by Alison Wood
Everyone I introduce to Dorset says the same thing: ‘I can’t believe we didn’t think of coming here before. There is so much to do and it’s so much nearer than Cornwall.’
Take the Isle of Purbeck, perched at the bottom of Dorset. It offers lashings of ruined castles, miles of glorious sandy beaches, steam trains, damp dark caves and fossils by the bucket load. If this all sounds a tad like an Enid Blyton book that’s because it was. Enid regularly steamed into Swanage town for her summer holidays and hung out with her typewriter at the golf course on the heath land behind Studland Bay. Evidently she took plenty of inspiration from the local landscape, so don’t be surprised if your first visit to Corfe Castle transports you back to Kirrin Island. There’s even a shop called Ginger Pop devoted to her work.
My children, Cameron (9) and Annabel (5), have discussed our recent visit and decided what was best. It was a fairly typical May half term – a mix of bright and breezy days, torrential downpours and a couple of hot, sunny scorchers. Here’s their top tips:
1. ‘Buy a pink spade and bucket.’ Annabel apparently only needs these items (with matching pink sunglasses of course) to guarantee fun. It’s true you can dig on the beach, collect shells, make seaweed rainbows and fill buckets with water in most weathers, provided you are dressed for the conditions. And as one of my witty friends pointed out, ‘You spend half the year skiing and half the year in Dorset so you only need one set of clothes.’ Shell Bay in Studland is as good a place as any to start. Knoll Beach on the same stretch has the advantage of a good NT café as well. And the patch between Studland’s Middle and South beaches yields good rockpools at low tide.
2. ‘I’ve grown out of my chain mail so I’m wearing it as a skirt.’ Cam is almost 10 and went through a major ‘knights’ phase; but this holiday he pulled the chain mail out the dressing up box and declared it was too small. Parents of small boys are unlikely to escape Corfe Castle without purchasing some form of armour, helmet or sword. We suggest you buy it in the shop before you go round the castle just in case there are any dragons lurking and much fun can be had tearing around the Castle in full knight’s regalia. When the chain mail is outgrown it’s probably time to move on to the Tank Museum near Wool, just down the road.
3. ‘Can we go crabbing?’ Long suffering Martin in Swanage Angling Centre can equip you with crabbing line, bait and buckets (not to mention basic inexpensive fishing rods and reels) to take to any of the rocky inlets in the town or the pier – ask for good locations. To stem the probable disappointment at not catching anything eat fish and chips from Sea Breeze near the tourist info centre, by far the best chippie in town. If the weather is rubbish, head to the Seventh Wave restaurant at Durlston Country Park above the town; their fish and chips are pretty good too. So is the coffee and there are regularly changing exhibitions to wander round and a bird hide.
4. Pack nails and twine from your local DIY store. Collect driftwood, nail together or bind with twine. Tie on string to pull through the water with. Repeat. Result: hours of raft racing.
5. Get on your bike. Hire bikes (including trailers and tagalongs) from Cyclex in Wareham. There is range of family friendly routes – including a completely off road route from near Corfe to the beach at Studland (14 mile round trip).
Getting and staying here
Get a decent OS map and look at it. Purbeck is a living geography lesson for a start and much of it is owned by the National Trust (whose website contains lots of useful information on places to visit). You can approach Purbeck many ways, all picturebook perfect. Entering from the north the Norman ruins of Corfe Castle will greet you from their hilltop; from the east you can come on the little chain ferry from Sandbanks in Poole; from the west the coast road from Lulworth enjoys spectacular views across Jurassic cliffs and out to sea. You can come from the south too if you want but you’ll have to go to France or the Channel Islands first and catch the ferry back – it’s a squeeze through the tiny harbour mouth at Poole on a cross channel ferry.
Really decent hotels are few and far between and expensive for what you get. Bed and breakfasts, campsites and rental cottages abound (try Dorset Coastal Cottages and www.visit-dorset.com).
Alison Wood grew up in Dorset…and goes back whenever she can.