Patrick Wright

In 1979 Mr Wilfrid Weld commissioned an ecological and historical survey of his 12,500-acre estate in south Dorset. The survey was partly financed through the Manpower Services Commission, and its findings appeared in an impressive publication late last year.[*] Working as I have been recently on the cultural history of this area, I was interested to know more and went down to Lulworth to meet Mr Weld.

Mr Weld finds himself in the same situation as many other landowners. Agriculture is dwindling and the search is on for new forms of income. He describes the survey as a ‘management tool’ which will help him develop new prospects without destroying the traditional fabric of his estate. He also distinguishes practical conservation from the nutty kind of town-dwelling idealism that would commit him to the ‘slavish preservation of every minor feature’ of his ancestral landscape. But there are some things he will not do. Soft woods may be the current money-spinner elsewhere, but this is Dorset and, as he says firmly, there will be acres of spruce only ‘over my dead body’. Redundant barns and cottages can be sold off profitably enough, but a more concerted participation in the rising ‘leisure’ industry is also pending.

Lulworth Park is a most beautiful place, and it has been open to the public before. When George III first visited Thomas Weld here in 1789, he came to a house which was already receiving visitors between ten o’clock and two every Wednesday. The Weymouth guidebook described Lulworth Castle as ‘one of the finest scats in the county’, detailing many of the paintings and furnishings which made it ‘perhaps one of the best furnished private houses in the kingdom’. With its deep shade and its green pools of light, the wooded park contrasted favourably with the barren glare of Weymouth – the brash new ‘watering-place’ from which the King and many other visitors came – and the castle’s prospect was generally agreed to be entrancing. A sentence escaped from Hutchin’s History of Dorset in the 1780s, and it would spend decades wandering, unattributed and increasingly cut down to size, from one guidebook to the next: ‘It is a noble pile of building, a little north of the church, upon the edge of the Park, on a rising ground, commanding a fine prospect of the sea, from an opening between the hills.’

The prospect is holding up well enough. Bindon Hill still rises up to the south and culminates against the sky; Arish Mell Gap still opens poetically onto the sea. The castle has been a ruin for fifty years, but the scaffolding is up and English Heritage have plans to open it, partially restored, in 1990. Behind it, in what can reasonably be called a wooded grove, is the Palladian Chapel which Fanny Burney described as ‘a Pantheon in miniature’. Designed by John Tasker for Thomas Weld and made by Italian craftsmen in 1792, this is widely known as the first free-standing Catholic church to be built in England after the Reformation. Meanwhile Saint Andrews, the old village church from which Weld bones were removed to the new chapel, stands Perpendicular and adrift in the verdure of the deer-park.

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[*] The Historic Landscape of the Weld Estate, Dorset (Lulworth Heritage, 148 pp., £30, 0 9511 575 0 7).