Around Dorset

Monday 6 to Sunday 12 November

The only person I have retained contact with from my days working for the Marconi Company in Chelmsford in 1971 is Pat Neale. Somehow, despite missing various Christmas greetings, we have managed to remain in communication over the years. It is so much fun to pick up where we left off last time we were together.

Pat and I enjoyed sneaking off from work for an ice cream and a wander in the nearby woods or an hour sunbaking at the local pool.

We travelled to Yugoslavia together, after I left Chelmsford, and had a heap of fun there. One funny incident was in Split, when it rained.  We were walking together huddled under raincoats when a local man yelled out to us, in English, ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen walk in the midday rain.’ We cracked up, laughing.

We visited Pat & Graham in 2012 and loved the limestone coast of Dorset where they are now living. They returned the visit in 2016, and we toured Tasmania and the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. Now it was our turn to revisit them in Burton Bradstock.

On our way from London we stopped in Bournemouth for lunch. It is a large coastal resort town in Dorset on the south coast of England. We stretched our legs with a walk along the Bournemouth Parks Lower Gardens and then along the pier. The days are noticeably shorter and cooler now that we are back.

Pat & Graham kept us busy.

It was a wet and cold day. Umbrellas and raincoats. We started to wonder why we had left Spring in Melbourne to suffer this damp English weather.

Actually, we had come to Portsmouth on England’s southern coast, to see the Historic Dockyard and some very famous ships.

The HMS Victory is the Royal Navy’s most famous warship. Built in 1759 and launched in 1765, it served the navy for 206 years and is considered the oldest commissioned warship in the world. I couldn’t believe that they could squeeze 821 men on board, along with 104 guns.

In 1922 she was moved to dry dock at Portsmouth, as a museum ship. More recently restoration has been undertaken to prop her up on a new support system that is designed to mimic how the ship would sit in the water.

The Victory was Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. There is a mark on the deck where Nelson was fatally wounded by a French sharpshooter on 21 October 1805. In order to return Nelson’s body to England, it was placed in a cask of brandy, mixed with camphor and myrrh. In Gibraltar the body was transferred to a lead-lined coffin filled with spirits of wine. What a way to go.

The piece de resistance at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards is the Mary Rose. The carrack-type warship of Tudor times was launched in 1511 and was Henry VIII’s favourite warship. It is estimated that 600 large oak trees would been required, and they would have to be sourced from all over southern England. She would have been an amazing sight, equipped with flags, banners and streamers or elongated flags.

When in service, the ship would have had 400-450 men, which would have been very cramped. Mary Rose sank at he battle of the Solent River on 19 July 1545. There are quite a few theories about what happened, but it is believed she turned and was caught in a gust of wind. There were very few survivors because of the cramped conditions below and an anti-boarding netting that covered the upper decks. This was designed to keep enemies out of the ship, but it also trapped the sailors inside her as she sank.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts to raise the Mary Rose, starting just days after the sinking, a project in the 20th century successfully raised her in October 1982. Since then a great deal of work has been done preserving the hull and further expeditions have been made to the site to find more artefacts.

The history told in the presentation was amazing. Skeletons that were found, then examined, identified bow-and-arrow shooters by deformities caused by pulling the bow.

Our next tour was to Portland, another drive east from Burton Bradstock, in the rain. Fortunately, the weather cleared as we arrived. Portland is famous for its particularly fine limestone, that has been used in notable buildings around the world including the Banqueting House in Whitehall, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and further afield the UN building in New York, the Casino Kursaal in Belgium, the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Houses of Parliament in Dublin. The stone has been used since Roman times, for sarcophagi (stone coffins and lids) and castles such as Rufus Castle at Church Ope Cove, built around 1080.

Portland is a tied-island, connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach.

Our first stop was to Portland Bill, the southernmost and very definitely the windiest part of the island. There are actually three lighthouse towers there. The Higher Lighthouse is now holiday apartments, the Lower Lighthouse is now a bird observatory, but the white and red lighthouse on Portland Bill is the most famous and picturesque, and still protects sailors from the Portland Race a treacherous piece of water in the English Channel.

We hiked around the Verne Local Nature Reserve, where a horse-drawn railway once carried stone to Castletown. Some of the quarries were on high ground so trucks were coupled in a continuous line, so the gravity of the full truck going downhill pulled the empty ones up.

There is a citadel which was completed in 1861. In 1949 it became and remains HM Prison The Verne. Today it is an immigration removal centre. The presence of this and HM Prison Portland, which is now an adult/young offenders prison, means that house prices in the area are below average.

The Olympic sailing events were held in Weymouth and the Isle of Portland in 2012. Australia scored three gold medals (out of 10) and 1 silver, making them the most successful country at these events.

We wandered around the Tout Quarry Sculpture Park which has 30,000 tons of boulders that were once sea defences in West Bay. The park was created in 1983 on the site of a disused quarry and was made a nature reserve around 2004. An outdoor workshop, which operates in the warmer months, runs courses in stone carving and sculpture. We enjoyed wandering through many of the works that are scattered around the park.

As the sun was getting low we came across St George’s Church in the village of Easton. The local caretaker was keen to pass on his knowledge to us, so we spent an interesting hour learning the history of the church, including the Easton Massacre. The Easton Massacre was one of several revolts by local citizens when the Press Gangs tried to recruit locals into the navy.  In this instance, the citizens of Easton gathered to stop the press gangs, but Captain George Wolfe and his marines fired on them. Four local people were killed, and the press gang returned to their ship with no additional impressed men.

Perhaps the highlight of our visit to the church was Bruce’s lesson on how to ring the church bell.

Of course, our evenings were full of chatter, with amazing food and copious quantities of beer, champagne and wine. Graham even put on a pheasant meal – the spoils from a day out shooting.

Pat and Graham’s little village of Burton Bradstock is a small, with a population of 1000 people and seven pigs. Pat and Graham with a small group of locals fatten pigs each summer and have them butchered for the Christmas season. When we saw this year’s stock of Ironage+Berkshire cross, they were wallowing in the mud and looking very healthy.

After our pig inspection we continued our walk around the local fields and lanes into West Bay, where we found some very nice Cornish pasties for lunch and Bruce found a couple of old cameras in the local flea market.

The Dorset countryside is very pretty, even in the inclement weather.

Our next tourist excursion was to Kingston Lacy, where Graham had found a garden walk for us to join. Something went wrong with the plans and we found ourselves on a walk of the estate. Although Graham was disappointed with the mix up in plans it was a very pleasant ramble.

The beautiful manor house was the family seat of the Bankes family. It was built between 1663 and 1665 by Ralf Bankes. The house passed to John Bankes in 1693 and to his second son Henry in 1772. Henry’s son was the explorer and adventurer William John Bankes, who inherited the house in 1834 and remodelled it extensively. Seven years later he was caught with a soldier in an indecent act. Since this was the second incident, which could be punishable by death, William John left home and lived in exile in France and the Italy. During that time, he continued to commission and collect art, which he never came home to see.

An exhibition called Exile was on display when we visited Kingston Lacy – celebrating William John’s remarkable contribution to Kingston Lacy and marking fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. It was researched by the University of Leicester’s Research Centre to advance equality for LGBTQ.

So well fed and well educated in Dorset and its surrounds, we farewelled Pat and Graham and headed to the Isle of Wight.