You can smell spilt rum from where you’re sitting. Should you run to the village and alert the coastguards? Or would it be better to sit tight? These smugglers are desperate men and will stop at nothing to avoid the noose. Lights appear on the cliffs above and the men curse and work harder. A horse and cart are hidden in the gloom at the head of the beach, ready to take the contraband deep into Dorset down sunken lanes and remote droveways, where few dare to tread at night. It looks like they might just get away with it.
If you’d lived on the Dorset coast in the 18th century, there’s a good chance you’d have had a few scary nocturnal encounters with smugglers and wreckers. The beaches, bays, cliffs and coves are the backdrop to a gutsy and sometimes bloody history. And now you can follow in the footsteps of these ne’er-do-wells and discover an intriguing new side to this astonishing coast.
The journey begins among the thatched cob and sandstone cottages of Chideock, home of the Chideock Gang. With its fishing hamlet of Seatown, this now peaceful village saw more smugglers through the courts than any other parish in Dorset. It was off here that the last recorded smuggling of kegs occurred in the mid 19th century. A certain Bartlett was forced to drop his cargo in the sea and recover them by trawler six months later. Of 120 kegs, he lost just one.
The smugglers’ favourite hiding place was St Gabriel’s Chapel, away west over the hill in remote Stanton St Gabriel. Now a ruin, the chapel lies at the heart of a magical, time-warp landscape of flower- and butterfly-rich pastures and hedgerows beneath Golden Cap. At 191m (618ft) above sea level, this peak, named for its top-most band of sandstone, is the highest cliff on the south coast, with a panoramic 55-mile view from Start Point to Portland Bill.
It’s a long climb to the top, but the most demanding aspect of walking the Dorset coast is that you then drop down to sea-level and have to repeat the process all over again. To the east the twin peak, Thorncombe Beacon, holds a replica of the fire-beacons lit to warn of the approaching Spanish Armada. Just beyond is a welcome descent to Eype’s Mouth Country Hotel.
The path is the only intimate way to explore the coves and cliffs of the coast and is perhaps smuggling’s greatest legacy. It was created for the nightly coastguard patrols. When I first walked it, at the age of 16 in 1963, marker stones were pointed out to me, which had been whitewashed two centuries earlier (though they were blackened with tar in 1940 so the Nazis wouldn’t know where they were if they’d dared to invade).
Compared to tiny, charming Eype, Bridport is a metropolis. Today it’s a welcoming place of great individuality, where antique shops vie with traditional greengrocers, fishmongers and butchers. But smugglers were less welcome – this was a respectable place where hemp was turned into canvas, nets and ropes for fishermen and the navy. ‘Stabbed with a Bridport dagger’ was to be hanged – the fate of many a smuggler.
But illicit goings-on were never far away. William Crowe’s poem Lewesdon Hill of 1788 alludes to Burton Cliff, overlooking Lyme Bay, near the delightful village of Burton Bradstock: “Burton, and thy lofty cliff, where oft the nightly blaze is kindled.” This was a smugglers’ beacon, lit to signal that the coast was clear.
Further along, you come to sheer 30m (100ft) high cliffs of gleaming yellow Bridport sands, above a wide beach of gritty shingle. Nearby Freshwater hosted a US Army camp in the run-up to D-Day. Rangers practised their cliff-top assaults here prior to storming Normandy. Smugglers hauling the kegs up the cliffs would have to have been just as fit.
In tandem with smuggling, the windfalls of ‘God-given shipwrecks’ were augmented by deliberate wrecking of vessels, which were then plundered. De Hoop (The Hope), a treasure ship returning to Amsterdam from the Spanish South American colonies, was stranded on the Chesil Beach on the night of 16 January 1748. Thousands flocked to the beach from nearby villages and the towns of Weymouth and Portland.
The crew, who narrowly escaped with their lives, put the loss at £25,000, a vast fortune then. Rev Thomas Franklyn preached a sermon at Fleet to remind parishioners of the Acts of Parliament relating to ships stranded on the coast and the penalties for plundering: “This has long been looked upon as a thing right and lawful to be done”. An anonymous pamphleteer put the situation succinctly in 1752: “All the people of Abbotsbury, including even the vicar, are thieves, smugglers and plunderers of shipwrecks.”
Today, Abbotsbury is home to the famous Swannery, founded before 1393 by Benedictine monks for feast-day meat. You may see and hear the comings and goings of its herd at any time of year.
Abbotsbury itself, with is attractive high street and craft shops, is well worth an hour or two’s diversion but only forms an appetizer for Chesil Beach. This 18-mile-long bank of pebbles is the debris from a cataclysmic inter-glacial surge that flooded down-Channel from the North Sea. Its stones are naturally graded from small at Abbotsbury to big at Portland, and fishermen – and smugglers – know their location at night from their size.
Walking on the shingle causeway is hard work but worth it for the otherworldly experience of having the sea on one side and the mysterious saline Fleet lagoon on the other. While fishermen cast endlessly at the surf in the hope of catching mackerel, the Fleet is the preserve of nature – and you can hear the unfamiliar calls of wading birds from the flanking reedbeds.
Such a vast landing site made policing Chesil Beach virtually impossible. But some law enforcers were better than others. The most successful commander in the history of the Customs and Excise service lies in peaceful obscurity in St Lawrence’s Church at Upwey. Warren Lisle (1699-1788) was responsible for seizures that totalled over £250,000 (£50m today). While here, don’t miss Upwey Wishing Well, where crystal waters bubble from the ground filtered through the chalk bedrock.
Not all naval officers survived to be heroes. Lieutenant Thomas Edward Knight was “wantonly attacked by a body of smugglers” near picturesque Durdle Door on the night of 28 June 1832. Knight was “unmercifully beaten” and thrown over the cliff. The spot, at Man o’ War Cove, is a mile away from the spectacular gem of Lulworth Cove, where smuggling activities were blocked by the building of a coastguard station.
The precipitous cliffs in Purbeck let you look directly down into blue waters with the green and browns of kelp beds writhing with the tide. You are even treated to prehistoric experiences on the grand scale, particularly at the Fossil Forest just east of Lulworth Cove, with the stumps of ancient cycad trees just inside the tank gunnery ranges. Red warning flags are never lowered, but the Lulworth Range Walks are often open at weekends and during Army leave in August.
All paths lead to former fishing hamlet of Worbarrow and the ghost village of Tyneham, where the entire parish was evacuated six days before Christmas in 1943 so Sherman tank crews could be trained for the upcoming invasion of Europe. Still abandoned, it is a moving place that is worth a visit just for the atmosphere.
Midway between Lulworth Cove and Worbarrow Bay, at Mupe Bay, you can find a genuine smugglers’ cave. Descend to the beach and follow the shingle shore to the right, around the ledges and Mupe Rocks to a gaping cavern. Note that Mupe Bay is within the Lulworth firing ranges so is sometimes closed to visitors.
On the Purbeck cliff-tops, the sheltered south-facing coastal slopes provide visual wallpaper redolent of Edwardian watercolours. In spring and summer, flora of orchids and scabious comes with a cast of butterflies that includes the Lulworth skipper. Down on inaccessible ledges are nesting cormorants and guillemots. Listen out for the “key, key, key” alarm call of the peregrine falcon and the “croak” of the raven.
One Dorset smuggler became both famous and respectable – to the extent of founding a bank – and was buried in style in Wimborne Minster. Isaac Gulliver (1745-1822) ran his own ships and ensured the efficient distribution of consignments by buying farms across the county.
Gulliver bought North Eggardon Farm, and with Poole associate John Fryer named their boat Eggardon Castle for its hillfort – now owned by the National Trust – on which he planted a clump of pines as a seamark, which you can still visit today. Dying at Gulliver’s House, Wimborne, he left an estate worth multi-millions in today’s values.
Further east along the coast is wild and wonderful Kimmeridge Bay. Here, as recently as 1929, a half-anker keg with a six-pronged hook and 3m (10ft) long grappling pole were found in the boathouse – left by smugglers a century before. They now sit in the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. The present beachside building houses an underwater Dorset Wildlife Trust marine webcam link to the adjacent nature reserve.
Above Kimmeridge is the nodding-donkey of the BP oil well that has been operational for half a century. Sulphurous shales and washed-up kelp give Kimmeridge a distinct seaside odour.
The parapet of Kinson church tower in the Bournemouth suburbs is gouged with grooves from ropes used to lift the kegs that were regularly stored there. Casks were also hidden in an ancient table-tomb. A nearby gravestone records the death of Robert Trotman, who was shot dead on the shore at Lilliput on 24 March 1765, “barbarously murder’d” during a pitched battle between smugglers and a Naval detachment, in which nine horses were also killed.
Smuggling gave Bournemouth much of its early history – before it developed into a Victorian new seaside town – such as the seizure at ‘Bourne Mouth’ of 411 casks of “spirituous liquors”
(and a bag of tea) being carried off by 13 horses and three carts on 3 October 1785.
The Dorset coast is not always benign – swirling hill fog may cloak the wonderful views or be blown away by breath-stealing force 10 gales, which make boating, birdwatching or following smugglers’ footsteps difficult. If in doubt, adjourn to one of the smuggler’s hostelry haunts in the area, such as the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers. It’s dependable for drink, pasties and pumpkins in season. Locally caught dinosaurs are also on the menu – in the museum out the back. It’s a great place to swap tales, as it has been for centuries.
Smuggling’s legacy to Dorset is a sense of hidden history, secret goings-on and strange tales hidden around every corner. Hopefully now, when you explore those thrilling, always surprising beaches, cliffs and coves, you imagine some of the characters that once lived here.
West Bexington DT2 9DF
Tel: 01308 897785
From £85 to £125 for two persons per night, bed and breakfast, with a premium price to secure the four-poster bed.
Lulworth Cove BH20 5RQ
Tel: 01929 400333
From £65 for two persons per night, bed and breakfast.
Centrally placed at the heart of the holiday coast with 14 en-suite rooms, this hotel overlooks Lulworth Cove hamlet and is a five-minute walk from the cove. Strategically positioned for wonderfully fresh fish, it specialises in home-smoked seafood and meat.
Studland BH19 3AU
Tel: 01929 450288
£196 to £300 for two persons per night, including dinner.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 31 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
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