Swanage (1889)

This article on Swanage and the surrounding area by W. Armstrong Willis first appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine, Published by F. Jefferies in 1889.

Out of Dorset, Swanage is not so well known as it deserves to be—though the inhabitants of that county and their neighbours have long esteemed it as a sea-side resort. The town itself is situated between Swanage Bay and Durlston Bay, which are separated by Peverel Point; and these bays are cut out of the most southerly end of that great curve of the English Channel in which are included Poole and Christchurch bays. Swanage is the chief town of the Isle of Purbeck, as this peninsular district is called. Besides having the sea to the south, the large system of land-locked lagoons known as Poole Harbour forms a barrier to the north of Purbeck, and cuts it off from direct land communication with Poole, Bournemouth, and Christchurch. To this isolation of position much of the charm of Swanage and its neighbourhood may be attributed. Purbeck proper is a peninsular region of the south-easterly part of Dorset, it is in shape an irregular oval about twelve miles long by ten broad. Formerly it was very difficult of access by land, and early in this century the roads on the lower levels were scarcely passable during the winter, even by waggons, owing to the clayey nature of the soil; in making the new roads they were intentionally taken over the hill tops as affording the hardest and most suitable foundation. To give an idea of the former badness of the low-lying roads, it was customary, in hauling heavy loads from one place to another, to drag them first to the top of the nearest hill with two teams and then to descend straight to the point of destination. Fortunately this state of things is changed, and there are now fair roads. Of recent years Swanage has been connected by rail with Wareham and the South Western Railway, so that it is easily reached from London and elsewhere. It must be allowed that much of the attraction of the district lies in its comparative isolation, forming as it does a little province to itself; and in spite of its better roads and its recent invasion by the railway, it retains much of its primitive simplicity. Accident of position has favoured Swanage with some peculiarities of climate; at a fair distance from the back of the town are the Purbeck Hills, of a horse-shoe form, running from Ballard Head westward to within a mile or two of Lulworth, each extremity ending in prec1pitous slopes which protect the town against the heavy inland and sea fogs not uncommon on this coast. The town is undeniably picturesque. From its older centre have been thrown out some streets of handsome houses radiating up the hill-side. The older part of the town, with its houses of soft-coloured, pearly-grey stone, and roofs of dark flagstones splashed in places with patches of yellow stonecrop and house- leek, winds along the surface of the hills in pleasantly irregular undulations. The background heights and the surrounding cliffs are covered with a short dark-green herbage, which stretches down to the yellow-grey sands of the shore ; this forms a harmonious piece of tender neutral colouring, throwing in relief the rich and sparkling tints of the sea which seem, by contrast, to glow with colour amidst its delicately toned surroundings.

The ancient tower of the parish church watches over the bay, stern, gaunt and four-square ; it is six hundred years old, without buttress or trace of ornament, and doubtless, as asserted, was built originally for a watch-tower and beacon. However, the best safeguard to the coast has been its rocks, on which, just below Peverel Point, the Danes lost one hundred and twenty vessels by shipwreck, and thus helped King Alfred to an ultimate settlement of the Danish question. On the beach is a granite column commemorating this event—it bears on its summit the curious ornament of five cannon- balls, the meaning of which is not easily fathomed ; there is also, on the outskirts of the town, a small obelisk erected by the townspeople to the memory of “Albert the Good.” About one mile to the south of Swanage is Durlston Head, which, with the land leading to and adjoining it, has been purchased and laid out for building purposes. It was originally a wild piece of ground stretching across the tops of the cliffs, and money has been lavishly expended on it preparatory to building operations ; miles of carriage-roads and walls have been constructed and millions of conifers and tamarisks planted. A broad road leads to Durlston Castle, a large, solid, and peculiar-looking structure built over Durlston Head, at an elevation of some hundred and fifty feet above the sea. This is being fitted up as a restaurant, and with its terraces and platforms is already pointed out from sea as one of the sights of the coast. Let into the south wall of this building is a sundial, and at a lower level are large, boldly- carved slabs on which are tabulated various statistics of universal interest and instruction, such as the duration of the longest day in various parts of the world, the variation of time caused by longitude, the convexity of the ocean, particulars of tides, &c. On a platform beneath the castle stands the great lion of Swanage—it is a globe constructed of Portland stone, representing the earth, weighing forty tons, and ten feet in diameter. On it are shown the continents in slight relief, the oceans and rivers]; stone benches are placed in a circle around the globe in the proper positions at the eight points of the compass, which they indicate, and with the direction clearly lettered upon them. It would appear that holiday-makers were beginning to write their names on the globe, in their usual imbecile fashion ; a large slab has therefore been placed in the wall close by, headed with this inscription: ” Any persons anxious to write their names will please do so on this stone “—a suggestion of value to owners of objects with a surface tempting to the knife or pencil of the excursionist. From the globe a path leads down towards the caves of Tilly Whim, and a tunnelled entrance has been blasted through the solid stone into one of them, which opens on to the sea. These caves have been formed by immemorial quarrying for the stone of the district. Hundreds of years has Purbeck stone been famous, and in old records one constantly meets with royal orders for Purbeck marble and stone for Westminster Abbey, for the construction of the Eleanor memorial crosses at Walthamstow and Charing Cross, and for other purposes ; grants of loads of it were also frequently made to heads of religious houses. Coming out from the caves there is a striking view of great rocky cliffs, with perilous-looking overhanging masses, and a dark boulder-strewn shore on which a fierce sea beats. The sight is imposing, and it is greatly enhanced by the Shakespearian lines carved in large letters on the face of the rock. Perhaps it must be rather startling to a cheerful picuic party of excursionists to see, abruptly lettered above their heads, how “the great globe itself” is to dissolve and “leave not a wrack behind.” The caves have been used by smugglers, a race of which this coast abounds in traditions and stories. The palmy days of the old French War was the time when they flourished most, though as early as 1720 the Mayor and inhabitants of Poole were petitioning the House of Commons and complaining of the decay of trade owing to the great quantities of goods run. Urged on by another petition, in 1722, the Government took the matter up and instituted proceedings, which revealed an immense and well-organised illegal traffic, carried on by the most respectable people in the district. These worthy smugglers thereupon coolly sent up counter-petitions from Poole and other Southern Ports, complaining that they were impoverished and their trade lessened ” by prosecutions against such of the unhappy inhabitants as, through ignorance or inadvertence, bought goods which had not paid the duties.” This na’ive petition was sympathetically considered by a committee to which it was referred, and their report informed the House that people had been sent to gaol and suffered heavy penalties for smuggling, and concluded with the awful threat that most of the poor victims, being ” sea-faring men, would in all probability withdraw themselves from His Majesty’s dominions, as some of them had already done, unless the penalties were remitted.” The results of this clemency seem to have been a murderous and audacious robbery (in 1747) of smuggled tea, seized in the first instance by the customs, and then recaptured from the Custom-house at Poole. Two officers, who had identified some of the ringleaders, were murdered. This led to a vigorous capture of smugglers and the hanging of six in the following year (1748), and the subsequent execution of several others. More recent stories are told of a Captain Gulliver, who lived on into this century and whose exploits were on a large scale. On his death-bed he attempted to keep the Prince of Darkness from seizing him, by having all his windows and doors barred; but in vain, for an old retainer broke the news of his death to his friends in the meaning words, “He has got ‘un.” Above the Tilly Whim caves with their memories of church-building kings and bold smugglers, is the Anvil Point Light-house; farther on are St. Aldhelm’s or St. Alban’s Head, Dancing Ledge, the Kimeridge Ledge, and Swyre Head, from which points there are very fine views of sea and rock, including the Isle of Wight. Compared with parts of the Devon and Cornwall coast, the scenery seems pitched on a strangely low scale of colouring ; but this very absence of positive colour has an indefinable charm, which soon becomes attractive as one gets used to it. The rocks of every shade of grey, the dun-coloured sand, and the olive tints of the cliff herbage make a foreground of most delicate tone for the sea, which in bright weather supplies the required colour to make a perfect picture. The botanical peculiarity of these cliffs is their abundance of uncommon thistles; in July a noteworthy effect is also produced by masses of the sea carrot, which has large umbels of a shade between pale pink and fawn, and in the season the rare blue gentian is to be found. If the district is botanically interesting, it is still more so geologically. The Purbeck beds are noted for their layers of fossil vegetable earth (dirt-beds), enclosing roots, trunks, and branches of cycoids and conifers ; the beds themselves consisting of argillaceous and calcareous shales, fresh-water limestones, and marbles. The deposit at Kimeridge of bituminous shale is most curious; from it has been extracted an oil with a pronouncedly fishy smell, which would be available for many valuable purposes were it not for that strong odour. Successive companies have quite unsuccessfully dealt with it; at one time the Duc de Malakoff started a company, proposing to ship the shale direct to France and extract gas from it to light Paris ; but this scheme was as great a failure as all the others have been. Beautifully turned pieces of shale are still found, and are locally famous as “Kimeridge coal money”; their use, however, remains a vexed and unsolved question for antiquaries. The favourite theory is that they are the cores left from the manufacture of armlets by the Romans, such ornaments having been found in local burial-places.

The Purbeck stone quarries lie mostly round Langton Matravers. These quarries number several hundreds and are worked according to the demand for particular varieties of stone ; the marble-ridge is only worked when wanted, and its great hardness makes it expensive to quarry. The quarry men are a jealous and exclusive class—calling themselves the ” Free Marblers of Purbeck” and claiming an Edwardian Charter. To belong to this guild one must be the son of a freeman or marry the daughter of one, after having undergone apprenticeship. They meet to transact their annual business on Shrove Tuesday at Corfe Castle. Formerly they kicked a football from Langton through Corfe, over the Heath to Ower; now the football is carried, and with it a pound of pepper for the Lord of the Manor, an acknowledgment of the right of way to Ower. Worth Matravers adjoins Langton : its churchyard contains a monument to Benjamin Jesty, who died in 1816. This worthy seems to have been a most heroic scientist, for his epitaph records that “he was an upright, honest man ” ; particularly noted for having been the first person (known) that introduced the cow-pox by inoculation, and who from his strength of mind made the experiment from the cow on his wife and two sons in the year 1774. Would it not have been better had he experimented on himself first ? To the west of Swanage a beautiful walk takes one over Ballard Down to Studland, whence a most striking view is obtained of the silvery lagoons of Poole Harbour, with darkly wooded Branksea Island in their midst; the church at Studland is interesting for its good Norman work. Beneath Ballard, on the shore, is the “Old Harry Rock “; a lofty, square, pillarlike rock, consisting of chalk separated by a reef and narrow channel from the mainland. There it was, the story goes, that a ship foundered, bearing a complete peal of bells for Poole Church, owing to the sailors having jested profanely at their sacred cargo. On stormy nights the bells are supposed to be heard ringing loudly as a warning to all approaching this dangerous coast. A mile from Studland, on a mound about 90 feet high, is the Aggie- stone, a great block of red sandstone weighing many hundreds of tons ; the upper portion is overhanging, and to the whole is ascribed a Druidic origin. If must be mentioned that all this part of Dorset abounds in prehistoric burial-mounds ; different and, as usual, conflicting opinions are maintained as to their age and those who rest in them. One is often irresistibly reminded of the passage in Sir Thomas Browne’s ” Urn Burial,” where he says : ” What time the persons of these ossuaries entered the famous nations of the dead, and slept with princes and councillors, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietories of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, was a question above antiquarianism ; not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the provincial guardians, or tutelary observators.”

Half way between Swanage and Wareham, and about a quarter of an hour by train, is Corfe Castle. Situated on a lofty, abruptly- rising green mound it occupies a most perfect position for beauty of effect, though the two bastion-shaped hills, between which it stands, would render it valueless as a modern fortification. The history of this great pile would be the history of England; from being the hunting-lodge of the earlier kings it grew into the important fortress of King John, who here imprisoned his niece, the ” Damsel of Bretagne,” and also the two Scottish princesses who were kept as peace-hostages. These distressed princesses seem to have been indulgently treated, and the old accounts of their expenses show that they followed in dress the most approved fashions of their day. The Mayor of Corfe was being constantly sent to Winchester for scarlet and bright-green robes, trimmed with miniver, and saddles with scarlet ornaments and golden reins, for the use of these noble captives. But the great interest of Corfe Castle centres in its gallant defence by Lady Bankes, who held out against the Parliamentary troops, with a garrison as small as five, and never exceeding forty, men, till the siege was raised by the Earl of Carnarvon, August 4, 1643. Two years later the castle fell, after forty-eight days’ siege, and then by strategy, and not in fair fight. The husband of this dauntless lady was Sir John Bankes; he was Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and seems to have been a fit mate for such a heroine. Lord Strafford wrote of him, ” Bankes hath been commended that he exceeds Bacon in eloquence, Ellesmere in judgment, and Noy in law.” From the high ground to the south-west of Corfe are seen the most extensive views in the whole district. The best time of day to see this landscape is an hour before sunset, when the yellow light centres on the lofty ruin-crowned mound. In the background the great ramparts of hills are bathed in a soft, luminous haze ; on the horizon, clouds may be seen piled up into Alpine peaks of glittering white, while the vault of heaven is one serene blue. At such a time there is a radiance on those old dark hills with their many hero-graves ; beneath them the jagged crest of ruined towers and down-thrown bulwarks seems, to the fancy, to await calmly and peacefully the on-coming of night, which brings with it oblivion of the long-past wars, miseries, and alarms of the older world.

These are some of the more salient points of a district in an English county as yet unspoilt; much has been omitted, including an account of Wareham, which, with its unique cincture of earthworks and curious old churches, forms the most delightful introduction to the wanderer in the Isle of Purbeck, which is as beautiful for scenery, and as interesting to the archaeologist and geologist, as any other district of equal size in Great Britain. ,

Most English towns have to confess an immense debt of gratitude to local benefactors who have lavished time and money upon them. Swanage looks to Mr. George Burt, of Purbeck House, as \tegenius loci. This amiable and good man has done his best to develop and improve the town and neighbourhood, and the former, even its best friends must admit, needed the loving care of such a wise philanthropist. I do not know how much he has laid out, but it must be an enormous sum, and the popular voice places it at a figure so huge that it might well stagger the visitor who had not watched the rise and progress of the little old town, and who could not compare its present condition with that of ten or fifteen years ago. I do not suppose that Mr. Burt will ever be repaid for his labours of love; fortunately, he looks to another world for his reward: his name will always be as closely connected with Swanage as that of Sir Titus Salt with Saltaire.. The touching piety for which Mr. George Burt is widely known finds expression in the frequent carving and painting of appropriate texts on commanding pieces of rock; and nothing can be conceived more impressive than sitting on some broad and well- placed seat looking out on the placid blue sea at our feet, or on that same ocean torn and broken by a furious gale, and seeing just above us a solemn text, as ” The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,” or ” What is man that Thou shouldst be mindful of him, or the son of man that thou shouldst visit him?”

From the iron-bound coast near Durlston Point, and the glorious caves of Tilly Whim, a tremendous sea may at times be seen, and no contrast can well be greater than between the sea on a calm bright, sunny day, and that same sea lashed into uncontrollable fury by a hard southerly or south-easterly gale. Volumes of water recalling to my mind the breakers off Lundy, burst upon the rocks as though they would batter down the very land itself, while the spray is cast 200 feet high into the sky. It is one thing to sit dreamily feasting our eyes on the summer sea, quite another to gaze on that same sea in its winter aspect. The powers of Nature, or rather, of Nature’s God, then affect us quite differently, and perhaps it is a far greater delight to visit the coast in time of tempest than in warmth and sunshine. Fortunately, however, there are seasons when the wind has moderated, while the sea is still furious, and then, with all so calm and heavenly above and all so storm-tost below, we have a grander picture than under what the unreflecting would call more favourable circumstances. March and April are singularly propitious months for seeing the Swanage coast to perfection ; the/1 we often have bright skies, and stormy seas with their surface broken up into hundreds of thousands of white horses, racing in towards the shore with the swiftness of unbridled coursers. It is positive pain to tear oneself away from the coast. Heaven be thanked ! every taste will find something to delight it at Swanage : there are sylvan glades not far off, like the lawn of Colonel Hansel’s seat at Smedmore, which are equal to anything at Matlock or in VVharfedale, with a peep of the sea in addition. At Swanage there is inexhaustible variety of town and country, hill and dale, sea and land, sand and rock, wood and heath, tableland and sheltered valley —truly a rare combination : and then, what of the noble harbour and the venerable relics of bygone ages, not far off ?

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