Kingston and Encombe
Clive Hannay in a Purbeck village that for years boasted two churches
Published in April ’15
Think of an estate village and you might think of the tidiness of Wimborne St Giles or the uniformity of Milton Abbas. Kingston is no less an estate village than these but its varied buildings of Purbeck stone rather straggle across the hillside to the south of Corfe Castle. Its variety is emphasised by some modern additions which for the most part fit well with the more traditional houses and their stone roofs.
The estate in question is Encombe, which was bought in 1734 by George Pitt, who already owned Kingston Maurward near Dorchester. His son, John, built the present house and left it to his son, William Morton Pitt. The latter was a considerable philanthropist who spent much of his fortune on creating employment in Dorchester and in Swanage – and in Kingston, where he established twine and sail-making jobs, ‘of a considerable loss and expense to himself yet undoubtedly of great importance to the community’, in Hutchins’s words.
The newly impoverished William Morton Pitt sold Encombe and Kingston in 1806 to the 1st Earl of Eldon, John Scott, who with a brief break was Lord Chancellor from 1801 to 1827. The son of a Newcastle coal merchant, he was a diehard reactionary – he implacably opposed the development of the railways, for example – and is generally regarded as a dry-as-dust lawyer. He himself believed that ‘a lawyer should live like a hermit and work like a horse’ and one of his contemporaries described him as ‘a sterile soul for all things earthly except money, doubts and the art of drawing briefs’. Yet this austere figure had been the hero of a youthful romantic escapade when he eloped to Scotland with the daughter of a Newcastle banking family, and he showed complete devotion to his wife, Bessie, through almost sixty years of marriage.
Perhaps the episode explains why he forgave his daughter, Lady Elizabeth, when she in turn eloped with George Repton, son of the landscape designer, Humphry Repton, and an architect in his own right who worked with both Nash and Pugin. In 1833 Lord Eldon asked his son-in-law to be the architect for the re-build of the church to the south-east of the village that had served Kingston since the 12th century as an out-chapel of Corfe Castle. The 1st Earl of Eldon lies in its churchyard with his beloved Bessie.
However, it is not this church (now a private residence) for which Kingston is best-known. In 1874 the 3rd Earl commissioned G E Street, architect of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, to design the magnificent church of St James, whose tower can be seen from all over Purbeck’s valley and its inner line of hills, earning the church the nickname, ‘the cathedral of Purbeck’. It is not a complete misnomer as the interior does have the feel of a miniature cathedral, with lots of Purbeck marble, and the tower boasts a peal of eight bells. As a fine example of Victorian Gothic, it has attracted praise from architectural historians as diverse as Pevsner, Betjeman and Clifton-Taylor. Yet the church remains rather soulless, a characteristic captured by Pevsner, who tempered his praise with ‘Harmony, symmetry, nobility are the qualities [Street] aims at. No passion is allowed, no touch of personality, let alone idiosyncrasy.’ Another authority puts it more succinctly:
‘A shadowy coldness pervades the church.’
The ‘old’ church continued to be Kingston’s parish church for forty years after the building of St James’s, which served in effect as a private chapel for the Scott family. So why did the 3rd Earl have it built? There is a family legend – for which, it has to be said, there is no firm evidence – that His Lordship was discovered in bed with the vicar’s wife, who was wearing nothing but one of the Countess’s hats. If the story is true, one can see that it might have strained relations between squire and vicar, and it would explain the presence of two churches in such a tiny village.
For many people today, Kingston is synonymous with its pub, the Scott Arms, and its garden that enjoys a stunning view of Corfe Castle. The pub opened in 1787 as the New Inn but soon changed its name to the Eldon Arms. After World War 2 the name changed again to the Scott Arms because by that time the Earls of Eldon had moved elsewhere and Encombe was owned by a different branch of the Scott family. However, there is still an Earl of Eldon and his eldest son has the courtesy title of Viscount Encombe. The house and part of the estate was finally sold out of the Scott family in 2002.
Kingston is so small that you can walk through it in a few minutes, so this route of a little over three miles heads out of the village towards the sea. It passes along the edge of the Encombe valley, which plays such a big part in Kingston’s life and history, and skirts Chapman’s Pool. This is one of the most atmospheric spots on the Dorset coast, the haunt through the centuries of fishermen (many of them residents of Kingston), shipwrecked mariners and the occasional smuggler.
Park in the region of the Scott Arms, or in its car park if you plan a well-deserved drink at the end of the walk, and head up the street, passing between the village pump and the house behind it, which was the post office until some twenty years ago. Cross over to visit St James’s, then continue up the road. Just past the de-restriction signs, the private drive to Kingston House goes off to the left. Take the track immediately to its right, next to a ‘no vehicular access’ sign. Follow the track through the woods, continuing straight ahead at any cross-tracks or junction.
At the end of the track emerge onto an open hillside with a stone wall to the left. Away to the right is the obelisk erected by the 1st Earl to his brother, also ennobled as Lord Stowell. It is worth keeping to the right so that you can look down into the valley, where Encombe House nestles in its sheltering trees. The hill on the far side is Swyre Head, Purbeck’s highest point. Continue along the top of the valley’s rim to reach the headland of Hounstout – ‘dog’s head’, although to see the resemblance takes a bit of imagination. Here turn left on the coast path and descend towards Chapman’s Pool, latterly on some rough steps that can be slippery if there is a lot of mud about.
Turn left over the first stile after the steps and bear quite sharply left to a gate about 50 yards to the right of the field’s far left-hand corner. Up a short slope, turn left on a paved track which eventually becomes a lane and leads down into Kingston next to St James’s. Turn right to return to the Scott Arms. ◗