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‘One of Dorset’s grandest and most interesting country houses’

The history of Lulworth Castle is bound up with the stories of the Weld family and of one of the most important estates in South Dorset. John Newth has been to visit.

An aerial view of Lulworth Castle. To the left is the parish church of St Andrew, to the right the Roman Catholic Chapel of St Mary. Lulworth Castle House is behind the castle, with the Army ranges in the background.

An aerial view of Lulworth Castle. To the left is the parish church of St Andrew, to the right the Roman Catholic Chapel of St Mary. Lulworth Castle House is behind the castle, with the Army ranges in the background.

It was in 1971 that I visited Lulworth Castle for the first time. More than forty years on, I hope it is safe to admit that it was an act of blatant trespass, born of curiosity. I clambered over the wire fence and wandered through the remains of the castle. A light rain fell on me as I stumbled over the stones, bricks and lumps of masonry that littered the ground of the roofless ruin. Jackdaws cried raucously from what was left of the four corner towers, fire-blackened in some places, overgrown with ivy in others, and with their windows mis-shapen and devoid of mullions or glass. The atmosphere was eerie, deserted and depressing. The contrast the castle presents today could hardly be more striking: the outside has been restored to its original appearance and the inside, while not fully restored, has been put into a usable condition and contains hints and echoes of what the castle must have been like in its heyday.

The saloon before the fire

The saloon before the fire

Destruction by a disastrous fire and rescue some fifty years later are only the latest chapters in the story of one of Dorset’s grandest and most interesting country houses. It was built as a hunting lodge in the early 1600s by Thomas Howard, Lord Bindon, in the hope of attracting James I for a visit and thereby currying favour. The castle was sited and designed for maximum effect, its towers and battlements endorsing the fiction that it might have been a stronghold of medieval knights. The main room on the ground floor was the great hall, with the great chamber above. The King did visit once, in 1615, but by then Thomas was dead and the castle had passed to his cousin, the Earl of Suffolk.
In 1641 the castle and its estate was bought by Humphrey Weld. He was the grandson of a wealthy merchant who, Whittington-like, had come to London from the family home in Cheshire to seek his fortune and had not only found it but ended up as Lord Mayor. The Welds were a staunchly Catholic family and were ostracised following the Popish Plot of 1678 and, ten years later, the accession of the Protestant William and Mary. Two generations on, Edward Weld was accused of involvement in the 1745 Jacobite uprising; although he was quickly exonerated, it showed how Catholics could never feel completely secure.

Inside the beautifully ornate Chapel of St Mary

Inside the beautifully ornate Chapel of St Mary

His son, also Edward, had plans to create a new entrance hall and to replace the main stairs, but he died young and it was left to his brother, Thomas, to see the scheme through, using the Bastard brothers of Blandford as his builders. This Thomas was active in promoting Catholic emancipation and created at Lulworth the Chapel of St Mary. It was the first free-standing Roman Catholic church to be built for public worship in England for over two hundred years and was completed five years before the law was changed to allow Catholics to worship in public. Permission had to be sought from the King, George III, who hedged his bets by telling Thomas that he could ‘build a mausoleum and you may furnish it inside as you wish’. George knew very well what was going on, of course, and in fact visited the chapel in 1789. The chapel is built to look like the type of classical garden building that was popular in the late 18th century. Inside, it is delightful but with an air of reverence: a light and airy space whose decoration and artefacts range from a 1785 organ to a domed ceiling painted in 1987 to celebrate the building’s bicentenary.
The next Weld to own Lulworth, also Thomas, studied for the priesthood after the birth of his daughter and the death of his wife, and eventually became a cardinal. He passed Lulworth to his brother, Joseph, and lived in Rome, where he was often to be seen in the company of his grandchildren: however shady the private lives of some cardinals throughout history, Cardinal Thomas Weld remains one of the very few to have been legitimately both married and ordained.

Herbert Weld sits on the lawn, surrounded by his possessions, during the disastrous  fire of 1929

Herbert Weld sits on the lawn, surrounded by his possessions, during the disastrous
fire of 1929

Joseph’s son and two grandsons inherited in turn. His son, Edward, employed Joseph Hansom (he of the Hansom cab) to modernise the castle, including the installation of central heating. When that branch of the family died out in 1928, the estate passed to Herbert Weld, the son of Joseph’s second son. His was not a happy tenure: death duties had taken their toll; much of the furniture was claimed by the widow of one of his nephews who would have inherited Lulworth but who had been killed in the Great War; Herbert’s young wife died in the same year that he took possession of the castle; and in August of the following year came the fire that left the castle a ruin. The origin of the fire is not known, but suspicion fell on the primitive electrical system that had been installed. Fire engines arrived but ran out of water, despite efforts to pump it from the sea at Arish Mell, a mile away. Molten lead dripping from the roof helped to spread the fire, which burned for three days. Valuable paintings, furniture and silver were rescued with the help of two Girl Guide packs who were camping in the park, and were piled on the lawn around Herbert while he watched his castle burn.
Herbert being childless, Lulworth passed to the line descended from Joseph’s third son, and was inherited by Herbert’s first cousin once removed, another Joseph. He became the first Catholic Lord Lieutenant of Dorset and was knighted in 1973. His name is still revered by older people in Dorset and lives on in Joseph Weld Hospice in Dorchester. It was during his tenure that the branch of the family that held land in Lancashire died out and its assets reverted to Lulworth. This provided the means to stabilise and modernise the estate and to start the work of restoring the castle.
The son of ‘Sir Joe’, Wilfrid, inherited on his father’s death in 1992. It was he who entered a partnership with English Heritage to complete the restoration, and the formal re-opening took place in 1998. The roof had been replaced and the towers returned to their original appearance. The upper floors were not restored but the ground floor was made safe and re-floored. The two main rooms are the saloon, created from the great hall in the early 18th century, and the dining room, which was converted from a chapel. The stonework has been left bare; in the hall, the course of the main staircase can be traced on the walls, and a great arch still spans the dining room. Such echoes of the castle’s history capture the imagination in a way that better-preserved country houses with a less chequered history do not. As well as being open to visitors, the castle is in understandable demand for weddings, dinners and other functions, while the park is home to various events, notably the annual Camp Bestival.

The saloon today, decorated for a function

The saloon today, decorated for a function

In the basement, the kitchens, larders and other domestic offices have been re-created and there are displays relating to the family and the estate, as well as a section devoted to the fire and an activity room for children. At the other extreme, visitors can climb a modern staircase in the south-east tower to admire the surrounding parkland, hills and countryside from the roof. To the south they will see Lulworth Castle House. Sir Joseph lived in East Lulworth but Wilfrid Weld was keen that the family should have a home in the park and had the house built in 1977 to the design of his brother-in-law, Dorchester architect Anthony Jaggard. It is one of the major examples of 20th-century domestic architecture
in Dorset.
When Wilfrid Weld and his wife, Sally, moved from Lulworth Castle House, it was taken over by Wilfrid’s son, James, and his family. James has managed the estate for the last twenty years but a chief executive was recently appointed to take over that role, partly to introduce new ideas and expertise and partly to give James more time for his work with organisations such as the Jurassic Coast, the Country Landowners Association and the Local Enterprise Partnership. However, he will continue to be very involved at Lulworth, if in a less hands-on way. He and his wife, Sara, have three sons, the eldest of whom – Joe, like his great-grandfather – has just finished at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester. It seems a reasonable and reassuring assumption that the Weld family’s close and benevolent interest in Lulworth Castle and its estate will continue for the foreseeable future. ◗

❱ Lulworth Castle and Park are typically open Sunday to Friday (not Saturdays) from 10.30 am, closing at 5 pm during March to October and at 4 pm during November to March. There is a pay and display car park, and an admission charge to the castle.
❱ St Mary’s Chapel is open at the same times and Mass is regularly held there.
❱ Lulworth Castle House is occasionally open to groups by special arrangement.
❱ For details of events in the Park, hire of the castle, times of Mass or any other information, contact the Estate Office on 01929 400352 or go to www.lulworth.com

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