A CURIOUS 130-year old whalebone arch gracing Chideock Manor has been preserved for posterity thanks to a bit of serendipity and a lot of specialist knowledge.

Deirdre and Howard Coates bought Chideock Manor 14 years ago and have watched the whalebone arch – probably dating back to around 1880 – steadily crumble before their eyes.

Mrs Coates said: “We tried to find someone to restore it but it’s not easy and we had no luck at all.

“I just sadly watched it crumbling away. Bone is very hard on the outside but when the water wears through that bit it is all crumbly.

“When you take over a property like ours, you have a responsibility to look after it. We were very concerned that this beautiful and rare whalebone was deteriorating.”

Then by a stroke of good luck one of the few men in the country capable of doing the job happened to spot the arch on one of his frequent holidays to Chideock.

Palaeontologist and now freelance conservator Nigel Larkin got in touch and offered his services. Mrs Coates said: “Mr Larkin is mad on fossil hunting and spends his life restoring dinosaur fossils. He happened to walk past the gate. He couldn’t believe there was a whalebone here. They are normally on the east coast and there are only 12 in the whole country.”

With six years under his belt at the Natural History Museum followed by seven years as curator of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service before launching his freelance career Nigel Larkin was perhaps one of the few people qualified for the job.

He said: “The arch comprises the two bones of the lower jaw of a large balenopterid whale and stands over three metres high, with another metre or so buried in the ground.

“It had rotted to the consistency of sponge and much of the internal structure of the bone had completely disintegrated.

“Although the two bones were in need of urgent attention they were too vulnerable to be dismantled and taken away for conservation, as this would have risked them breaking up altogether.”

So he set up a portable forge along with the generator that powered the fan required to get the forge hot enough.

He added: “It was back-breaking work and I hardly had any rest.”

Chideock villager Karen Warburton added: “Most local people seem to think this whalebone originated from a whale washed up at Seatown or St. Gabriels but it’s just possible Frederick Weld (previous owner of the Manor) shipped it back from his time in New Zealand and Australia. “Frederick Weld was Premier of New Zealand, Governor of Western Australia and, from 1880-1887, Governor of Tasmania.

“The whalebone holds a fascination for visitors and one local story is that the two points at the top open at Hallowe’en and witches ride through on their broomsticks.”