The Isle of Purbeck in Dorset is renowned for its stone – both the pretty pale grey limestone of dry stone walls, and the darker Purbeck marble that’s found at Salisbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and other English churches. It’s fitting then, that the former owner of Dunshay Manor, Mary Spencer Watson should be a sculptor. Born to artistic parents, Mary lived in the house from the age of ten (1923) until her death in 2006 aged 93.
Falling into disrepair, the house was bequeathed to the Landmark Trust when Mary died. Sensitively restored in the Arts & Crafts style, the house is now open for holiday stays; we went to review it as it opened this May. Driving down from London, after a couple of hours in the car you’ll be glad to find yourself in a rolling green landscape and weaving down cow parsley lanes. Past Corfe Castle on towards Swanage and the sea you turn right and just a little off the main road is a winding drive down the dip of the hill. There sits Dunshay, a grand and impressive Manor House with imposing stone gates.
Inside there’s plenty of space for entertaining and the air of an artistic house party resonates; in its heyday leading 20th century figures including Carl Yung were invited here by Mary’s father, an eminent painter and her mother, a mime artist. Today the large and airy rooms have been designed for groups to have space to spread out; there’s a large sitting room with an open fire, stacks of board games and a decent book shelf full of The Famous Five and Horrible Histories: rainy day heaven. There’s also a dining room with a beautiful long table, and more sofas.
The house sleeps 9 happily – the beds are snug and incredibly comfortable. For those used to the London roar, the silence at night is wonderful, with the sound of birdsong in the morning loud enough to wake you up. The house would be perfect for two families sharing; children can listen out for the toot of the steam train that runs from Corfe Castle into the neighbouring Harmans Cross station, just half a mile away. Watch from the bathroom window and you might just see it cutting its way through the landscape followed by clouds of steam – you might have stepped into an Enid Blyton novel. It’s also possible to spot the sunset over the beautiful remains of Corfe Castle from the house.
The gardens surrounding the house are quite spartan – flat lawns for spreading out on, playing games and sitting in a deck chair. But no flower beds here, just low walls stretching out into the countryside beyond. You are surrounded by the most spectacular nature; follow a footpath literally out of the garden gate to Corfe Caste, or go the other way down towards the Jurassic coast. There are beaches no distance away too; of course there’s Studland Bay with the beautiful walk out to Harry’s Rocks. But our favourite was Shell Bay, with infinite opportunities for collecting treasures.
The Pig on the Beach perched above Studland Bay is just 15 minutes drive; book for lunch or dinner or stop in for a cocktail. There’s also several decent pubs close by; we loved The Square and Compass for lunch – a proper pub that only serves pasties which you eat sitting on stone slabs in the garden with a cider. Stop at the side of the road to pick up a punnet of freshly-picked strawberries, and call in at The Salt Pig in Wareham or Swanage – a farm shop where you can buy local crab, bread from Dorset’s hedgehog bakery and local meat. The house is self-catered but the kitchen is so large and homely with a large Welsh dresser, butler sink and big oven, so it doesn’t feel like a chore. And there’s a big table in the courtyard outside to eat in the evening sun.
Guests at Dunshay also have a key to the studio where Mary Spencer Watson worked – there you can learn all about her fascinating story as well as the history of the house. Sadly there aren’t any of her sculptures on site – something the Landmark Trust is seeking to rectify – but her touch spreads into the house, for example the design on the block printed curtains have been taken from her work.
Dunshay Manor is the 201st Landmark Trust property. Each is full of charm; occupying quirky spots across the UK, as well as in Italy, France and Belgium. You might find a railway station, lighthouse and a very grand pigsty to sleep in! But Dunshay is particularly special; not only because it’s one of the few Landmark Trust properties to sleep so many people, but also because of its unique artistic history and its private position nestled in one of the most quintessentially English holiday spots.
You’ll need to be organized to book a stay; 2020 is nearly all fully booked, and dates for 2021 stays are released on Saturday 5thOctober at 9am – we’ll give you a reminder.