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
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?”
“Er, do you have a menu?”
“What do you have?”
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
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
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
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
Bankes Arms Hotel
Dorset, U.K. BH19 3AU
Black Swan Inn
159 High St.
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.