Escaping to the Beautiful Dales and Coastal Delights of Dorset

“Let me enjoy the earth no less because the all-enacting light that fashioned forth its loveliness had other aims than my delight.” ~ Thomas Hardy

The weather over last weekend’s May bank holiday in the UK was something of a miracle! It was the hottest early May bank holiday weekend on record. They are traditionally damp and dreary affairs, spent doing household chores or various indoor pursuits…

The Burges household decided we needed a change of scenery, and wanted to make the most of this unusual glimpse of summer, so took ourselves off to one of England’s quintessential counties: Dorset.

Rolling green fields near Whitchurch Canonicorum

Cornwall has long been our favourite, with the Lake District a close second, but Dorset has similar scenery for three hours of driving instead of four to five, so we settled for two nights in a quiet and unspoilt hamlet called Whitchurch Canonicorum. The small development of holiday cottages (formed from an old farm around a courtyard), was charming and rustic, with the added benefit of a modern indoor pool to keep the kids happy.

The nearby paddock with the alpacas was also a big hit with my girls, who noticed a striking resemblance between their brother and Buttercup!

We arrived late Saturday night, and all was quiet; no traffic, no light pollution, just a glittering sky littered with sparkling stars. It reminded me of the stunning southern hemisphere night sky I became enamoured of in Queensland, Australia many years ago.

“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“Yes.”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
~ Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Sunday morning was a relaxed affair, me with a book supervising the kids in the pool and a cooked breakfast. We piled into the car and headed for the nearest beach at Charmouth, a ten minute drive from our base. Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is stunning. It has the sheer cliffs, topped by rolling green fields, pristine pebble beaches, and eons of history and fossils to go searching for. Fossil hunting wasn’t on our agenda this time, relaxation was.

Charmouth Beach – not so far from the madding crowd!

My youngest son decided to take a dip in the sea (he likes cold showers as well), and I was in awe at his bravery. However, despite the soaring temperatures on land, the water was not far off freezing, and poor Will struggled to get back to shore across a stony seabed. He spent a tad too long in the sea and began shivering violently when he came out. Being wrapped in towels and sat in the sun with a hot chocolate soon brought his core temperature back up.

Meanwhile, I was busy getting sunburnt as I was so focussed on making sure the family had sunscreen on, I neglected myself. A brighter shade of lobster is not a good look! Fortunately I took my Trulūm skin care with me and the Intrinsic Complex worked wonders with the sore, red skin on my shoulders and arms, bringing it down to bearable levels. Nothing like a bit of DNA repair when you’ve been overexposed!!

We spent the early evening wandering around Lyme Regis and consuming the best fish and chips in Dorset. I haven’t been there since I was Emily’s age on a school geography field trip. It’s still magical.

Monday morning we did a short coastal walk, it was too hot to exert ourselves beyond a leisurely stroll. We chatted with a lady who had been on an organised National Trust ‘orchid walk’ by the cliff.

I really wanted to visit Thomas Hardy’s birthplace and home (Max Gate), but my family don’t have the same literary interests, so I was outnumbered! I will have to wait for another visit. Classics like Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Jude the Obscure and his other novels are set in Dorset and the surrounding counties. Hardy’s fictional town of Casterbridge was based on Dorchester.

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace at Higher Brockhampton, Dorset where Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd were written.

Many may think of Thomas Hardy as a purely literary author; he was awarded the Order of Merit in 1910 and had been frequently nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was a trailblazer as well!

Hardy is credited with being the source and inspiration for the term ‘cliffhanger’.

Cliffhanger: A story or situation that is exciting because its ending or result is uncertain until it happens.  (Cambridge Dictionary)

As I tell W.I. members on my fiction talks, there is a suspenseful scene in his third novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, where a male character (Henry Knight), is literally hanging by his fingertips to a cliff face, unable to climb back up to safety. The object of his affection, Elfride has gone to seek assistance.

Suspense is from the Latin word ‘to hang’ (suspendo). Because I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing and the Victorian precursor to the modern suspense genre, I have included the excerpt, which also ties in with the scenery of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast:

“At first, when death appeared improbable because it had never visited him before, Knight could think of no future, nor of anything connected with his past. He could only look sternly at Nature’s treacherous attempt to put an end to him, and strive to thwart her.
From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment of a hollow cylinder, having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom, which enclosed the bay to the extent of nearly a semicircle, he could see the vertical face carving round on each side of him. He looked far down the façade and realised more thoroughly how it threatened him. Grimness was in every feature, and to its very bowels the inimical shape was desolation.
By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of those early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their place of death. It was a single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.”
~ Thomas Hardy (A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873)

Hardy has kept the focus on Knight and we are probably convinced like he is; that he’s going to die. It’s great to find that the dramatic, ancient landscape is fundamental to the story, acting as another character, as well as the obvious contemporary influence of Charles Darwin on him. Hardy met the composer Sir Edward Elgar late in his life and they discussed the possibility of him writing an opera based on the novel, but sadly Hardy’s death put an end to the project.

Spectacular Corfe Castle

In the afternoon we drove across to the east side of Dorset to the Purbeck region to explore Corfe Castle. If you’ve read my post on Gwellian ferch Gruffydd, you may have gathered that we absolutely love castles!

Approaching what’s left of the Keep

Corfe is a magnificent ruin now, but you can’t beat the romantic setting it commands. It has a turbulent and colourful thousand year history, and for five centuries was one of the most important castles in England.

Lovely light behind the ruins.

Corfe’s history came vividly to life for us as a group of Saxon and Viking enthusiasts had been camping out in the grounds all weekend participating in various events. They were regaled in fabulous period costumes, brandishing weapons and displaying handicrafts from their era. It all added to the jubilant atmosphere.

Will was especially interested, talking to a ‘viking’ who had travelled down from York for the events, and was thrilled when he let him borrow his gear and told him about how it would have been used. His sisters were very keen to murder or maim their big brother!

We all enjoyed exploring the ruins, and because the sky was so clear and blue, at the top, you could see right across to the Studland Peninsula and Poole in the distance.

View towards the Studland Peninsula, Sandbanks and Poole.

I’ve included some more of my photos in the gallery and epic drone videos I found. We couldn’t have picked a better day to visit.

Corfe Castle Timeline

  • 978 – It is thought that King Edward the Martyr was murdered by his (very wicked) stepmother Aelfreda at the site of the Old Hall. She wanted her own son, Ethelred, to be King of England. It is said that Aelfreda offered Edward a goblet of poisoned wine and then had him stabbed in the back while he drank it.
  • 1086 – Corfe Castle was one of a number of castles built by William the Conqueror soon after his arrival on English shores in 1066. He exchanged a church at Gillingham for the mound and other land at Corfe, which was owned by the Abbess of Shaftesbury. Built on a natural mound, the castle was a guard to the gateway of Purbeck. It was good hunting country and nearby Wareham was an important port linking England and France. Much of Purbeck was a Royal Forest and the killing of game without royal permission was punishable by death. The castle was built with Purbeck limestone quarried about two miles away and brought by horse and cart to Corfe. A simple pulley system was used to haul the stone to the tops of the walls.
  • 1106 – By now Corfe was one of the best fortified castles in England. Henry 1 (son of William the Conqueror), ordered the building of the Keep as a prison for his brother Robert of Normandy, who was threatening to take the English throne. The Keep was painted white, a symbol of the King’s power and wealth.  At 23 metres tall, sitting on the top of a 55 metre hill it would have been the equivalent of a 12th century skyscraper!It was one of the first Norman keeps to be built from stone instead of timber. The sturdy construction would have kept the king safe from archers and trebuchet attacks, as well as housing his treasure and hosting lavish royal banquets. The village grew up around the castle as it was being built. This was a small community of skilled stone workers and tradesmen who provided services to the castle. Many farmers working small plots of land supplied the castle with provisions when the king visited.
  • 1138 – While Stephen was King, his cousin the Empress Matilda raised an army against him, thinking she should have the throne of England. Stephen besieged one of her saupporters, Baldwin de Redevers.
  • 1202 – King John (1199 – 1216) had a new royal residence built next to the Keep, called the Gloriette. He imprisoned his French neice, Princess Eleanor of Brittany at Corfe Castle. She survived, but 22 of her knights were not so lucky.
  • 1220 – 1294 – Edward I (1272 – 1307) improved the defences of both the Outer and Southwest Gatehouses. Henry VII (1485 – 1509) made many home improvements hoping his mother would spend time at the castle.
  • 1572 – Queen Elizabeth I, the castle’s last royal owner, sold it to her Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton and Corfe became a stately home.
  • 1635 – Corfe Castle was bought by the Chief Justice to King Charles I, Sir John Bankes and his wife, Mary.  He and his family stayed true to the king during the civil war, while almost all of Dorset was under the control of Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces.
  • 1643-46 – Under the command of brave Dame Mary Bankes Corfe Castle twice held off sieges during the English Civil War, but was finally captured because of treachery within its walls.

    Corfe Castle in 1643

  • 1646-1663 – After partial demolition by order of the government, which took around six months, Lady Bankes’s son, Ralph, tried to recover what he could. He later built a new mansion at Kingston Lacy.
  • 1982 – After three and a half centuries of ownership by the Bankes family, the castle (part of the Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle Estate), was bequeathed to the National Trust by Ralph Bankes, a direct descendent of Sir John Bankes.

Corfe Castle 3D historical reconstruction:

We drove back to Buckinghamshire through the scenic Studland Peninsula and across the two minute Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry as the sun was setting over the placid water. It was really quite lovely.

I can see why the Studland Bay area and Sandbanks is one of the most prime property locations in the country after London!

“In making even horizontal and clear inspections we colour and mould according to the wants within us whatever our eyes bring in.” ~ Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Photo gallery:

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