Outdoors: The thrill of the Chase

In a beautiful Dorset valley, a centuries-old feud continues, but now it concerns a thoroughly modern issue: the green belt

From the top of Dorset's Cranborne Chase you can look down to where the kings of England stalked deer for hundreds of years. This land of rival estates descends through a series of interlocking hills and valleys, the chalk downs cleared for farming, their clay-topped brows covered with dense woodland.

Among the trees, roebuck and fallow deer still breed and shelter from the gun. Some days you can see perhaps a dozen fallow deer lying in a huddle in the fields, enjoying the warmth. A dangerous habit, particularly this month, when foreign hunters seek trophy heads during the rut.

It is an extraordinarily empty land, which at times seems untouched by modernity. You need a horse to see over the high hedges, and traverse deserted valleys that the few minor roads pass by.

The handful of villages, often owned by a single family, are nestled inconspicuously into hollows. Building sticks to tradition - the flint fronts of the cottages are divided in regular fashion by a couple of lines of bricks or, in the grander churches, by stone. Thatch is making a comeback, complementing the white-washed Dorset "cobb" of some homes.

I'm standing in the midst of the vast woodland, whose depth makes this area so important to naturalists. It is perhaps the closest the countryside comes to an abandoned industrial landscape.

The hazel trees are overgrown - for centuries their straight, flexible branches were conscientiously cropped and bent to build the 3ft-high sheep folds that once spread across the Chase. And the naturally occurring ash and birch were cut to make England's finest brushes. Now it's like a graveyard - peaceful, eerie, but unproductive.

This is an area that has seen many battles. The Civil War devastated Dorset, so evenly was it divided between Royalists and Roundheads. But mostly people have fought over land use. On the edge of the hazel wood is Bloody Shard Gate, scene of a fierce 18th-century skirmish between poachers and gamekeepers. Then there was the 100-year battle by farmers of the Chase for the right to destroy deer that strayed on to their land. In 1829, after 800 years of roaming unmolested, except by the royal hunt, the deer lost their legal protection. In just two days, villagers shot 12,000 of them.

However, the latest battle does not involve poachers or farmers. It is about estate agents seeking to turn this rural idyll into a land with homes fit for the rich - because the Chase is only a 20-minute drive from Salisbury, itself just 90 minutes by train from London. Commuters and week-enders snap up properties.

Later this month, they will learn whether Savills, the upmarket estate agent, has pulled off a coup by persuading the local councils to permit the building of impressive mansions in some of the highest, most conspicuous points of the Chase. The largest is expected to go for pounds 750,000; it is complete with garages, gravel drive, a dovecot and a 42ft-high tiled roof that will tower above the landscape. The plans for 21 luxury homes have caused outrage.

Savills acts as trustee of the Rushmore estate, the family home of Michael Pitt-Rivers, great-grandson of General Pitt-Rivers, who is recognised as a forefather of British archaeology. The estate, once the largest in Dorset, is an "area of outstanding natural beauty", but is desperately short of cash. Mr Pitt-Rivers is ageing and ill.

Much of his wealth has gone on a lifetime of travel, financed by selling the most productive land, leaving his great love, the unproductive woodland of the Chase, as a disproportionate part of the remaining 7,500 acres. Hence, Savills' plan to raise pounds 1.2m for improvements.

In Savills' opinion, the fund-raising measure is vital to save the estate from a sell-off. They warn that a break-up could lead to far more property development. Management of the areas unique natural features would be "nigh on impossible". The best option, they say, is their high-value building, reducing the estate's dependence on farming.

Savills would probably get away with the novel scheme easily, but for the opposition of Edward Bourke, from the neighbouring estate. Mr Bourke, a solicitor, is a typical youngest son of the landed - passed over for the big inheritance, he serves as keeper of family knowledge. Chatting to him, you discover a devoted naturalist, keen to preserve the ancient landscape.

But you also realise that he spearheads a family rivalry that spans nearly 1,000 years. He can date it back to about 1250, when his ancestors were tenants of Mr Pitt-Rivers' antecedents. That went on for 500 years. Then his family came into money, thanks to smuggling, for which the woods of the Chase provided wonderful cover.

They bought their own patch of 1,300 acres bordering the Pitt-Rivers' estate and including the entire village of Chettle. The estate also boasts the elegant Chettle House, designed by Thomas Archer and described by Nikolaus Pevsner as one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in England. A rival, indeed, for the Tudor manor occupied just a few miles away by the much wealthier Pitt-Rivers family.

Fast forward a century or so, to the Thirties. Rushmore is now occupied by George Pitt-Rivers, a famous Fascist in the Thirties, who was interned on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. Mr Bourke tells the tale of a row between George and his great-uncle Edward, in the gunroom at Chettle House.

The story goes that Pitt-Rivers chased Edward through the library, the oak hall, the stone hall, the dining-room and back into the library as he tried to get a good shot. "Fortunately," recalls Mr Bourke, "Pitt- Rivers was tripped up by the butler. The two men never spoke to each other again." And George Pitt-Rivers was never again invited to open the Chettle village fete.

Relations between the latest generation are warmer, but the rivalry has continued. Michael Pitt-Rivers has been as unconventional as his father George. He opposed Fascism and fought in the Second World War. However, he was, like his father, also jailed, but for a different reason: for indecency involving an under-age boy, in the Fifties.

In almost every detail, Michael rejected his father, who had taken his heterosexuality very seriously, marrying four times. Michael was married to, and then divorced, George Orwell's widow, an alliance that must have irritated his father's fascist principles. But he has since spent most of his adult life with his companion, William Davis.

When Michael was released from prison, the Bourkes invited him to to open the Chettle village fete. "My mother," recalls Mr Bourke, "used to say, 'who would we rather have to open the fete - a wife-beater like George or a homosexual?' She much preferred a homosexual."

Nevertheless, the Bourkes have looked on somewhat disapprovingly as Pitt-Rivers squandered his inheritance. Meanwhile, they have toiled away at their 1,300 acres, which, despite the fine house, is a vegetable patch compared with the Pitt-Rivers' estate. They are in no mood to give him the easy way out and let his trustees cash in on a money-making loophole in the law.

"It would," says Mr Bourke, "create a completely unacceptable precedent if estate owners were able to secure planning permission for dwellings in the open countryside in order to provide money to maintain and enhance their estates."

This, then, is a story of a battle to save the countryside from the rush to build in green fields. A typical modern tale.

It is also about the decline of a great estate, which once spanned 35,000 acres, and whose owner was lord of the Chase. But, as in all country tiffs, it is crucially about long memories and hidden rivalries. We should find out soon who triumphs in this latest round between two ancient Dorset families.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick