31 July 2012


The Isle of Purbeck - Worth Matravers

To be frank, Worth Matravers is not what it was..... but what's new?  I have known the village for over half a century, and have returned again and again, not because of any links with the inhabitants, but because of its feel, its location, my own memories, and, perhaps, its pub.  As a child I played in the duckpond, having water fights with other children staying, or living, here.  We walked down to Winspit, wary of the cows, frightened of the dark recesses of the quarries, and terrified of the slippery rocks and sucking waters.  We spent our days on Studland beach, where the wind whipped sand into the sandwiches while the commandoes practised with their landing craft.

Even fifty years ago, although there was still a great deal of quarrying and masonry in the area, Worth had probably already lost its identity.  It was, and is, a characterful and harmonious village; its position within sight of the Channel, within touch of strip lynchets, the terraces of early man's agriculture, is both elevating and intimate.  Now the lynch pins of the community, since the demise of the post office and village shop, are the Church of St Nicholas and the Square and Compass pub, defended by the same family (the Newmans) for well over a century, and defiant in its absolutely immaculate old world charm.  But no one quite knows how many houses are second homes, and certainly visitors outnumber residents throughout the summer (?) months.

The best reason to visit however is that from the car park you can take a number of walks which either take you onto the Jurassic Coast, literally in the foot steps of the dinosaurs, or across the Isle of Purbeck to the ruins of Corfe Castle, or to the sunny charms of seaside Swanage.

If you are a calloused and heavy duty walker, you probably arrive here towards the end of six weeks on the South Coast Path, but if you have not yet taken the luxury of early retirement you may be here for just a day or less.  So you need to venture out to St Alban's (aka St Aldhelm's) Head, past, or via if you have enough time and energy, Chapman's Pool, a horseshoe bay that would not look out of place on a Falkland Isle or perhaps in the Orkneys.  Seaweed and flat grey shingle abound here, and a few rusty corrugated iron shacks house fishing gear and secrets that it may be best not to know.

Walking here brings you close to the edge, literally, and exposed to the weather.  Most likely there will be a wind blowing off the sea, and quite possibly there will be mist or cloud or rain.  The dry stone walls offer little shelter, though sheep find them comforting when the squalls go mad, and local masons have recently added embellishments which recognise the elements.

There are views along the Jurassic coast, looking West towards Devon and East to Durlston Head.  The rock in some spots is hard and valuable purbeck stone, durable limestone that was used to fortify this coast in the Napoleonic Wars, but has also been used for churches, bridges, scultpures and was also prized for Palladian Villas and city palaces up and down the land.  At other points the cliffs are crumbly and insecure, and rockfalls and mudslides are not uncommon.  In fact, on July 25th this year a 20-metre stretch of the south-west coast path gave way and an estimated 400 tonnes of mud and rock fell from the top of the cliff on to the beach at Burton Bradstock, killing 22 year old Charlotte Blackman.

Even if the visibility is not great, the feeling of remoteness is strong and this perhaps works magic with the fossil finds that have been made along here, with ammonites and trilobites as common as garden snails, but traces of dinosaurs not being that rare.

The path dips and rises in a steeply stepped declivity, and then at 108 metres above sea level you come to a row of ex-coastguard cottages (now holiday lets) and the tiny (7.77m square), ancient St Aldhelm's Chapel.  When I first came here, it was dank and rank and had not been cared for for some time, but now there are regular services and a new Altar table, fashioned from local stone, was consecrated by Rowan Williams in July 2005 as part of the 1300th anniversary celebrations of the first Bishop of Sherborne, St Aldhelm, to whom the chapel is dedicated.  (In a corrupted version he also gave his name to the area, as St Alban's Head is derived from St Aldhelm.)  The existing structure is at least 800 years old, and may well have been built on an older religious site, though there is still some mystery about why a chapel was put in such an inhospitable place, and one theory is that it was used as a landmark for sailors, and had a beacon on the roof where there is now a cross.

Inside St Aldhelm's Chapel

Also on this headland there is what would seem to be a CoastGuard station, though it is in fact run by the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI http://www.nci.org.uk/) an entirely voluntary organisation keeping a visual watch along UK shores.  They currently have 46 stations and each one assists in the protection and preservation of life at sea and around the UK coastline. 

And within a few paces of this, is a memorial to the wartime radar research scientists with a plaque which Sir Bernard Lovell (who died this week aged 98) unveiled on October 27th 2001, "in the presence of Dr. Bill Penley and the veteran scientists who worked here during the war."

From here the coastal path gently slips down towards Winspit, close to the edge, and patrolled by gulls.  Then suddenly a great shape looms up and blocks the sun for a moment - an eagel?  A roc?  The gulls are furious and I grab for my camera.  No time to fit a telephoto lens I fire at the shape as it glides past.  What was it?  The standard lens seems to hold no clue, But, with the miracle of modern digital technology, we can actually see the brute: a Great Skua.

On the shore side there plenty of other birds, and skylarks twitter at me tempting my digital expertise, so here's one I caught with a beakful!



In the meantime, the humble Dunnock poses quite nicely for me, fluffing a little in the wind:

Another natural pleasure here lies in the proliferation of wild flowers.  Some of the land is owned by the National Trust, who have carefully controlled the grazing to enable native species to thrive. 

Winspit Quarries, on the Jurassic Coast

The water at Winspit

This rocky and inhospitable cove was once busy with quarry work and I can remember blasting when I was a kid.  Now the workings are left to incautious wild campers and the erosions of time.  But the rocks and the water continue their symphony in the endless ebb and flow of land and sea, swishing and sucking and splashing and smacking in a mesmerising antidote to the motorways and offices of our daily bread.

The Square and Compass pub
Worth Matravers

When my family first came to Worth Matravers for a summer holiday (we stayed in Gulliver's Cottage, just by the duck pond) over half a century ago my parents would occasionally slip up to the pub.  In those days children never entered, so many years passed before I got inside, but one of the great things is that really nothing much has changed.  One well known habitue of this inn was the painter Augustus John, who first frequented it before the First World War, but who was still around into the second half of the twentieth century (he died on October 31st 1961) and who may well have been there when I was a boy and who would still feel at home if he were to wander back. 

My dad was here before being posted to North Africa in 1943, as RAF Worth Matravers was a centre of radar research (as commemorated at St Albans Head) as he specialised in radar in the RAF in the Egypt and then Italy through 1944 and 1945, so he came here for briefing.  The sign for RAF Worth Matravers now hangs in the pub, but it's too late to reminisce with my dad.

Apart from the addition of the fossil museum, the pub still operates from a hatch and has two rooms.  Beer, and cider, is dispensed by gravity, the only food served is pie or pasty, and there is a long tradition of folk music performances.  It can be busy at times, with quite a lot of children, but there is also an ongoing Augustus John lookalike competition amongst local moustache wearers, and in the quieter hours it is timeless and peaceful - a place for contemplation and the near forgotten art of conversation. 

Tuesday, 31 July 2012 21:00 - 23:00

Tom Hitching and Greg Bartley (here seen at sound check!)

As I said, Worth Matravers is not what it was.  It might have been at its very best about 180 million years ago when peace-loving dinosaurs picknicked on the unspoilt coastline, or nestled in the folds of Seacombe bottom.  But then Worth Matravers is actually what it is, which is a place of harmony between man and the environment, where stone has been cut from the ground and piled into attractive and purposeful buildings, where walls protect and shelter animal and plant life, and where the casual visitor can exercise in the freshest of air and then rest and socialise in a near perfect public house, well worth the designation "World Heritage Site!"

29 July 2012

My Sunday in a picture

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Page 40, The New Review, The Observer, Sunday August 5th 2012

The original picture (compressed)

26 July 2012


Blakeney and the Norfolk Coast Path

It is exactly 100 years since the National Trust acquired Blakeney Point and established Norfolk’s first nature reserve. This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has something for everyone.

Peter expertly pilots his clinker-built craft close to the shore of Blakeney Point. Young pups swim around us, watching us with their deep eyes, while their parents laze on the sand, smiling for the cameras. A little way away a gang of teenage seals, common and grey, hang out by the water’s edge, as teenagers do. Peter, born and bred in Blakeney, points out courting Sandwich Terns, and Little Terns that plunge from flight to catch sand eels.

Seal-spotting and bird watching are two of the great attractions in this National Nature Reserve, which celebrates its hundredth anniversary with the “Tidal Lands” exhibition in Blakeney Village Hall from August 18th this year. The Reserve, managed by the National Trust, covers some 1000 hectares including the four mile long shingle spit of Blakeney Point, freshwater marshes by the river Glaven near the village of Cley, and saltmarshes carpeted with common seablite, samphire and sea lavender. There are also extensive mudflats at low tide and dunes held together by marram grass, where colonies of Terns nest and Oyster Catchers, Ringed Plovers and Redshanks strut to feed.

Along the Norfolk Coastal Path, which runs through Blakeney for forty-six miles from Hunstanton to Cromer, Linnets and Yellowhammers frequent the gorse, and Skylarks fly high above the grasses. Flocks of Brent Geese winter here, and Cormorants can be seen fishing in the tidal creeks.

Although Blakeney’s heyday was in the seventeenth century, when it rivalled King’s Lynn as a port, it was still a busy harbour until a hundred years ago. A Lifeboat Station was built on the point in 1898, but it was decommissioned in 1935 when silting and longshore drift finally put an end to its viability. The building now houses the National Trust information centre and provides accommodation for the wardens. At high tide it is a laborious walk to the point on the shingle, but at low tide vast areas of hard sand are exposed and in fine weather you can imagine you are Robinson Crusoe on a deserted coast.

Blakeney is home to about eight hundred people, though that number must double in the summer and probably quadruples on a sunny day, when children splash in the creek or fish for crabs from the quay. There are two major hotels and two pubs, the Kings Arms, a traditional inn with showbiz connections through hostess Marjorie Davies and her late husband Howard, and the White Horse, where Francis and Sarah Guildea have introduced a twenty-first century touch to local ingredients.

Although walking is a great way to see the area, the Coasthopper bus service can take the pain out of the return journey, with services every half an hour in summer between Wells and Cromer. However the easiest way to admire the coast is from a boat. Look out for Peter from Bishop’s Boats; he will introduce you to this spectacular world!

14 July 2012

Stalking Virg Clenthills Blues

HOE DOWN in Snowdonia
In a marquee in Snowdonia, Richard Gibbs catches up with country music “legend” Virgil Clenthills III, alter ego of Gareth Owen, poet, novelist and former presenter of BBC Radio 4’s “Poetry Please”…..


The sun is sinking, like a plum in an oil slick.  Canvas flaps, earth and crushed grass churn underfoot.  Hilary greets us as we slip into the warmth of her marquee, steel pegs and raw sisal upholding the peace.  Outside the sun goes on sinking, while the river shivers on into the sea, past darkening trees and strands of salt marsh.  Inside we are cheered with fizzy wine and propelled into a barn dance.
It’s a well drilled melee: the caller expertly corralling the herd: Penny swings with actor John; Lucia does the doz-e-doh with a slender man in a black Stetson – could it be Virgil Clenthills III?  The sheep-shorn beard, the crushed lilac top, the yellowing cowboy boots – this had to be the country legend, the one, the only, the man of whom it was once said, “‘If you've ever woken up with a broken heart in one hand and an empty bourbon bottle in the other - Virg is singing just for you.”  My wife pretends to swoon; I pretend to catch her.  The author of “A Song for Hank Williams,” is just a step away.

Virgil Clenthills swears he was born in August 1939 in Intercourse, Missouri, son of an illegal English immigrant and half Shoshone Virginia Mae Pluckett who then orphaned him at the age of five with a Packard. But really Virg was created by Gareth Owen at 70, in Ludlow.

As Virg recalls, he launched his “World Tour of Ludlow, Presteigne, Ross and B’ham,” in 2010 to avoid the limelight, and tonight we find him in Bontddu, in the Snowdonia National Park, on The Dolgellau to Barmouth Mawddach Trail.  Now, as the sheep draw near, bleating like Tennessee crickets, Virg sets up his keyboard and exposes his country veins, lurching into “Stone Drunk Again” with barely a glance at the words.

Then, as the Welsh Whisky flows, we join in the chorus of “Happy with That,” a classic tale of degeneracy and domestic discord on a run-down Kentucky homestead.

Later, we cross the creaking bridge back to the George III Hotel at Penmaenpool, the moon above like a pearl set on black satin, singing:

“Yes I once met a man

Who talked with a man

    Who saw Jesse James riding by….”



Richard Gibbs

October 14th 2012
Entered for the Guardian Travel Writing Competition, 2012, An Encounter category - not even a runner up.....  Probably classed as more hip-replacement than hip!