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10/07/2008 Archived Entry: "Dorset"
I’ve recently returned from a relaxing week in the splendid county of Dorset on the south coast of England. Cloudless skies and brilliant sunshine with a soft warm breeze provided more of a continental atmosphere than one might expect in many other parts of England. Beautiful blue seas, sandy beaches and yachts in full sail completed the image.
My mission was to explore the area to do some research for future projects, so we based ourselves in the charming Manor House Hotel in Studland. An old Gothic building with lots of towers and pointed roofs tiled in local stone, it has the appearance of a fairy-tale castle but its age is uncertain for it was once a priory. However, it was modernised in the 18th century and now provides a combination of old fashioned charm with the sophistication of modern comforts and facilities. One of the previous owners of the manor was an MP with fourteen children, which could explain the 21 bedrooms along with ample space on the ground floor and in the surrounding grounds. The dining room is oak panelled and the hotel has staircases that twist and turn to reach the upper rooms. The place seems full of secret passages and hidden corners.
It is perched on the clifftop above Studland Bay with stunning sea views and at the bottom of the garden is Fort Henry, a large rectangular concrete structure with observation slits where King George VI, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the future President as Supreme Commander Allied Forces Western Europe, watched the rehearsals for the D-Day landings of World War II.
Our base was within the Isle of Purbeck but that is a misnomer. The district is not really an island although it is surrounded on three sides by the sea, with rivers and streams flowing in and near the fourth side, albeit not quite detaching this picturesque rural area from the mainland. One of those sea boundaries is Poole Harbour, said to be the largest natural harbour in Europe and the second largest natural harbour in the world. To reach our part of the island at Studland, there is a small chain ferry that carries cars, buses, people, motor bikes and all manner of things, across the narrow strip of water that forms the harbour mouth. It is quite daunting to be aboard the ferry as massive channel ferries cruise in and out of the harbour on their journeys to and from the continent.
We took a walk along the top of the lofty white cliffs of Studland Bay to Old Harry’s Rocks which are part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. It is believed that these rocks were once connected to The Needles on the Isle of Wight. We were amazed at the wealth of ripening brambles, the weight of berries on holly trees and the hazel shoots growing within sight of the sea.
Among the wild life of Dorset, fallow deer are very numerous and at times they are a nuisance to field crops and gardens. We observed a doe dozing quietly on a rectory lawn and the owner told us the garden is her territory but that she grants him the privilege of sharing it with her. There were grey squirrels in abundance, along with pheasants and the usual small birds such as robins, pied wagtails, skylarks, various finches, dunnocks, wrens and various gulls. A small flock of parakeets visited our hotel grounds too, apparently living wild in the area.
The balmy weather conditions encourage the growth of plants that would never survive in my part of northern England. One fine example is the sub-tropical gardens at Abbotsbury which overflow with exotic species including tree ferns and palms.
We visited the village of Corfe with its beautiful stone cottages and the towering ruins of Corfe Castle which dominate the skyline. There was a castle here in the time of William the Conqueror but over the years it was extended and modified by three later Kings – Henry I, John and Henry III. In 1572, Elizabeth I sold it to the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Bankes. The Bankes were staunch Royalists and so Oliver Cromwell decided to destroy their home. Using powerful explosives in 1646, his men reduced the majestic castle to a ruin, but many of its damaged walls and rooms remain. In 1981 the Bankes family transferred the castle to the National Trust and it is open to the public.
Not far away is the equally spectacular Lulworth Castle, close to the famous Lulworth Cove. Viewed from the exterior, this castle with its four rounded towers seems complete but upon entry, it is evident it is a mere shell. Its owners are the Weld family who remained Catholic during the Penal Times but managed to survive the heavy fines for not attending Anglican services. The castle – more a large house than an operational castle – remained their stronghold until a disastrous fire in 1929 which completely gutted the house – but it is now open to visitors and is available for weddings, battle re-enactments and various charity events.
In the grounds is the first Roman Catholic free-standing chapel built after the Reformation. In 1786, George III gave his consent to its construction, provided the building looked like a mausoleum, adding "but you may furnish it as you wish." It is still used for Sunday Mass.