, particularly to the west of Morden and to the west of Bere Regis. Here are the most easterly occurrences of solution hollows in the Eocene, caused by the dissolution of the underlying Chalk by downwards percolating acidic groundwater. A local building material, the Lytchett Matravers Sandstone, is used in such churches as Lytchett Matravers and Almer.
From Dorchester downstream, villages overlook the floodplain of the Frome. Hardy’s Stinsford, close to his birthplace at Bockhampton, lies on the south-facing terrace: no other village, apart from tiny Tincleton, is encountered until military Bovington is reached. To the south, West Stafford is all thatched rural charm, Woodsford overlooks the sinister Frome weirs that encapsulate Hardy’s fatalism, and Moreton church guards Whistler’s enchanting engravings. Wool and Crossways are Dorchester’s suburbia.
Nearer the coast, Sutton Poyntz, with its willow-fringed mill-pond lies within its own small lowland eroded out from a pericline. Preston on the Kimmeridge Clay, and seaside Overcombe on the Corallian, are threatened by Weymouth’s eastward spread. To the west, Chickerell and Wyke Regis have already succumbed.
Southwards are the enduring stone villages of Portland – an island mass of Jurassic limestone, the source of virtually all of their building materials. Underhill includes the one-time naval shore base of Castletown, now busy as a diving centre and Portland Port, flood-threatened Chiswell, and Fortuneswell, all quaint surviving shops, slate roofs, winding streets and alleyways. The connecting road to Tophill was much threatened by landslides at Priory Corner, but this has now been made safe by corrective engineering works. Tophill gives more space for its villages to grow, restricted only by their encroaching stone quarries such as Coombefield and Bowers.
Easton is Portland’s busy shopping centre, encircling its flower-bedded square, with its splendid Wesleyan church. Beyond the stark Georgian majesty of St George Reforne, thriving Weston has Portland’s only thatched cottage and its oldest surviving Tudor house. Southwell, in Portland’s deep south, has its Avalanche Memorial church, with its shipwreck memories, and Portland’s future in its Business Park. ◗