The Isle of Purbeck

In 1953 my Mum and Dad spent their honeymoon in Swanage, on the Dorset coast.

In the 1990s, we spent a couple of idyllic family holidays on the Isle of Purbeck. My two young nephews dug sandcastles on Studland Bay beach,  floppy hats protecting their youthful skin from the unexpectedly searing heat. We walked decent stretches of the vertiginous coastal path, from Swanage to Winspit and then inland to the quaint village of Worth Matravers. We explored the natural wonder of Brownsea Island, and we drove miles in search of elusive Solero ice creams.

And now, good friends have a home near Corfe Castle. We’ve been lucky to spend weekends there with them in recent years, and the love affair with this still largely untamed part of the country continues anew.

It’s a Famous Five, or Swallows and Amazons type of place. Its rolling inland hills, perfect beaches and plunging coastline remain relatively unspoiled, and driving through Wareham always make me feel like I’m returning to the innocence of childhood.

In reality a peninsula rather than an island, Purbeck stretches from Wareham in the north, east from Brownsea Island to Swanage and Durlston Lighthouse, and west as far as Worbarrow Bay along the scintillating – though sadly eroding – southern coastline.

Corfe Castle bewitches you as you drive on the Wareham to Swanage road, its ghostly remains perched high on a hill above providing a history lesson.  Fortunately, the Parliamentarians left enough standing in 1646 during the English Civil War for it still to be an interesting National Trust destination.

Swanage probably hasn’t changed much since 1953. It’s a charming English seaside town, originally a fishing port but developed as a tourist destination from the early 19th century. Enjoy its sandy beach, fish & chip shops, characterful pubs and restaurants. And abundance of Magnum ice creams.

Inland, explore Purbeck’s rolling landscape on foot or from a horse or bike saddle. The scars from old quarries, where the island’s eponymous marble and limestone have been extracted since the 12th century, somehow only add to the natural landscape, rather than detract.

The crumbling Jurassic coastline in the south is equally magnetic, pulling you in to walk its helter-skelter contours. Venture west as far as Kimmeridge and Worbarrow Bay, before heading inland to caught-in-time Tyneham.

Its villagers were suddenly asked to leave late in 1943, expecting to return after the army had finished its war training activities. Sadly, they never returned. The army retained the village and surrounding area as Ranges, but at certain times you’re allowed back to the village to see the church and school-house exactly as they were, more than 70 years ago.

Wander along to tiny villages or hamlets with beguiling names like Langton Matravers, Church Knowle or Steeple.

But, best of all, go to the wholly unique Square and Compass in Worth Matravers. There can be no better reason to live in England than to go to this charming village on a warm, summer’s day and find your way to its whacky hostelry, an alehouse since around 1776. Order pints of award winning beers or home-pressed traditional cider from cramped counters inside, listen to live music in the sloping garden and enjoy a pie or pasty from its unashamedly traditional, limited menu. This is as far from being a gastro pub as Nicola Sturgeon is from being English.

After enjoying 3 pints of mind-altering, coma-inducing Kiss-me-Kate cider at the weekend, listening to quirky folk music, sprawled in the sunny garden with old friends, I think I’d like my ashes to be spread here.

And I hope the Isle of Purbeck remains untarnished, so that honeymooners, 9 year-old boys in search of an ice cream and ageing scrumpy hunters alike can enjoy its special charms for many years to come.


4 thoughts on “The Isle of Purbeck”

  1. Good report mon brave but you failed to mention the famous nudist beach at Studland…are you telling us that you did not visit it this time around?!

    1. Indeed, this time around we didn’t make it to Studland…..either the clothed or unclothed bits. A beautiful spot, as you remember, but prone to over-population in the school summer hols. We’ll have to stay at the Pig on the Beach, but out of season and with clothes on.

    1. You’re right. As always, Gillian. They were Soleros….and hadn’t been around long back then, so they were worth hunting down.

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