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In the Footsteps of Treves: Arne, Ower and the Poole Estuary

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick Treves to Poole Harbour

the view from Shipstal Point across Wych Channel to Long Island. On the right is Round Island, on the left in the distance is Brownsea Island.

The view from Shipstal Point across Wych Channel to Long Island. On the right is Round Island, on the left in the distance is Brownsea Island

In his book Highways and Byways in Dorset, Sir Frederick Treves – baronet, royal surgeon and more than occasionally acerbic travel writer – becomes unusually lyrical describing Poole Harbour: ‘It is a melancholy lagoon, a tragical inlet, sombre and desolate at most times. Its sea seems lifeless, and the country lonely, so that even in the summer time the landscape looks as if the sun shunned it. On the brightest day, when the tide is rising, the sea pours into Poole and floods the harsh moor with blue. The water shines like metal; the heath is a stretch of brown velvet, splashed with magenta where the heather is in bloom, with apple green where the pools are hidden, with a slash of red where a sand scarp catches the sun. There are crescent-shaped beaches of gold, crowned by hillocks of purple, or approached by yellow lawns and chocolate-coloured hollows. There are several islands in Poole harbour – a “Long Island” and a “Round Island” a “Green Island” and a “Furzey Island” together with an eyot known as “Giggers”.’
Long Island was recently sold after being part of the Rempstone Estate for over 250 years. The estate once owned other islands in Poole Harbour; however, when the last of the Calcrafts, owners of the Rempstone Estate since 1726, died in 1901, the concern passed to a nephew, Guy Montague Marston RN. Marston’s tenure proved costly for Rempstone as much property was divested. In 1901 the estate consisted of land from Poole Harbour to Worth Matravers, plus the aforementioned islands, but by 1928, when Marston died, much land had been sold and only two islands (Long Island and Green Island) remained in ownership.
Mystery surrounds this period. There remain no records as these were destroyed by Marston himself. Whilst he died a wealthy man, he should have been considerably wealthier in view of how much property he sold off. What happened with what would have been a significant sum of money is unknown; Marston was neither a known gambler nor a socialite, but his friendship with Aleister Crowley – the occultist and ceremonial magician – is another possibility. It is wholly plausible that large sums of money went to Crowley’s schemes. In Aleister Crowley: The Biography by Tobias Churton, Marston’s interests are described as ‘sex, anthropology and magick’, three traits not universally associated with financial prudence.
Treves now visits the most famous of Poole Harbour’s islands. ‘The largest of the isles is Brownsea, which is a mile and a half long and three-quarters of a mile wide…, notable owners of the island were the Sturts of Crichel, who did much to improve and beautify the place; and Colonel Waugh, who built the church and restored and enlarged the castle. The church was partly panelled with oak taken from Crosby Hall in London. Finally, after many vicissitudes, the much-restored and much added to castle was almost wholly destroyed by fire in 1896, to be once more rebuilt in the following year’. Crosby Hall is the only example of a medieval merchant’s house remaining in London, albeit not in its original location of Bishopsgate – it was moved stone by stone to Chelsea in 1910. It has been through a number of periods of neglect since being built between 1466 and 1475. The construction of St Mary’s church in 1854 may have coincided with one of these and the artefacts procured and brought to Brownsea.
Brownsea Castle, already subject to many vicissitudes according to Treves, was to face more over the next 100 years. Threatened with demolition, this was cancelled when the island was purchased by Mary Bonham-Christie at auction for £125,000 in 1927. Whilst she didn’t demolish the castle, neither did she live there, opting instead for an adjacent building. The island was left to nature, which as an animal lover she clearly thought the best option. Although in many ways she may have been the saviour of Brownsea, at least from the viewpoint of wildlife including the red squirrel population, the downside was the rapid takeover of the place by rhododendrons (introduced by the Victorians), and the partial collapse of the castle roof, resulting in a tree growing out of the structure. The much renovated castle, originally one of Henry VIII’s ‘Device Forts’, is now leased by the island’s owner, the National Trust, to the John Lewis Partnership, which uses it as a hotel for employees and retired staff. A year after the publication of Highways and Byways in Dorset in 1906, Baden-Powell held a camp to test ideas for his forthcoming book, Scouting for Boys. Brownsea is now considered the spiritual home of the Scouting movement.
Moving to the Purbeck shoreline of Poole Harbour, Treves continues: ‘On the shores of the estuary are two spots of interest, Arne and Ower. Arne is an oasis in the heath, close to the sea, a small cultivated promontory rendered fertile by the laborious importation of chalk to mix with the sand. In the time of Richard II, the settlement belonged to the monastery of Shaftesbury. There were then twenty-four tenants, all of whom had “plumbi”. The plumbum was a leaden token or ticket which admitted the tenant, upon one or more public days, to a dinner in the Abbey. These dinners must have been a great and rare joy, for Arne is as out of the world as a rock lighthouse. It is now a pleasant little hamlet under the shelter of a hill covered with gorse, oaks, and ash trees.’

The image Joseph Pennell drew from a similar position a century ago

The image Joseph Pennell drew from a similar position a century ago

Sir Frederick enters the beautifully situated Arne church: ‘Here is a very ancient chapel – the grey chapel of Arne. The Early English window still looks across the haven to the open sea, and the original altar stone, still in use, is marked with the five consecration crosses. Hutchins mentions and illustrates a linen cloth embroidered in blue silk with “the attributes of the Trinity” given to the church in 1661 by Wake, the rector of the parish church of Wareham. Fifty years ago this embroidery disappeared, and all trace of it is lost.’ In 2020 the parish church of St Nicholas will be officially marking 800 years. Wake, the rector of the parish church of Wareham, who gave the linen cloth to St Nicholas’s church, was William Wake, grandfather to Archbishop William Wake, who was born in Blandford in 1657.
On the night of 3 June 1942, Arne was subject to a major bombardment from German bombers targeting the Royal Navy Cordite Factory at Holton Heath. They had in fact bombed the decoy site set up on the Arne peninsula and, although this deception was successful in protecting the factory, damage was not limited to the decoy site and many of the buildings, including the church, were bombed. Visiting the area today, no obvious signs remain of what destruction rained down on Arne.
Treves now comes to Ower, which was, he wrote: ‘At one time the port for the passage across the harbour. It was a place of consequence, from whence was exported the stone of the Isle of Purbeck, as well as the china clay dug out of the heaths. The New Forest timber used in the building of Corfe Castle was landed here. Since 1710, a period of nearly 200 years, the little port has been silent, yet there are still traces of the quay and of the stout road that led westwards. When the Purbeck stone was shipped at Ower, there was an agreement made between the stone-owners and the proprietors of the quay, dated October 24, 1695, wherein it was agreed that the “acknowledgments” of one pound of pepper and a football should be paid to the stone company the day following Shrove Tuesday. A pound of pepper and a football form a curious commercial instrument, of which the chronicler furnishes no explanation.’
The tradition concerning the pound of pepper and the football is still very much alive and a byway leading to Ower is named Peppercorn Lane. Parts of Ower quay still exist; in fact, researchers have recently found evidence of the structure below the mud of Poole Harbour. Although Treves says that the ‘little port’ has been silent since 1710; the heyday of the place would have been around the time of the building of Arne church, some 800 years ago. One building remains at Ower quay, a house of considerable age, although the area is full of the relics of buildings that would have once been a part of this bustling community. Ower and much of the land around here belong to the previously mentioned Rempstone Estate.

Thanks to Lara Manningham-Buller and the Rempstone Estate for their invaluable help in compiling this article.

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