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AUG/SEP 2006 | REGIONAL | INTERNATIONAL

B.C. Brews News : A Potpourri Of Purbeck Pubs
By John Rowling

I was 15 when I first saw The Square & Compass as I cycled through the village of Worth Matravers in England. I was on my way to the Dorset coast to collect fossils at some of the best collecting spots in the world. My grandparents had retired to Swanage, a popular British South Coast resort in the Isle of Purbeck, and I used it as my headquarters for exploration.

Fast-forward about 45 years, and the family decided to hold a reunion in Swanage. My wife, Carol, and I wanted to check out some of the local pubs. The Square & Compass was an obvious start. It has been in every CAMRA Good Beer Guide and is on the CAMRA National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. The pub hadn’t changed since I first saw it. In fact, it’s unlikely that it has changed much in a couple of centuries.

The Isle of Purbeck is not an island, but it was isolated historically from the rest of Dorset by the east-west chalk ridge known as Ballard Downs (in England, Downs are "ups"!). There is a river gap in the steep 600-foot-high ridge defended by a Norman fort known as Corfe Castle. Otherwise, there is no way a medieval army could enter the Isle. The way of life here, based largely on farming, fishing and quarrying, has not changed for centuries. Neither have the pubs.

The Square & Compass has been run by the Newman family since 1907. It was built several hundred years ago as a farmhouse, and its history goes back to the time of William the Conqueror. The Normans used the local Purbeck limestone to build the nearby St. Nicholas church. It was also used in Westminster Abbey and the Salisbury Cathedral. The pub, its name coming from the tools used by the local quarrymen and stonecutters, was first licensed in the 1720s. Each year in August, the pub hosts a stone-sculpture-carving fortnight, with some participants choosing to camp in a nearby field. Built solidly of whitewashed limestone with a stone roof and flagstone floors, the building will endure for ever.

Carol and I arrived just before lunchtime and parked in the field around the corner. Inside the front door were two locals standing in the corridor, chatting away. Nodding a hallo, we stepped over their dogs and looked for the bar. We came to another corridor stretching to left and right. A door at one end was labeled “Museum.” Hmm? We looked into a room full of chatting people, but still no bar.

A hatch in the corridor finally revealed the bar, with cool beer served by gravity straight from the cask. The selection was Badger Tanglefoot, Ringwood Best Bitter, Quay Old Rott, Palmers Dorset Gold and Tally Ho!, and farm ciders (some organic). Wow! We took our beers into the busy room and squeezed in to a table. Time to eat, so I headed back to the hatchway:

“Do you have anything to eat?”
“Yep.”
“Er, do you have a menu?”
“Nope.”
“What do you have?”
“Cornish pasties.”
I’ve forgotten what they have in them. “Do they come with different fillings?”
“Nope. Just pasties.”
“I’ll check with my wife.”
“There’s only two left.”
“I’ll take them!”

The pasties, filled with beef, potatoes, onion and turnip, were fantastic. Just as good as I remembered! Apparently sometimes there is cheese and onion pie, too. Or you can buy a sandwich from the Craft Centre nearby.

The way of life here has not changed for centuries. Neither have the pubs.

Afterwards we spent time looking at all the pictures and cartoons on the walls. Curiosity got the better of us, so we checked out the room labeled "Museum." It was full of Stuff. That is the only way to describe this extraordinary collection of artifacts. There was a fine collection of local Purbeck limestone fossils piled from floor to ceiling. There were items retrieved from ancient shipwrecks by local divers, farm tools, evil-looking ancient weapons, a mammoth tooth and even stuffed animals.
This is a totally rustic pub, with chickens and dogs outside (and even occasionally inside). In winter there are roaring log fires and occasionally musicians. Most of the locals stand up in the corridor to drink their beer and chat. Outside there are stone seats and weather-beaten and bleached wooden benches from which there are great views out to the English Channel. You can see ancient field systems, visible as narrow green terraces.

I don’t think I have ever seen so much clutter in front of a pub, with stone carvings, a big old cider press, ancient-looking vehicles and cart wheels. Roger Protz, former Good Beer Guide editor, wrote: "If I had to choose a favourite ale house from the roll of 20 years honour, I would plump for The Square & Compass in Worth Matravers." Life definitely moves at a slower pace at The Square & Compass. It is a real gem.

One of our favorite hikes took us north out of Swanage and up over the Downs to Studland. The walk is fairly steep at first but is well worth the climb. The views over the English Channel and inland over Poole Harbor are fabulous. In addition, a walk to the east end brings you to a spectacular view of a group of chalk pillars called Old Harry Rocks. On the way back, look for several ancient burial mounds.

The reward for all this hiking is the Bankes Arms in Studland, owned by the National Trust. Follow the signs; it is just outside the village and is easy to recognize, as it is completely covered in ivy! This is a large structure originally built in 1549. There is a cozy fire burning most days, and if there is no room inside there are tables outside. At busy times, customers can sit at picnic tables in the field opposite and enjoy the lovely views of Studland Bay.

The pub has a restaurant and a large L-shaped bar with eight ever-changing craft-brewery beers on hand-pumps. These will usually be from such breweries as Hop Back, Smiles and Wychwood. There are also local real ciders: Old Rosie plus several others in the summer. Since our visit, the pub has gotten its own brewery — something for us to check out next time. Today it is also a bed and breakfast.

It is probably best to centre yourself in Swanage for a visit to this forgotten corner of England. Stay at the Black Swan Inn on High Street. It is a bed and breakfast. The building is over 400 years old, and it has been a pub for the last 200 years. The two bar rooms have low-beam ceilings decorated with keys and mugs. There are lots of historic pictures of Swanage on the walls. The beers (on hand-pumps) change periodically but will include such ales as Flowers Original or Ringwood Fortyniner. The food is excellent and includes vegetarian items.

Nearby is the start of a beautiful coastal trail over the cliffs to Worth Matravers. There are many other hotels and bed and breakfasts in Swanage, and you can also camp near The Square & Compass. Other attractions are the Swanage Steam Railway and several golf courses.

The Square & Compass
Worth Matravers (near Swanage)
Dorset, U.K. BH19 3LF
01929-439229

Bankes Arms Hotel
Manor Road
Studland
Dorset, U.K. BH19 3AU
01929-450225

Black Swan Inn
159 High St.
Swanage
Dorset, U.K.
01929-422761

John Rowling went on from fossil collecting to become a petroleum geologist in Alberta and British Columbia. And, he is still exploring the 4,500 pubs in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide.

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