In the Footsteps of Treves: Sandsfoot and Wyke Regis
Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick to the south of the county
Published in December ’16
One hundred and ten years ago, the first edition of Sir Frederick Treves’s book Highways and Byways in Dorset was published. Chapter XIV found him visiting the stretch of coast between Weymouth and Portland: ‘Near to Weymouth is the ruin of a block-house called Sandsfoot Castle, erected by Henry VIII in the year 1539, when the country was in daily fear of an invasion prompted by the Pope. It stands upon a green flat by the sea, into which it is gradually tumbling. In Leyland’s day it was “a right goodly and warlyke castle”, but time and tourist have reduced it to a mere windy shell of corroded stone.’
Sandsfoot Castle was one of Henry VIII’s ‘Device Forts’(or ‘Henrician Castles’), built in large numbers to defend the south coast against the many foes created by Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Dorset has two other examples – Portland Castle and Brownsea Castle. Allegedly constructed, at least in part, using stone from the ‘dissolved’ Bindon Abbey, it is perhaps ironic that a number of buildings in the vicinity of Sandsfoot Castle have, as part of their fabric, stone taken from the crumbling structure. Treves saw it as a ruin and 18th-century illustrations show it much as it is today. It has long been dilapidated; in fact, within 50 years of its construction, Sandsfoot Castle was in trouble, its foundations undermined by the sea. Repairs were carried out on two occasions in the early 1600s but aside from being garrisoned for a while for the King during the Civil War, it was not to see action and by 1665 had been removed from the Military Register.
Pennell’s picture from Highways and Byways in Dorset shows Sandsfoot Castle almost alone on the edge of the cliff. Over a century later, the ruin is surrounded by roads and housing. Work has been carried out recently to make the structure safe, to install an internal walkway and to curtail further collapse of the castle. Well-kept gardens (originally set out in 1931) and a café are now part of the experience and Sandsfoot is classified as Weymouth’s only scheduled monument. This section of the coast affords a spectacular view of Portland, a vista most would appreciate in some way or, in Treves’s case, not appreciate: ‘The “isle” of Portland seen from the mainland – to which it is connected by the Chesil Beach – is a dismal heap of stone standing out into the sea, with the ravenous, ship destroying “race” tearing in front of it, with Deadman’s Bay, the scene of a thousand wrecks, to the West, and a fatal shoal, well called the “Shambles”, upon its Eastern side. The azure bay enclosed by its mighty breakwater is ever full of black, unwieldy, unshiplike vessels of war.’
Treves was writing at an interesting time in Great Britain’s history. The decade or so before World War 1 was a time of great military rivalry between Great Britain, Russia, France and Germany, which resulted in a proliferation of British warships being built, many of which would have been anchored at Portland Harbour. Treves, however, hasn’t yet finished with Portland: ‘There is a dour solemnity about the place, about its wall-like cliffs piled up at the base with a slope of fallen stones, about its greyness, its chilling isolation, its melancholy story. It is not to be expected that beauty will be found upon a rock which is in part a fortress, in part a quarry, formerly a convict prison founded in 1848, now a Borstal Institution. Indeed, the wan, colourless “isle” has no more pretence to charm than has the barrel of a dismounted cannon.’
Highways and Byways in Dorset was never intended to be a guide book in the conventional sense, although other editions of the ‘Highways and Byways’ series, written by different authors, tend to err on the side of complimentary when describing towns and villages in the elected county. Treves on the other hand (despite being extraordinarily fond of his native Dorset) tended to go for the ‘warts and all’ approach to his subject. Rest assured that when he eventually does get to Portland, things become more positive, but he must first travel through Wyke Regis: ‘The way to Portland is by Wyke Regis – a village on a hill – whose lofty church tower is a familiar beacon to the man of the sea. Around the church are two churchyards of very exceptional size, crammed with tombstones. There are reasons for the existence of this immense necropolis. At one time Wyke church was the mother church of Weymouth; thus it is that many of the dead came from inland. Moreover, in this God’s Acre is gathered no small part of the harvest of Deadman’s Bay, the scene of some of the most terrible of wrecks.’
The essence of Wyke Regis is still that of a village but it has long since stopped being such; it is now joined to Weymouth, the two difficult to separate. Although it may have been a village, its church has never truly been a village church. It has, as Treves explains, a vast number of tombstones marking comparatively few of the many thousands who have been interred here. On the subject of those buried here, Treves continues: ‘Here lie Cornet Burns of the 26th Regiment and Lieutenant Ker of the 46th, with twenty-six soldiers, a few of the great company who were washed ashore dead from the transports “Venus”, “Piedmont”, and “Catherine”, lost in the West Bay, November 18, 1795. (ADMIRAL CHRISTIAN’S FLEET) Of the bodies thrown up by the sea on or about that day no fewer than 208 were buried on the Chesil Beach where they were found. In one grave in this woeful cemetery lie 140 of the passengers and crew of the “Alexander,” East Indiaman, wrecked in the bay in 1815. Here also are the resting places of eighty out of 300 drowned in the loss of the “Earl of Abergavenny” on the Shambles in the winter of 1805’.
There are a number of mass graves here and whereas the captain of the Abergavenny was buried in his own grave, it is unmarked. Had it been marked, the stone might read ‘John Wordsworth, brother of William Wordsworth’ for that was he. Dorset County Museum has a pair of cufflinks found shortly after the loss of the Abergavenny; they are marked ‘JW’ and are believed to have been owned by John Wordsworth. Amongst many monuments and tablets in All Saints church, there is on a wall a tablet telling of the tragedy of the Alexander in 1815. Wyke Regis church now has over its south door the stone-carved royal coat of arms that once graced Sandsfoot Castle; it was probably moved here in the 17th century.
Treves makes no mention of the Whitehead Torpedo Works, which would have been expanding rapidly when he visited. Robert Whitehead, inventor of the self-propelled naval torpedo, set up torpedo development and production in 1891 and until 1966 torpedoes were produced here. Engineering continued in various forms until the late 1980s, but in 1997 the buildings were demolished. The site is now housing and called Whitehead Drive.
Treves now gets his opportunity to describe the road to Portland in his own, inimitable style: ‘The road from Wyke Regis to Portland is by the attenuated ridge of the Chesil Beach which connects the so-called island to the mainland. This road is some two miles in length, and for monotony and tediousness it cannot be surpassed. To a tired pedestrian on a hot summer’s day the glaring penitential path is little less than a torture. The road appears to have the power of extending itself without end, like a treadmill placed horizontally. The way has no variableness nor shadow of turning. It is ever pebbles, pebbles, pebbles. The only relief are the telegraph poles which border this road of the Wandering Jew, and which furnish the blessed diversion of something to count.’
Treves’s style is certainly evocative – probably evoking feelings of rage amongst native Portlanders – and whilst walking the road between Wyke Regis and Fortuneswell on a hot summer’s day might be an effort, resorting to counting telegraph poles is nonetheless a little extreme. The area is now a nature reserve deemed important for wintering birds and as a stop-off point for migratory birds – there is a visitor centre and a café on site – so not quite the Edwardian purgatory of Treves’s time.