A visit to Smedmore House, tucked away in a valley sloping towards the sea, is like turning back the clock.

Its owner Dr Philip Mansel seeks solitude for writing history books at the haven offered by the Georgian manor house in Kimmeridge, Purbeck.

“You grow up here and want to get away – Dorset in the 1950s and ’60s was pretty quiet, it was the world of Foyle’s War.

“I like it now so much, it’s so different from London and the rest of the world.

“As the world becomes faster and more efficient Smedmore remains less so,” he said.

Dr Mansel, a historian of France and the Ottoman Empire, writes his books next to a roaring fire in the tranquil house.

The only sounds that disturb his writing are the waves crashing onto nearby Kimmeridge Bay and the Army’s firing from the Lulworth Ranges.

Smedmore is the perfect place for him to retreat to when he returns from book fact-finding missions in the likes of Beirut and Istanbul.

Dr Mansel inherited the house in 1989 from his father, who moved to Smedmore in 1959 after serving as an officer in the Second World War.

The house has been in the Mansel family since they married into the Smedmores in 1830. The Mansel family motto is ‘what he wants, he wants very much’.

Part of the charm of the house, originally built in 1620, is unravelling some of the historical mysteries within, its owner says.

“There’s an old brewery but I don’t know much about it. I’ve been told the workers used to be paid in cider!” he said.

The garden, maintained by Glyn Morgan for more than 30 years, has its fair share of intrigue too.

“We have a grave belonging to a tiger in the garden. It was brought back from India in 1880 and couldn’t cope in the Dorset winter,” Dr Mansel said.

The bottom of the main garden leads down to a walk through woods and fields, past sphinxes, urns and obelisks, down to Kimmeridge Bay.

Smedmore was taken over by the British and US Army just before the war and was used as a girls’ school in 1940.

“It’s very interesting because there are a number of bottles left behind labelled ‘girls’ medicine’.

“Exactly what they would be I have no idea!” Dr Mansel said.

In the old stable block you can see carvings where the stable boys have etched their names.

The house has a comprehensive 18th century library containing many tomes in Latin.

Dr Mansel’s latest book, his 11th, is called The Eagle in Splendour and is about the court of Napoleon.

It offers a fresh view of ‘the most famous man in history’ and shows Napoleon as a monarch rather than a genius on the battlefield.

The house itself helped when penning the book, Dr Mansel said, because it contains a chair which was used by Napoleon when he was on St Helena.

Dr Mansel’s great-great-grandfather was on St Helena and played cards with Napoleon.

He said: “I usually write about aspects of history that my publisher wants me to. I’m currently researching Louis XIV and it’s fascinating.”

The house’s Cedar room contains Dutch paintings inherited from the last descendant of a general of William III, Godart van Ginkel, Earl of Athlone, victor of the Battle of the Boyne, which established Protestant supremacy in Ireland in 1690.

In contrast there is a ‘family museum’ full of random photos and sentimental keepsakes.

Although Smedmore House is a mile from the village of Kimmeridge, Dr Mansel considers himself part of the village community. In 2008 he spearheaded a campaign to relocate Clavell’s Tower to stop it going over the cliff and had it restored and modernised to serve as a Landmark Trust property.

The tower, the inspiration for P.D James’s The Black Tower, is now the Trust’s most popular choice of accommodation and is used in the opening credits of regional news programme BBC South Today.

Dr Mansel is fully behind a project to build a fossil museum in Kimmeridge. A £2.7million grant has been awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the museum is due to open next year.

He also backs the recently held Purbeck Literary Festival.

“There has been industry here in Kimmeridge making shale into jewellery but I think the cultural offering in Purbeck is fascinating and it’s improving. I’m planning to write an updated history of Kimmeridge and Smedmore House.

“There are a lot of people wanting to get involved in organising things,” he said.

The house is open four days a year for charity and to groups by request and is also used for weddings and events.

Smedmore’s grand dining room was recently used for a chamber concert.

Dr Mansel said: “The acoustics were wonderful.”

  • See philipmansel.com for more information about his books and smedmorehouse.com for more on the house