Southwell, Dorset

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Southwell is located in Dorset
 Southwell shown within Dorset
Civil parish Portland
District Weymouth and Portland
Shire county Dorset
Region South West
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town Portland
Postcode district DT5
Dialling code 01305
Police Dorset
Fire Dorset
Ambulance South Western
EU Parliament South West England
UK Parliament South Dorset
List of places

Coordinates: 50°31′46″N 2°26′28″W / 50.529460°N 2.441058°W / 50.529460; -2.441058

Part of Southwell from the High Street roundabout

Southwell (pronounced south-well) is a small coastal village in Tophill on the Isle of Portland, Dorset. As Portland and Dorset's southern-most village, it lies between Portland Bill and the villages of Easton and Weston. Though close to the Bill, the village is sheltered by hills on three sides.

The Great Southwell Landslip, named after the village, remains Britain's second largest recorded historical landslide on the east side of Portland, occurring in 1734, between Durdle Pier and Freshwater Bay, at a distance of one and a half miles.[1]


Southwell is one of the island's most ancient settlements, dating back to Roman times. The confirmation of these occupants have been confirmed through a number of earth mound defences, particularly around the nearby Barrow Hill, and also burial grounds within the village.[2] In similarity with other settlements on Portland, Southwell first flourished around a natural source of water. The initial residences were closely situating a spring which ran to Freshwater Bay, on the eastern side of the island. It remains most probable that the Romans first transformed many of Portland's springs into ponds and wells, while natural ponds would be enclosed and maintained from this period. Aside from some residences that had a personal cistern, wells for public use were dug deep underground.[3] The ancient strip fields between the village and Portland Bill are also rare remaining examples of Saxon field systems, and still exist to date. Unlike most Portland villages, the rural landscape of Southwell remained strong and unchanged over many centuries, largely as the village was further away from the island's main industrial activity.

During the 19th-century Portland saw a massive expansion within its population, directly due to the labour-demanding projects of building Portland's harbour breakwaters and the defensive Verne Citadel. This soon meant the island's current water supply via the natural springs was no longer able to cope with the increasing demand. Before the island's piped water supply arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, no settlement on the island had a good supply of water except Southwell and Weston.

Beforehand the village had attempted a major project to gain a reliable water supply through a deep shaft. At the time, in the late 18th-century, the island's local Board refused any advice on to receive water from the mainland. Instead the Board insisted upon cutting a deep shaft, and the site for this project was selected at West Wools. In September 1893 a Southern Times reporter was lowered into the shaft to inspect the progress and was greatly impressed by the size of the working. 170 feet long galleries were driven horizontally east and west, and following the immediate success of this it was decided to continue digging further into the Kimmeridge clay. However this proved to be a misjudgement as a testing of the water proved it contained seawater, and decomposed sewerage. The expansive operation, which reached a cost of £7500, was abandoned. The shaft remains underground to date, securely sealed under what has since become the housing estate of Sweethill. Once a piped supply arrived, Southwell's pond, like other similar ones across the island, was filled in. This particular pond had given the village the nickname Duckpond.[4]

The island did not gain mains electricity until 1930, as the local council continued to believe that the local gas works would finally become financially worthwhile. By 1930 an agreement had to be made, to bring across an electric supply generated from Weymouth. However the £25,000 scheme did not reach Southwell or Weston until 1932, following Underhill and Easton's supply.[5] During the same year a demolition scheme drawn up by the local council threatened a considerable number of historical houses on the island. Despite strong local objection, much of the island's historic, Jacobean, Tudor and Georgian cottages would be demolished, rather than being restored. This included various dwellings at Southwell.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the important naval base at Portland was a natural target for German aircraft, and Southwell had some cases of raids and bombings. Two heavy anti aircraft batteries were built at Southwell. The first was located where Reap Lane is now built. It was armed with four 3.7-inch static guns with GL mark II radar in 1942, when it was manned by 418 Battery of the 140th Royal Artillery Regiment. It was retained as an Off-Site Nucleus Force Battery in 1946.[6] The other was south of the village, within a field on the outskirts. It was armed with two 3.7-inch guns in 1941, when it was manned by the 104th Royal Artillery Regiment, and with four 3.7-inch static guns with GL radar in 1942, when it was manned by 329 battery of the same regiment. This one no longer exists either.[7] The only remaining example of a HAA battery on Portland today is the Verne Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery.

In 1947 the Admiralty made the decision to turn the wartime camp at Barrow Hill into the site of the Admiralty Gunnery Establishment. This was the island's largest building project since the Verne Citadel, and was built by the early 1950s. It became the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment in 1960 after minewarefare and torpedo research was transferred across to the establishment. After various successive name changes, it closed in the 1990s, along with the naval base at Portland, and turned into the Southwell Business Park. The establishment was the scene of a Soviet spy ring that operated in England from the late 1950s till 1961 when the core of the network was arrested by the British security services. It remains one of the most famous examples of the use of illegal residents — spies who operate in a foreign country but without the cover of their embassy.

Southwell continued to maintain its rural and quiet atmosphere through the 20th century, when it still held a working farm, while fishing boats were frequently launched from Freshwater Bay. However the pasture often holding cattle was gradually being destroyed by inland quarrying, or being purchased by the government for various projects, by the 1960s. This occurred in Weston and other parts of Portland too.[8]

By 1965 the demand for new housing reached a new peak. The village conservationists voiced their opinion against large housing estates, and instead opted for cottages with green, open spaces. Despite this developers chose to build estates of brick-built houses and bungalows over many ancient fields within the village, with a particularly large estate being constructed to the west. At the same time various ancient fields, including Lime Croft, Suckthumb and Coombefield were gradually expanded through quarrying.[9] The fields Seven Acres and Underhedge were initially located alongside the village, and were soon developed with an expansive set of chalets and bungalows. Later in the 1980s hundreds of starter homes were added to this area. During 2002-03, both the Sweethill estate and the fields north of Southwell Business Park were developed, despite community wishes for a large field within the Sweethill estate to be left for community use.[10]


Like many of the other villages on Portland, Southwell has commercial businesses, namely within the Southwell Business Park. Aside from the park, the Eight Kings pub remains the only commercial business within the village,[11] although a Post Office was once located in the village until it closed during the 1990s.[12] The pub's name is said to have originated from its well-travelled Victorian landlord, who knew of hostelries called the Seven Kings but none with a larger number of monarchs. The village had one Primary School, Southwell County Primary School. In July 2012 it became part of the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy. It closed in 2014 along with other schools on the island, all to be replaced by a new school situated at Southwell Business Park.[13] The farm that became Fancy's Family Farm was once within the area of the village, before it moved in 2011 to the Verne area, close to the Verne Citadel and Verne High Angle Battery.

In the south of the village remains the sewerage pumping station, which was originally built in the late 1980s. Today all the sewerage from Portland is collected here and sent to the mainland where it reaches a new treatment works in Wyke Regis.[14]

The nearby area of Cheyne, located between the village and the hamlet of Wakeham features Cheyne House. This was built to house those in charge of the adjacent pumping station which took water to HM Prison Portland. The 1963 film The Damned was filmed in Weymouth and Portland, and the house was a prominent feature. It stars Shirley Anne Field and Oliver Reed.[15]

During World War II, a check point at Avalanche Road was put in place, south of Grangecroft Quarries. It comprised a moveable barbed wire and timber trestle with a sentry box alongside and would have been constructed between 1940-41. The check point required that passes/identity cards were to be shown. The barrier had been removed before the end on the war, and today there remains no traces of the structure.[16]

Close to the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery once situated at Reap Lane, was the Weston Very High Frequency (VHF) Fixer Station. This was one of a network of 57 stations established in England by the Royal Air Force. Te stations were divided into thirteen Fixer Organisations. They were built by 1951 as part of the Rotor programme to modernise the United Kingdom's radar defences. The Weston station operated under the command of Southern Sector as part of Fixer Organisation One and provided directional finding equipment, enabling fighter aircraft crews to receive positional data by transmitting a signal. The stations in Fixer Organisation One of Southern Command included Carisbrooke, Bury, Bisham, Pewsey and Sherborne. By 1968 the Portland site had been given over to agricultural use, as aerial photography revealed.[17]

Southwell Business Park[edit]

A small part of the Southwell Business Park

The Southwell Business Park is located to the south-west of Southwell village. Once the AUWE site was closed in the 1990s, it then became the successful Southwell Business Park, used for commercial purposes. The park provided employment for almost 500 people and became home to over 100 businesses, ranging from professional services, research and development, manufacturing, engineering and design and publishing.[10] In 2010, the park was under new ownership, where Compass Point Estates bought the park from KPMG after going into administrative receivership.[18]

Today, the site also offers storage for domestic/business use as well as secure parking.[19] Scheduled for September 2015, part of the site will be home to the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy's £14 million campus, after an appeal overturned the decision of Weymouth and Portland Borough Council's planning committee to refuse permission for the build at Maritime House.[20]

The Venue Hotel[edit]

The Venue Hotel, once known as The Portland Hotel, occupied a large part of the old naval establishment until it closed in 2014. The hotel itself accommodated some of the stars of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic sailing teams.[21] Within the hotel was the The Cliff Panoramic Restaurant and Bar, which was open to non-hotel guests.[22]

The Ocean Spa also occupied part of the park, a premier luxury day spa and health club. The spa offered the widest range of spa treatments available in Dorset and the South West of England.[23] Within the spa was The Orchid, a coffee shop, bar and restaurant,[24] the Theatre and Sherborne suite and an indoor swimming pool.

Grade listed features[edit]

The Avalanche Memorial Church

Southwell has a wide array of architecture and buildings, a number of which are Grade Listed.

23 Southwell Street is dated 1736 on its porch, and became Grade II Listed in June 1973. The house was modified considerably circa 1900, and at one point was in agricultural storage use.[25] The garden wall attached to the west of 47 Southwell Street became Grade II Listed in September 1978, but not the property itself. The wall is a major part of the remains of a former dwelling on site, adjoining 47. It dates from the 17th century, and gives an indication of the former quality of buildings in Southwell, which has experienced almost complete rebuilding in the late 19th century and 20th century.[26]

During September 1877, two ships, the SS Avalanche of the Shaw Savill Line and SS Forest, collided with one another off Portland Bill, causing the loss of 106 people. The disaster resulted in a national subscription. The total funds raised £1,900 to build a memorial church close to the scene of the disaster and the Avalanche Memorial Church was opened for the first time on 3 July 1879.[27] The church features memorials to those drowned and testimonials to the bravery of the local fishermen who rescued 12 survivors. Today, the church is open to the public during the peak season, and has been Grade II Listed, along with its boundary wall, since September 1978.[12][28]

A small Methodist Chapel, named Southwell Methodist Chapel, is recorded as being in existence at Southwell Street from 1849, where according to J.H. Bettey's book "The Island and Royal Manor of Portland", there was room for a congregation of about 103 in 1851.[29] The chapel was designated Grade II in May 1993, and remains a modest but complete manifestation of the importance which Methodism played in Portland's social history.[30] It is built with hammer-dressed stone blocks and has a slate roof. The small chapel, gable to street, has two 19th century 16-panes sashes to stone cills flanking central gabled porch with slab roof, whilst the street front remains unchanged.[31]

The surrounding fields between Portland Bill and Southwell are made up of an ancient strip field system, once found all over the island before quarrying continued to destroy them. These particular fields remain untouched from housing or quarrying. The nearby Culverwell Mesolithic Site is a Mesolithic settlement, located along the Portland Bill Road which leads from the village of Southwell to Portland Bill. The site is said to be circa 7500-8500 years old and has also become a scheduled monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. This includes surrounding fields, also relating to the Mesolithic period, and these fields lead across to the coastline. A separate patch is also included a little further north.[32] Aside from the fields attached to the Culverwell Site, two separate open fields have been also been scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. One field is found just south of Southwell village along the Portland Bill Road, and another is located around the Old Higher Lighthouse, heading inland.[33]


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