The Square & Compass: Purbeck’s Hidden Gem.

  ‘God gives men earth to love but as man’s heart is small

  Ordains for each one spot shall prove beloved over all’

So wrote Rudyard Kipling, and for many it’s true. It certainly is for me.  My ‘beloved spot’  is a place like no other, in a County like no other, Dorset. The Square and Compass in the attractive old stone-built village of Worth Matravers, perched high up in the majestic green hills of the Isle of Purbeck, is a pub that has never failed to live up to expectation. It is the archetypal ‘place out of time’ where people of a like disposition congregate to hide from the modern world. 

I first became acquainted with this ‘beacon of the bizarre’ in the mid nineteen seventies. It was, and still is, the sort of pub that attracted the type of person that I as a then wide-eyed, naïve twenty year old, clamoured to be associated with and likened to. The long- haired, off the wall, little bit dangerous freaks, hippies, musicians, artists and downright devil-may–care Oliver Reed type mavericks that thronged there, had not given ground to the onslaught of aggressive new wave, spiky-haired punks that were busy changing the face of British youth culture forever, in a tidal wave of fresh, angry, hand-made music and a veritable sea of sputum. I didn’t understand then that it was merely part of the same endless and unstoppable progression. The same hormonally powered aims, but expressed in a different way, and with a different uniform.  My chosen generation of longhaired idealists had in turn thoughtlessly occupied the spiritual home of generations of Purbeck stoneworkers without a second thought, but we were more fortunate than those honourable gentlemen, as the ‘Compasses’ remained a precious haven from all that overt New Wave belligerence. An enclave of the surreal, suspended in time… a stopped clock. 

 

In those days it was run by the incomparable and much lamented ‘oldest hippy in Purbeck’ Ray Newman. He was a small, hoary and intense true Dorset man with a shock of very long greying hair, seamlessly attached to a similarly undomesticated beard. But set amidst that maelstrom of follicle mayhem shone out a pair of the brightest, sharpest, most world-wise eyes that ever pulled a pint. 

 

Ray was born in the pub and his father ran it before him. In fact, for the 200 years or so that it’s been licensed, the Newman’s have been landlords for over ninety of them. The presence of Ray was critical to the ambience of the evening, but in hindsight I can now see that the single most crucial factor that he brought to bear, was his absolute reluctance to change one single thing about the place. Twenty years after his death, Ray’s father could have quite literally resumed his duties behind the serving hatch (there’s no bar to lean on) and barely have noticed the passage of time at all. 

 

Ray lived there with his young son Charlie, a wiry, dark-haired, dark-eyed sprite of a boy who regularly flitted in and out of the bar, when he wasn’t off exploring the uncompromising, rugged, but intensely beautiful ancient landscape that surrounds the pub on all sides. In the fullness of time this carefree boy would in his turn, take over the reins of management and eventually, ownership of this unique hostelry. 

 

Those long gone 1970s and 80s nights in the two small, intimate bars at the Compasses bore witness to many performers who braved the elements to ply their trade in that lonely outpost. Minstrels such as Jim Hetherington and Eric Bottomley were regular bookings and both, almost as a portent of future demographic trends in the County, were in-comers from the North who were domiciled in the Poole area. But possibly the most memorable performer was a local singer/songwriter, Nikki Hann. She was a farmer’s daughter from Lytchett Matravers, a pretty and unabashed ‘renegade from the summer of love,’ in the Joni Mitchell mould, and she penned a song that fast became an anthem in those parts, entitled ‘Purbeck Hills’…

Ray and Charlie were the inspiration for the song, and with a chorus of “Lovely, lovely Purbeck Hills, green and forever wild, I believe you’ll always be here to keep and warm my child”, the age of innocence that was the sixties and seventies was soon to draw to a close in an anarchic, not so pretty, vacant blitz of brash, vibrant new music. 

 

The 1990s sadly saw Ray’s health deteriorate markedly, but one of my abiding memories of him and the pub, was to one night be unexpectedly invited upstairs to view his extensive, and largely hidden treasure-trove of birds eggs, fossils and other historical items that throughout his life he had gleaned from the nearby cliffs and farmland. We talked about that life as he proudly showed me his collections, housed in the cosy eighteenth century confines of his home, that seemed strangely reminiscent of a ship’s cabin. He told me of the old days at the Compasses and also of his fears for the future, especially Charlie’s future, and also of his concerns for their present relationship. 

 

It was an all too brief glimpse into this wonderful man’s world, but one that I cherish greatly. When once more I emerged in to the heavenly public bar where I had been sitting, a few people there, people with more of a claim than I to call themselves ‘regulars’, expressed a certain amount of jealousy at the favour that had been bestowed upon me… One man grumbled at the time, “Bloody hell you’re honoured, I’ve been drinking here for close on twenty years, and the old bugger’s never invited me up there yet”…. Honour indeed. 

That’s not to say that he didn’t have his darker moments. Ray like all of us could be as moody as a sack full of cats. One particularly hot and busy summer night I spotted him standing strangely motionless behind the serving hatch, staring off in to space, and with a queue of customers building up. Suddenly Ray shouted out at the top of his voice, “Why don’t you all just piss off home”. ……………. 

A resounding silence enveloped the pub for what seemed like an age.

Then he sighed deeply, looked at me and said with a relieved smile, “Ahh that’s better”, and simply carried on serving as if nothing at all had happened !

Ray Newman died in 1994… and Charlie duly took over the business in his wake.

The pub has, perhaps predictably, changed more in the few short years since Ray’s death than in the hundred that preceded it. For example, rarely now does one have to fight off the dubious attentions of the ‘deadly toilet chickens’. They are not, as one might imagine, a drug-crazed heavy rock band that happened to get stranded there in 1974, and haven’t yet summoned up the will to leave. They are in fact, the numerous farmyard fowl that, for reasons best known to themselves, routinely used to occupy the sinks in the ‘gents’. Stubbornly repelling with beak and talon, any and all-comers who, having relieved themselves, sought to dislodge the birds from their ‘porcelain nests’ in order to wash their hands. They, or their descendants are still around and often venture in to the pub itself, but strangely; don’t seem to regard the refurbished toilet with nearly as much possessiveness as they did the old one. Now they mix amiably with the four dogs, two or three cats and magnificent horse that have also been lucky enough to find a home in this rural idyll.

Even the holy of holies, the centre of my, and many other devotees’ universe, the superlative Tap room bar, has received a new lick of yellow paint, which took a while to get used to. 

It is a truly delightful little room, flagstone floor, original wooden bench wall seats crowding a cavernous fireplace, various trinkets and ornaments haphazardly distributed about, and walls festooned with the most delightful jumble of naïve artwork, all pertinent to the pub and immediate area. It’s basic, but cosy, the way a real pub should be. No thrills here, no pseudo manufactured quaintness for a pseudo-manufactured cliental, you get what you see at the ‘Compasses’. But you also get what you may not expect anymore, convivial and intelligent conversation. The alluring mix of people there always ensures a lively and thought-provoking visit. And a dilapidated old wind-up gramophone with 78s and obligatory horn attachment, occasionally provides an impromptu burst of time-crackled music, which merely adds to the Milliganesque quality of the whole experience.

The people who frequent the pub are a strange mix and, like many establishments, change with the seasons. The summer months find it crammed with a fusion of ‘locals’ from near and far, blended with the numerous hikers and walkers whose love of the open countryside is rewarded with a well- kept pint or two.

 The ‘Compasses’ is the only Dorset pub to have appeared in every single edition of the Good Beer Guide since its inception.

Even when the company there is a bit thin on the ground, and those assembled seem to have little in common, the pub still seems somehow to magically conjour up memorable moments. On one such occasion a friend and I spent two hours in the Tap room exchanging little more than conventional pleasantries with a very reserved old couple in their seventies sitting opposite. Eventually they left, leaving us alone, but only a few seconds later, we heard tiny footsteps hurrying back up the flagstoned passageway. It was the old lady. “Did you know”, she whispered, fit to burst, “that my husband there is Charlie Drake’s brother” ? With that she turned on her heel and once more hurried back outside, leaving us to stare at each other in momentary stunned silence….. 

Occasionally, one is fortunate enough to be able to observe the bewildered expressions of a family of ‘grockles’ ( holidaymakers ) from up country, who have inadvertently stumbled across the place by accident whilst out on a drive.

 

It is one of life’s true joys to watch them as the full enormity of their chance discovery washes over them, as if they had each just been unexpectedly slapped across the face with a wet flounder. They sit nervously in the bar, huddled together for safety, sipping their beer, observing, and being observed in turn by the indigenous imbibers. 

The first ten minutes of this scenario is crucial, they either melt away very quickly, or else, enter in to the usually bohemian banter and return year on year with others of their ilk, sporting an “I told you so” attitude towards their equally nonplussed companions. 

Some incomers are so taken with the place that they have become inextricably woven in to the history and indeed the very fabric of the ‘Compasses’. One such person is the inimitable Valentine Quinn, a Mancunian by birth who has metamorphosed in to one of the finest stone workers in the area. Val is a very special kind of man whose singular company on a cold, wet, windy night at the pub is amongst the finest and most entertaining to be had. 

The other bar, ( the music bar ) is almost as delightful in it’s own way as the Tap room, and voluminous by comparison, being about three times larger and darker than the other. A wooden block floor this time, it has always reminded me of a dusty old museum. Specimens of the flora and fauna of Purbeck bedeck every crevice of this panelled lounge and further examples of artwork, one of which appears to be by no lesser person than Augustus John, hang comfortably alongside enigmatic old photographs, a piano and wonderfully carved stone cats. 

The most noticeable change initiated by the new regime is one that I absolutely and whole-heartedly endorse. Charlie, like me, an avid practitioner of the noble art of metal-detecting, has turned a part of the pub that was previously off limits in to a truly excellent little museum. It contains an enviable collection of fossils and also a plethora of manmade metal artefacts and coins that Charlie’s indefatigable tenacity, skill and enviable local knowledge, has enabled him to redeem from the rock-strewn fields of Purbeck.  Professionally presented, it stands as a tangible testament to the existence of countless generations of Purbeckians. Everyday implements and possessions from their long extinguished lives are presented in good historical order, from the flint using stone-age dwellers right through thousands of years to the dawning of mass production in the nineteenth century.

With barely a turn of the head, the tutored eye can observe much of that stark history without even leaving their comfortable window seat in the bar. In the mere blink of that eye, one can take a journey of 2000 years. The vista offers up large fields, no doubt robbed of their ancient hedgerows in the comparatively recent past, victims of the modern trend for large, intensive Americanised agriculture. Below them, rising steeply out of a deep cut gully which meanders inexorably down towards the sea, and the dark, sinister bat sanctuary of Winspit caves, are the grassy waves of strip lynchets, evidence of the ridge and furrow farming technique of the medieval hovel-dweller. 

And finally here and there, one may just be able to discern faint shadowy outlines of small patchwork fields once tended by the Durotrigae tribe, the Dorset Celts, rural aristocrats, warriors and craftsmen from more than two millennia ago.  

All of these long dead custodians of this rough, rich Dorset landscape are represented in Charlie’s charming museum, along with all those who filled the gaps in between, the Romans, Saxons, Tudors, Stuarts. All those generations of a newer but equally distinguished and exceptional tribe, the tough, lean, sinewy, weather-beaten stoneworkers of the last two centuries, upon whose sweat, the wealth of Purbeck was largely built.

They are not forgotten whilst the world can still find a place for the Square and Compass, and its remarkable young landlord.  

The concept of tribalism, of pride in ones true home, and a respect for ones own very particular past and heritage is largely frowned upon today, especially in the south, and even labelled as backward narrow-mindedness by some. Usually, those who have no pride in them, but have instead a stake in perpetuating the bland, monotone, characterless soup in to which we are all, sadly descending. Inch by inch the very concept of being a true-bornDorsetman or woman is gradually being eroded away, as more and more of the invading hoards pour down from elsewhere in search of an idealised, rustic Westcountry dream-life, that ironically, they themselves are doing the utmost towards banishing. Overrun, and marginalized in the media, the true local person is now as endangered a species as the true local pub, and with his demise so perishes the very fabric of this islands individuality, whose strength always did lie in the wonderful and rich diversity of its regions. Mix it up enough, and perhaps Orwell’s worst nightmares really will eventually come home to roost.

And whilst it would be absurd to brand all incomers as bad for the county, (just as it would be ridiculous to claim that all locals do credit to it) the sheer weight of numbers that are now flocking here from other regions, can only ever in the end, detract from, and ultimately destroy what was there before, which was presumably the very thing that attracted most of them here in the first place. 

These unstoppable harbingers of change whose effects are so damaging to the indigenous culture, are actually being faced up to and addressed in other parts of the Westcountry such as Exmoor, where even now a policy is being implemented to limit second home owners etc in favour of its own ‘born and bred’.    

The brain-dead Tory philosophy of ‘leave your own home and get on your bike’, which in reality was nothing more than a monument to their own failed policies, still thrives today and has much to answer for. It’s legacy survives alongside a state-sponsored, spin-riddled, cosy ideal of the way things are supposed to be, served up with a pale fabricated, TV driven interpretation of what went before… the Gospel according to Westminster. 

Dorset has unfortunately become a victim of its own matchless beauty. An alluring bright light for both the well heeled and the ‘beach bum proletariat’ to flock towards, and the very first casualty of that woeful scenario will always be her own special timeworn identity…

Essentially, I view this exquisite little pub as a kind of microcosm of the precious county within whose borders it lies. Both are changing,Dorset, imperceptibly so to those who know little of her, and care even less. Irrevocably so, to those of us who do, and love her unconditionally.

Will the ‘Compasses’ stay forever unique ? Will it always be that quintessential haven of tranquillity and nonconformity, a meeting place for the ever dwindling ‘tribe’ ?… probably not.  Time alone will see to that.

The world changes because people change. Their needs change, their expectations and values change, and this in turn alters the world… usually for the worse. 

Talking to Charlie reveals that he is acutely aware of the changes that are occurring all around him. He told me with a melancholy air, that now just one of the old Purbeck stoneworkers still drinks at the ‘Compasses’, the last of his breed. And when that one inevitably turns to none, I at least will find some small crumb of comfort in the fact that the old gentleman’s passing, and all it means for the County, will not go unnoticed by this singular and erudite young Dorset man. A young man who in his turn, may well be the last of his line, a great line spanning two centuries. A family who have brought more happiness than perhaps any of them ever realised by just being there, and quietly doing what they do… Long, long may they continue.

In 1940 Eric Benfield, a magical and far-seeing Dorset writer and stoneworker, who was eminently more qualified than I to talk about the Isle of Purbeck, penned a gem of a book entitled PURBECK SHOP. A Stoneworker’s Story of Stone. Within it’s wise and wonderful pages, the author makes a masterful observation when considering the ‘Compasses’, words which to me would seem an especially wise note to end on. He wrote…

“Whoever the landlord of that house may be, at any time, he should feel that he holds something in trust, for a public house in the country is more revealing of the real soul of the district than any church or chapel. A new Vicar is at liberty to alter the whole tone of a church during his stay, and a ranting revivalist can stir up many things in a chapel as long as his fire lasts; but a pub moulds its customers into its own ways, and a new landlord has to fit in with them or go”.

 Mark Vine (2001)

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