Dunshay Manor: the latest addition to the Landmark Trust portfolio

PUBLISHED: 10:59 23 August 2019

Dunshay Manor

Dunshay Manor

© John MIller

How do you fancy staying in the former family home of legendary Dorset sculptor Mary Spencer Watson? Well, as Steve Harris finds out, now you can…

What can you see from your bathtub? If your bathroom is anything like the one in my semi-detached in Poole, it'll be a pretty unglamorous view of a frosted glass window. This might explain why I rush to the bathroom window of the Purbeck manor house I am touring. "Is that…Corfe Castle?" Amy, who is showing me around Dunshay Manor, just two miles south east of Corfe village, nods. Dunshay is the latest addition to the Landmark Trust portfolio, their 201st property, and its fifth in Dorset. Amy explains that one of the foibles of the charity's founder, Sir John Smith, was that wherever possible bathrooms in buildings saved by them should have interesting views.

Sunset view of Corfe Castle from Dunshay ManorSunset view of Corfe Castle from Dunshay Manor

The Landmark Trust has been saving historic buildings which might otherwise have been lost forever since 1965. I only came across the charity five years ago, possibly because people were deliberately keeping it from me. Anna Keay, the charity's director, is familiar with this secretive behaviour. "Our research revealed that some people don't tell others about us because they want to stay in our buildings themselves and they can sometimes be very busy, they keep us secret."

For the uninitiated, the Landmark Trust saves and restores historic buildings to rent out to the public as rather fabulous holiday lets. During the 1960s, when Sir John Smith was working at the National Trust, around 400 listed buildings a year were being demolished. Realising they couldn't save small buildings or "anything too way out", he quit as chairman of their General Purpose Committee and founded the Landmark Trust with his wife Christian.

Since then, Landmark has taken on buildings both bijou and bizarre - such as a 19th century pigsty near Whitby, and the 18th century Dunmore Pineapple folly in Falkirk. Another folly on their books is Clavell Tower, which was relocated further back on its cliff-top location in 2006 to prevent it falling into the sea.

Dunshay ManorDunshay Manor

Getting to this holiday let with far-reaching views is not for the faint-hearted. You have to hump your luggage 100m up the steps from the car park.

The one-room-per-storey lay out also means that when nature calls in the second floor lounge you have to descend to the basement lavatory. Nevertheless, it's fully-booked until the end of 2020; "It's always in our top five properties," says Anna.

The sitting room at Dunshay Manor with comfy chairs and log fireThe sitting room at Dunshay Manor with comfy chairs and log fire

Dunshay Manor is more accessible in location and layout. This extended Arts and Crafts farmhouse near Harmans Cross features lounge, dining room, and kitchen on the ground floor and bedrooms and bathrooms (some with Corfe Castle glimpses) on the first floor, all modestly but stylishly decorated.

Anna describes the Landmark Trust aesthetic as a "faded country house look …lots of books, open fires, quirky rugs, and comfortable armchairs." Lady Christian used to handprint curtains for all Landmark properties, designed around a motif associated with each building. That tradition has continued even after her death last year. Dunshay's curtains feature a ram's head design taken from a programme for a performance of the mime artist Hilda Spencer Watson who once called this beautiful house her home; it was her sculptor daughter Mary who left it to the charity.

Toby Wiggins' painting of Mary Spencer WatsonToby Wiggins' painting of Mary Spencer Watson

According to those who knew her, Mary was generous, energetic, inquisitive, and tough as old boots. Her father, the Royal Academician George Spencer Watson bought Dunshay for £400 in February 1924. He engaged local stonemasons on the early improvements and a pre¬teen Mary found herself inspired watching them work. Ilay Cooper was her friend; one of the conditions of Mary's bequest was that he be allowed to stay in his caravan in the manor's grounds - "until he goes out in a box."

"Mary would get fascinated watching the guys working at the quarry up the lane from the house," says Ilay. "Titus Lander (one of the quarrymen), took her in hand and gave her some tools." It was the seed from which her career as a sculptor grew. Mary's works are dotted around Dorset. I particularly love her Purbeck Stonemason, commissioned for the millennium, looking south on the roadside corner of St George's Church in Langton Matravers. Ilay tells me someone puts a scarf on him every winter. I have the temerity to suggest that people might be surprised to hear that she was still working with big lumps of Purbeck stone into her nineties. "Don't you fall for that one," Ilay warns me. "She'd have someone up there to help her pick up a block, but she always had the heavy end."

The Purbeck Stonemason by Mary Spencer WatsonThe Purbeck Stonemason by Mary Spencer Watson

Toby Wiggins, who teaches drawing at Arts University Bournemouth, also speaks fondly of Mary. Growing up near Dunshay, and with a keen interest in art, he turned to her for careers advice. "She was older than my grandparents by five or six years, but was generous enough not to condescend to me." Toby went on to become a painter and took a ten-year tenancy of a studio at the house. "There was a lovely time before she became very elderly when we both put something in for the Royal Academy Summer Show, and we both got in," he recalls. "I read her the acceptance letter at the kitchen table. She was so elated that she actually did a little dance."

Some of George's pencil sketchesSome of George's pencil sketches

Sadly there are none of Mary Spencer Watson's sculptures at Dunshay. In 2002 she made changes to her will to leave the property to the Landmark Trust, but after her death in 2006 they were contested in the High Court by Mary's goddaughter, the actor Hetty Baynes. After a three year legal battle judges found in Landmark's favour. The house was theirs. But the contents went elsewhere and Mary's artworks were auctioned off. Over £1.5m has been spent making the house fit for holidaymakers. Major structural work was required and it also needed decorating sympathetically. John Evetts, Landmark's furnishing manager gradually acquired the right pieces of furniture to represent the early Spencer Watson period. He'd pick up a lamp at a flea market, or a side table at a house clearance. He bought pieces of Heal's furniture from the 1920s and 30s (fitting since Sir Ambrose Heal was a friend of Hilda's). He even managed to buy back some of George's pencil drawings which now hang on the walls next to oil paintings from antiques fairs and the odd cubist still-life.

"I think Mary would have been very happy to see what has been done," says Toby. "What we loved about Dunshay, all those years ago, is that it was slightly dilapidated. But in those latter years Mary didn't have the money or energy to maintain the house. She would have been very excited to see it spruced up for a 21st century holiday let."

The ram's head design on the Dunhay Manor curtainsThe ram's head design on the Dunhay Manor curtains

There is, however, no wi-fi, television or radio in any Landmark Trust property. Anna Keay defends this stance: "They're an escape from the endless noise of modern life. A chance to light the fire and play cards. Our customer research revealed that it was the under-30s who are least worried about wi-fi. It was the older bookers, who think you need to have it because young people won't come otherwise."

At Dunshay they're currently trialling the idea of a free basket of logs for each guest. So swap those glowing screens for a glowing hearth or simply enjoy the view from the bathroom!

One of the bedrooms, with period furniture from HealsOne of the bedrooms, with period furniture from Heals

The dining room, furniture has been sourced to reflect the 1920s & 30sThe dining room, furniture has been sourced to reflect the 1920s & 30s

The kitchenThe kitchen


Dunshay Manor is holding an open weekend on 21st and 22nd September.

Other Dorset Landmark Properties holding open weekends (7th - 8th September) are Belmont House, Lyme Regis and Clavell Tower. Find out more about these properties at or for booking enquiries call 01628 825925.

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