New life has been breathed into Dunshay Manor, which is one of many interesting places open this weekend and next as part of Heritage Open Days. Joanna Davis takes a look inside.

Stepping into this hidden away manor house in a Dorset valley is like stepping back through time.

Dunshay Manor, described as 'utterly bewitching' by art historian James Fox, was once home to sculptor Mary Spencer Watson.

The 16th century stone farmhouse - recently acquired by the Landmark Trust and pronounced with a silent 'h' as 'Dunsay' - will be open to visitors next weekend as part of the Heritage Open Days series.

The ancient Purbeck stone house, near Harman's Cross, Swanage, has been restored as the Landmark Trust’s 201st property and boasts stunning views of Corfe Castle. The Swanage Steam Railway also passes nearby.

It now evokes the spirit of its 1920s heyday and its artistic heritage is cherished.

Next weekend presents a rare opportunity to see the newly refurbished Dunshay, which is normally let out to Dorset holidaymakers as part of the Trust's portfolio of unusual buildings, which also includes Dorset's Clavell Tower.

After being gentrified in the 17th century Dunshay ended up in a near- derelict state.

Historian James Fox said: "By the beginning of the 20th century Dunshay was in a terrible state. Its rooms had damp, its woodwork was rotten and its walls were falling down.

"And so its new owner, an enigmatic naval officer called Guy Montagu Marston, a friend of war poet Rupert Brooke, decided to give it an Arts & Craft makeover."

This transformation gave the home a friendly, open feel. Stand-out features of the makeover are Dunshay's beautiful staircase and corner-set fireplaces.

Interesting for visitors to spot are the home's numerous quirks - the south front has a response to the 1696 window tax - from which 'cheese rooms' were exempt.

In the 1640s, owner John Dolling made the home the manor house for the Manor of Worth. He left his and his wife's initials on the lead rainwater hopper dated 1642 on the porch and may have erected the obelisk gateposts beside the pond.

John Dolling went on to fight for the King in the Civil War and was fined by Parliamentarians for his loyalty. A headless statue of a man put up on the north wall of the house may originally have represented Major Dolling.

In 1923 Dunshay became the home of the portrait painter George Spencer Watson, his wife dancer and mime artist Hilda and their daughter Mary, who would become a sculptor.

James said: "Together they filled this property with an aesthetic, intellectual, bohemian identity that befitted the spirit of interwar Britain.

"They converted the dairy into George's painting studio and a stable block became Hilda's theatre."

Avant-garde performances created by Hilda were staged in the barn and Mary performed and made props, costumes and scenery. Guests would come and watch performances of ancient Greek myths and English nursery rhymes. Reproductions of paintings and an exhibition in the former dairy now tell the story of both artists

Their daughter Mary, inspired by her Dorset surroundings, first picked up a chisel aged 13 when a local quarryman encouraged her to have a go. Mary then went on to study at The Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy.

"She became a tremendously successful and accomplished sculptor in her own right," James said.

Although Mary received training from top artists including John Skeaping, she always returned to Dunshay and would remain there for the rest of her life. The nearby Purbeck quarries provided raw materials for her and she went on to have her work placed in Salisbury Cathedral, churches, schools and private collections.

She died in 2006, aged 92, and bequeathed the property to the Landmark Trust. Mary is buried under, appropriately, a beautifully cut stone at nearby Langton Matravers.

Mary wished for Dunshay to go to the Trust so its history could be preserved.

And in keeping with her wishes, all have the chance to discover the magic of Dunshay next weekend or through Landmark's letting scheme.

*Opening weekend at Dunshay Manor, Haycrafts Lane, Swanage, BH19 3EB; Saturday, September 21, 10am to 4pm and Sunday, September 22, 10am to 4pm. There is no parking on site. Visitors should park in the car park opposite Harman's Cross Village Hall - this operates on an honesty box system with a suggested donation of £1 per car. See for more information.

For information on other places open this weekend and next weekend as part of Heritage Open Days, see