Higher & Lower Eype
Clive Hannay and John Newth in a village where the pace of change has been slow
Published in October ’15
The village’s name means ‘steep’ – in a 14th-century document it was given the impressive name of Estieype-juxta-Symondsberghe – and there is no getting away from the fact that any walk in this area is going to involve a certain amount of uphill.
As its name in that old document suggests, Eype has always been a part of Symondsbury parish. It is remarkable, then, that its church, whose function was really that of a chapel of ease, is St Peter’s, larger and more impressive than the churches in many Dorset villages with a bigger population. It was finished in 1865, paid for by a bequest from a former rector of Symondsbury, who left enough to pay for not only the basic building but also some notable decoration: Minton tiles, ornate woodwork, fine stained glass, an eccentric porch and plenty of Purbeck marble and Bath stone.
Given its falling congregations and parlous financial state, the Church of England at around the millennium found such large, idiosyncratic churches a burden rather than a blessing. In 2002, thanks to a grant from the Walbridge Trust and the far-sighted persistence of the rector of Symondsbury, Ray Shorthouse, St Peter’s was converted to be suitable not only for its main purpose as a church (services are still held there), but primarily as an arts centre. Today there is a programme of regular exhibitions and performances and St Peter’s makes a significant contribution to the cultural life of West Dorset.
The acoustics of St Peter’s mean that it can even be used as a recording studio and in 2011 P J Harvey, who was born in Bridport and brought up in Corscombe, recorded her studio album, ‘Let England Shake’, there. The album won both the Mercury Prize for the best British album of the year and an Ivor Novello award.
Such excitements and upheavals have been rare in Eype: of the surnames found in the village in the 1660s, nine out of ten were still represented in 1970. The more one considers that statistic, the more astonishing and almost spine-tingling is the sense of continuity that it conveys. For century after century, Eype has dozed in its valley running down to the sea, its inhabitants surviving on the traditional Dorset coastal industries of fishing and agriculture. In the 18th century there was an increase in the availability of outwork from the net manufacturers of Bridport and, more significantly, smuggling thrived as the ‘four and twenty gentlemen’ found the isolated beach at Eype Mouth ideal for landing ‘brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk’.
Neither of these developments had the same impact on the village as the development of the tourist trade. The railway reached Bridport in 1857 and was extended to West Bay (previously Bridport Harbour but given a new, supposedly more mellifluous name) in 1884. The architecture in the village tells the story clearly: solid cottages of stone, often under thatch, higher up the village, with chalets and other tourist-oriented buildings down by the sea at Eype Mouth.
The quiet and unchanging nature of the village was what attracted the visitors in the first place and, unlike other places in Dorset, its fundamental character was not greatly affected by the influx; perhaps the restricted area between the steep sides of the valley, and the slight separation of the main part of the village from Eype Mouth, are to be thanked for that.
One excitement occurred in 1881, when a pioneering balloon flight took off from Bath and headed south-south-west. The four men on board noted with some alarm that the English Channel was coming closer and descended to land at Eype Mouth. Three of them leapt out successfully, one of them breaking his leg, but the balloon, relieved of the weight, soared up again with its one remaining unfortunate passenger, Walter Powell, the MP for Malmesbury. Last seen heading for the Continent at a great rate, the balloon was found some years later in the Pyrenees, but of Mr Powell no trace was ever discovered. The event was commemorated in four houses built soon after and named Balloon Cottages; they have today all been knocked down or re-named.
The beach at Eype Mouth is a mixture of sand and shingle, both of which have in the past been taken off for building purposes. Erosion and landslips are frequent occurrences, and there is a 1902 account of one lady having a close shave when a boulder ‘caught her umbrella and turned it into a shapeless object.’
R C Sherriff, the playwright and author of Journey’s End had a house built here, and the most distinguished recent resident has been Paul Atterbury of The Antiques Roadshow and Dorchester Literary Festival (see page 75).
A walk of just under three miles takes in both Higher
and Lower Eype as well as the lower slopes of Thorncombe Beacon, the hill that looms over the village to the west, and gives at least a flavour of the surrounding countryside. Start at the parking area south of the A35 just to the west of Bridport – it is the only turning to Eype and is
Turn left out of the parking area and double back to walk up the road to the first turning on the right. Turn right here, signed to Higher Eype. Walk through the handful of houses that comprise this part of the village and take the first turning on the left, Down House Lane. Continue on this as it becomes a track and then a drive up to a group of houses. Walk through them and then for about 50 yards on a rough track to reach a gate. Here turn left round the end of a barn and walk across the end of a narrow field. On the other side, go through a gate and down some steps, then turn right on a track.
Cross a stile and walk up the left-hand edge of the next field. In the first corner, cross another stile and bear left. In the first corner of this field, go through a kissing-gate onto the coast path. Walk along the clifftop before descending steeply into the car park at Eype Mouth. Turn right to visit the beach, then retrace your steps and follow the road up through Lower Eype.
Where the road bends to the left by Bethlehem Cottage, there is a choice. Stay on the road to visit the New Inn and to see some more typical Eype cottages. Or turn right, then left in a few yards on a narrow path that widens out and runs up the left-hand side of two open fields, from the second of which there is a fine view of St Peter’s. This path rejoins the road by the drive to St Peter’s. Continue on the road to a T-junction, where turn left. The parking area is a little further down on
the right. ◗