Diary

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.

The village of East Lulworth lies beyond the park walls, but the survey shows that this wasn’t always the case. Wilfrid Weld pointed out ridges and declivities in the pasture surrounding the church. These, he said, had been cottages and gardens. As for the path that now connects the isolated church to the road beyond the park wall, this once ran past houses and down to the Medieval field system above Arish Mell Gap.

The survey dates the removal of these buildings to the 1770s. A pictorial map drawn by Margaret Weld in 1731 shows village life going on within the walls of the seigneury: an ideal aristocratic prospect, to be sure, but one that also harboured a harmonious village Utopia. This vision of sublime integration would be sadly disappointed by the putting asunder that was to follow. As Roman Catholics, the Welds had their own troubles. The estate had been sequestrated during the Civil War, and Margaret Weld had received letters warning her that local people talked of pulling down the castle and of burning the family inside it. In August 1714 she wrote of being ‘daily threatened with the populace to which we now lie exposed’. Some notes made by a Victorian vicar in the register of Tyneham School, just over the hill into Purbeck, record that when Dennis Bond, incumbent at Creech and Tyneham from 1742 to 1795, went over to preach at East Lulworth, he would inveigh so loudly against the Pope that the Welds could hear his harangues inside the castle. With Thomas Weld, these tensions came over into the 19th century. Remembered as the founder of Stonyhurst College, Thomas Weld opened himself to vitriolic accusations by giving refuge to a band of Cistercian monks who had been cut adrift by the French Revolution. A Trappist monastery was set up near the castle, but this alien and Papist establishment caused such outrage that the monks had eventually to be repatriated to France. Villages were removed to make way for ‘parks’ all over the country, but at Lulworth the familiar story of ‘pleasing prospects’ was mixed with the business of sorting out opposed denominations.

Beside these ancient ridges in the grass, there is a more recent ‘historic landscape of Weld’ which falls beyond the scope of the recent survey. The tank was brought into Dorset as an officially invisible secret in 1916. As the new machine proved itself in the Great War, there was a rush of training and development. A military rifle range on Bovington Heath, at the northern limit of the Weld Estate, was quickly turned into the Tank Corps training centre. An outlying camp was established at Worgret near Wareham, and the gunnery camp was set up at Lulworth. The guns were lined up just outside the wall of Lulworth Park, and Bindon Hill became a firing-range.

Sacrifices are accepted in wartime, and there was no protest about what was expected only to be a temporary inconvenience. But in 1923 the War Office announced its intention of holding onto this patch of the Weld Estate permanently, precipitating one of the most significant environmental campaigns of the century. The Times led the ‘Defence of Arish Mell’, mustering a formidable army of supporters through its correspondence page. Other papers quickly joined in: the Observer, which winkled an appropriate statement out of the aged Thomas Hardy, the Daily Mail, the Daily Graphic and weeklies like the Nation and Spectator. Local interests were certainly defended against the tank, but it was town-dwellers who knew Lulworth as visitors who were most active in defining Bindon Hill as a rare ‘beauty spot’ besieged by monstrous machines. Geologists stressed the unique qualities of its cliffs and its famous ‘fossil forest’. Artists declared their interest in this magnificent but sadly threatened landscape. Walkers cherished the coastal footpaths over which permanent closure now loomed. Others described Arish Mell as a cradle of true patriotic consciusness, a place of healing which could calm and re-integrate the nervous modern mind. Arish Mell’s was the essential landscape of the nation for which so many had fallen, and now the tanks had come home to blast it to pieces.

At the centre of this dispute stood Herbert Weld-Blundell, a man with some claims to fame as an archaeologist, explorer and big game hunter. In 1922, he was still re-assembling Lulworth, buying portraits of his forebears from London salerooms and restoring them to the ancestral seat from which they had wandered. That same year he had travelled to Iraq to excavate Ancient Kish and bring his finds back to the Ashmolean Museum. With the tanks booming away behind him, this lord of the manor sat in the gun-room of his ‘square much-betowered historic castle’ for S.P.B. Mais of the Daily Graphic and railed against ‘the high-handed action of his overlords’. He wrote to the Times, a ‘mere owner’ beset by a usurping state, and denounced the proposed ‘confiscation’ of land as a ‘disappointing result’ of the war for a family that had lost all of its members who could serve down to ‘a second cousin, a boy of 12’. He summoned up ancestral memories, telling more than one journalist that Cromwell’s soldiers had only stolen the lead, which was replaceable. He fired his best line at S.P.B. Mais: ‘Even the Huns never did a thing like this.’

The landscape of Weld took on an interesting shape in this protracted contest. There was the ‘beauty spot’ and also the beleaguered deer-park. But the defenders of Arish Mell can hardly have anticipated the emergence of the ‘Tank Park’ that would eventually defeat them. A spoof poem published in the Tank Corps Journal conjured up the ‘Tank Park’ as an appropriately picturesque place where machines promenaded in mock-Georgian style. Certainly, it wasn’t long before the tank was declaring its own positive attractions in this quiet stretch of Dorset. It brought work and new trade into the area. It came with its own populist appeal, its own explosive aesthetic. Here was the machine in which citizen soldiers had recently triumphed despite the hinderings of a bone-headed High Command. Here was a modern invention that broke up old hierarchies and possessed a rising military ceremonial of its own. From now on it would be the tank rather than the private aristocratic estate that brought royal visits to the area. Faced with a choice between the Deer Park and the Tank Park, a significant number of local people threw in their lot with the tank: local traders, of course, but also the district branch of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, which resolved that the collective interest should come before that of ‘individuals’ like Mr Weld-Blundell.

While local ranks were breaking in this way, the Defence of Arish Mell continued to look unstoppable in the pages of the Times. The conflict was negotiated through a series of short-term leases, with the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society acting as intermediary between the War Office and the Weld Estate. Concessions were won: firing was limited to certain hours of the day, and partial access to footpaths was secured. On one occasion, negotiations broke down and the tanks simply stayed put illegally. Then in the parched summer of 1929 something happened that put an end to Herbert Weld-Blundell’s resistance. Fire broke out in Lulworth Castle, and the house was gutted. People rallied round to rescue furniture and paintings: villagers. Girl Guides and, of course, soldiers from the gunnery school. Curious onlookers swarmed up from Weymouth, Bournemouth and other nearby towns, and it was only sentries mounted by the Royal Tank Corps that kept the gawping mob from spilling into the deer-park and roaming right up to the smouldering castle itself.

Stricken by this disaster, Herbert Weld-Blundell can’t have drawn much consolation from a letter which appeared in the Times a few days later, claiming that Gainsborough had visited Lulworth and that it may have been nothing less than the inspiration for The Market Cart which had just gone up in smoke. Similarly, he would hardly have noticed the piece of petrified anti-Papism that was dug up and displayed by some papers: here, once again, were those rumours of a ‘secret tunnel’ connecting Lulworth Castle and Monastery Farm where the hated Trappist monks had lived during the Napoleonic Wars. Mr Weld-Blundell apparently had a small flat built in the basement of his ruined castle, but it is not clear whether he actually moved into this bunker during his last years. By the time of his death in February 1935, the tank had won. The press had abandoned the story and, one year after the fire, a 21-year lease had been agreed for the gunnery range. This was replaced in 1939 by the present 99-year arrangement.

Mr Wilfrid Weld, the son of that ‘second cousin’, was kind enough to drive me round the estate. We went through Lulworth Cove, a place that now attracts half a million visitors each summer and where Mr Weld would be happy to build a decent restaurant even though the planning authorities have so far disagreed. We went past the famous eyesore of Durdle Dor caravan site – partly shaded from view by judiciously-planted trees. Beyond the pretty village of Chaldon Herring, a Barbour-clad crowd were following a hunt through binoculars. Next came the two heaths: Winfrith, which is now given over to atomic energy research, and Bovington which is all tanks and T.E. Lawrence. The estate has certainly seen some changes but in many respects, as Mr Weld agrees, is holding up well. The loss of the castle was sad, but even this is beginning to come out quite advantageously now that English Heritage are involved: a tastefully re-themed ruin is a better proposition, after all, than a school, a rest-home or whatever else might have come along in the difficult postwar years.

We passed the gunnery range on our drive as well. An armoured car was firing a red flare over Bindon Hill, while a couple of families watched from the car park. The range was extended considerably during the Second World War, but Weld-Blundell’s last stand is almost forgotten. Indeed, the Army has itself long since gone ecological. The War Office has become the Ministry of Defence, and misses few opportunities to point out that the odd stray shell does less ecological damage than deep ploughing, pesticides and commercial development. Both the Council for British Archaeology and English Heritage, now threatened with the privatisation of its own holdings, agreed with this. In the new landscape of ‘heritage’ and ‘leisure’, yesterday’s military usurper is very much a force for conservation.

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