Escape to the Isle of Purbeck
This compact corner of Dorset combines an evocative sense of yesteryear with ancient history, diverse natural beauty, and a rich vein of creative inspiration
First things first: the Isle of Purbeck is not an island at all, but a 60-square-mile peninsula jutting dramatically out of Dorset’s coastline. Its wide sandy beaches, rocky precipices and clifftop plateaus edge a pocket of unchanged loveliness: heathland dotted with bright gorse; green valleys knitted with remote farms and tiny hamlets; and, not least, the spine of chalk – the Purbeck Hills – running right through it, with a swooping gap showcasing the momentous ruins of Corfe Castle.
To say this land is ancient barely touches the bones of it. Purbeck forms part of the World Heritage Jurassic Coastline, with 185-million-year-old fossils to prove it. Stone Age burial chambers dot the hillsides; there is evidence of early settlements; and the famous Purbeck stone was first quarried here by the Romans in 1AD.
It’s a place that has long inspired writers, poets and artists, from Thomas Hardy to Enid Blyton, Joseph Turner to Philip Steer. Its landscape became the backdrop to adventures with smugglers and sunken treasure; its sometimes dramatic seafaring history depicted in oils. Even Vanessa Bell and her Bloomsbury circle descended for holidays.
Today’s creatives are still captivated by its magical qualities, with the annual Purbeck Art Weeks showcasing a wealth of artistic talent. A trip here might encompass walks through ancient woodlands (Arne Nature Reserve is well worth a visit) or along well-trodden coastal paths; exploring stone-built villages steeped in local legend; or browsing for quality artwork and artisan crafts. Happily, the area is well-served for accommodation and pubs – many with as rich a history as Purbeck itself.
Places to visit
Corfe Castle & Village
The craggy silhouette of Corfe Castle’s ruins never fails to take your breath away, and its long history is equally dramatic: during the Civil War it was a Royalist stronghold and home to the loyal Bankes Family. An act of treachery saw it fall to the Parliamentarians, who swiftly destroyed it. Below is Corfe village, which was once the heart of the marble trade.
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Many of the Purbeck stone cottages and buildings incorporate materials pilfered long ago from the castle’s remnants, which is why some boast grander features than you might expect. Here you’ll find an ancient church, a host of shops, pubs, hotels and historic buildings – including the smallest town hall (and museum) in England, and a model village showing how the castle would once have looked.
In winter 1943, the residents of Tyneham – a remote village tucked deep in the valley – were given 28 days to leave their homes by the British Army, who requisitioned the area for D-Day training. The villagers were promised that they could return after the war; this pledge was never kept.
Today, the area is still used as a firing range, but the village is open to the public on certain days. The little schoolhouse has been beautifully restored and is just as it would have been when the residents left, even down to the children’s nature study essays on the desk. The church is now a fascinating museum, commemorating the generations of families who once lived here.
The Victorians developed this fishing port into a quintessential British seaside town. The traditional promenade flanks the sandy beach, with the restored 19th-century Swanage pier – built for paddle steamers to transport Purbeck stone – stretching out into the bay.
Some of the town’s features are slightly incongruous: the Wellington Clock Tower at Peveril Point was originally erected on old London Bridge, while the Town Hall façade once graced Mercers’ Hall in the City of London.
Duck down passages off the main street to find a backwater of little shops, and stop by the Enid Blyton-ish heritage railway station. Here you can take the steam train through the valley to Corfe Castle, just as her Famous Five gang did!
Where to shop
In Swanage, Smith’s Vintage is a two-storey emporium of English and French furniture (owner Paul Ridges makes forays across the Channel whenever he can), combined with tempting brocante finds – from ceramics and ironware to antique linens. Meanwhile, fans of vintage and retro will love the aptly named Eklektika Antique Centre: a rambling space with everything from classic vinyl to quirky advertising signs.
The Mulberry Tree Gallery shows works by local painters such as Ben Spurling, who captures the essence of Purbeck, and contemporary ceramicists Kara Leigh Ford and Alice Funge. Their pieces are beautifully showcased alongside gifts and homewares. Art fans should also check the programme of events at The Fine Foundation Gallery in nearby Durlston Country Park.
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Discover the Isle of Purbeck's history
When it comes to exploring the Jurassic coastline on foot, highlights include dune-edged Studland Bay with views of the iconic Old Harry Rocks (named after a wily old pirate); the South West Coast Path, which is punctuated by Tilly Whim Caves and Dancing Ledge.
Further along is the isolated ancient chapel of St Aldhelm’s, followed by Chapman’s Pool, and then Kimmeridge Bay, which is a mecca for geologists, marine biologists and surfers. A visit to the Etches Collection – an independent fossil museum in the picture-perfect village above the bay – is well worth a detour.
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Where to eat
The Salt Pig, Wareham and Swanage
These two delightful foodie emporiums, established by local provenance champion James Warren, offer the very best from Dorset’s land and sea. Pop in for a hearty breakfast, lunch or treat (the Swanage branch also serves evening meals); make the most of the takeaway service (the deep-pan ‘house’ quiche is rightly famous); and stock up on delicious local fare in the urban farm shop and butchery.
The Bear, Wareham
This 18th-century coaching inn is a landmark in the Georgian town of Wareham – the gateway to Purbeck – and now a stylish delight, thanks to a painstaking renovation. The buzzy bar is clubby and cosy, the airy restaurant serves modern dishes created with local produce, and the all-day cake menu is hard to resist! (For a real treat, check in to one of the enticing en-suite rooms upstairs). Rooms from £110.
Square & Compass, Worth Matravers
This tiny 18th-century inn – named after quarry tools – has history seeping through its creaking ale-soaked bones. Customers queue along the flagstone passageway to reach an old serving hatch for homemade hot pasties and pubbrewed cider, before settling by the crackling open fire – or outside on stone seats as chickens wander, clucking happily. It’s pure Thomas Hardy.
Where to stay
The Pig on the Beach, Studland
Dating back to the 17th century, this manor house was once the coastal home of George Bankes MP – a descendant of ‘Brave Dame Mary Bankes’ who defended Corfe Castle against Cromwell’s troops. Original fairy-tale turrets, sloping roofs, mullioned windows and a higgledy-piggledy layout all combine perfectly with the relaxed style for which The Pig Group is renowned. In the herb-scented conservatory, enjoy local seasonal produce while taking in views of the garden, which gently slopes to the sea. Rooms only, from £155.
Challow Farm Shepherd’s Huts
Tucked behind Corfe Castle, this 100-year-old farmhouse is a peaceful, eco-friendly enclave offering luxury Bed & Breakfast, but there are also two traditionally built Shepherd’s Huts set amid the farm’s own woodland. With the crackling woodburner on, we’d be hard-pushed to find a better spot to curl up with Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Sheep farmer Gabriel Oak would surely approve... Shepherd’s Huts, from £405 for 3 nights (can also accommodate a child or dog).
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