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?”
“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:

A Weekend of History and Music at Warwick Castle

Visually, Warwick Castle has it all: towers, turrets and battlements, a drawbridge entrance over the castle ditch (which would have been filled with sewage rather than water), dungeons, sumptuous living apartments and spectacular views. Historically, you can’t ask for more…

East front of Warwick castle by Canaletto c. 1752

East front of Warwick castle by Canaletto c. 1752


The very first settlement at Warwick Castle was constructed under the rule of Princess Ethelfleda in 914 AD after the Danish invasion. One can only imagine the grim conditions our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had to contend with.  The natural mound at Warwick provided the perfect setting for this defensive garrison against the Vikings. The first true castle was built on the site at the behest of William the Conqueror in 1048, and since then it has been fortified, expanded and improved, providing shelter and protection for noble houses down through the centuries.

The new ‘Time Tower’ shows in great visual detail the entire ancient and amazing history of Warwick Castle.

Throughout its colourful 1100 years of history Warwick Castle attained its zenith of power and prestige during the tenure of Richard Neville, husband of Anne de Beauchamp, who was the daughter of Richard de Beauchamp, the 13th Earl of Warwick.

Richard de Beauchamp was one of the wealthiest men in Medieval England – worth around 34 billion pounds in today’s money – he occupied a position of power as Captain of Calais and England’s lay representative at the Council of Constance. He was active on behalf of Henry V in the Hundred Years War, when he captured and ransomed many prisoners, as well as overseeing the trial and execution of Joan of Arc in Rouen in 1431. He is buried beneath a lavish brass effigy in St. Mary’s Church, which is clearly visible from the castle.

View of St. Mary's Church Warwick from Guy's Tower.

View of St. Mary’s Church Warwick from Guy’s Tower.

His son-in-law, Richard Neville, was bestowed with the title 16th Earl of Warwick by King Henry VI in 1450. At this point in time the quest for power became truly complex and Machiavellian, when Henry VI’s reign came under threat of civil war from the Yorkist faction. Due to his family connections Neville supported the Yorkists, thus Richard Neville, aka ‘The Kingmaker’, had the power to depose the Lancastrian King Henry VI and back his rival cousin, the Yorkist Edward IV in what was known as the ‘War of the Roses’. After Henry VI was captured in 1455 at the battle of St Albans, as a reward for his support, Neville was granted a seat of power by the Yorkist king.

Looking down at the ruined bridge  on the River Avon from Cesar's Tower.

Looking down at the ruined bridge on the River Avon from Cesar’s Tower. In Canaletto’s paintings this bridge is still intact!

All was not smelling of roses for the ‘Kingmaker’ however, because Edward IV later married Elizabeth Woodville and Warwick’s influenced waned. He then plotted against Edward IV with his brother, the Duke of Clarence, raised an army, captured Edward and temporarily imprisoned him in Cesar’s Tower. Warwick then fled to France, having completely ditched his Yorkist alliances and later returned with an army to restore the imprisoned Henry VI to the throne. The ‘Kingmaker’ fought his last battle against Edward’s Yorkist and Burgundian forces in 1471, when he was killed at the Battle of Barnet.

His daughters Isabel and Anne were married to Edward IV’s brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester respectively. Richard and his wife Anne Neville took ownership of Warwick Castle in 1478. After the mysterious murder of Edward’s sons, (the Princes in the tower), he became King Richard III in 1483. He commissioned the construction of the Bear and Clarence Towers. The Bear Tower has a pit which kept a bear for the cruel sport of bear baiting during festive tournaments. After Richard III’s untimely death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 the Bear and Clarence Towers were unfinished, remaining at the height visitors still see today.

View of Cesar's Tower from Guy's Tower.

View of Cesar’s Tower from Guy’s Tower.

The new Tudor dynasty didn’t want to be associated with Warwick Castle and it fell into ruin over the following 118 years. It wasn’t until the rule of King James I of England, when it was gifted to the Calvinist Sir Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke in 1604 for his services as treasurer of the navy, chancellor of the exchequer and commissioner to the Treasury, that Greville’s investment of £20,000 towards household improvements returned Warwick Castle to its former glory. During Greville’s ownership the castle was transformed from a military fortress into a stately home.

The Grevilles of Warwick Castle:

When the English Civil War broke out Robert Greville was aligned with the Parliamentarians. He placed guns atop the mound to defend Warwick Castle against Royalist invaders in 1643. This was the last siege that the castle endured. Originally the mound formed an important Norman fortification of the motte and bailey defensive system. The earliest stonework which replaced the Norman wooden walls dates to 1260.

I climbed the mound with the girls, and the view from the top is stunning. Low placards indicate places on the landscape, pointing out the direction and distance of Oxford, The Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, the grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, the hunting lodge and the church of St. Mary. The grounds that visitors can stroll in today are a living work of art dating back from Capability Brown’s first independent commission for gardens, which helped to pave the way for his future career.

William found the dark, dank gaol which is lit only by a small shaft high on the wall and the even darker, tiny oubliette fearsome and fascinating in equal measure. If you weren’t ransomed you weren’t much use to the Beauchamp family and would have been left to rot in that airless, fetid environment.


We peered under the grates of the pit in Bear Tower, scaled the ramparts, climbed to the top of Guy’s Tower, Cesar’s Tower and went round the Kingmaker displays in the oldest quarters of the castle.

A short documentary about the rich history of Warwick Castle:


There’s plenty to see and do both indoors and outdoors at Warwick. We spent two days there and on the Sunday when it poured with rain we saw the Great Hall and its historic armoury, as well as exploring the state apartments where Daisy, Countess of Warwick used to host her infamous ‘royal weekend’ parties in the late 19th Century.

The girls also enjoyed the special show and story in the Princess Tower!

Outdoors there are regular displays of the castle’s birds of prey, consisting of eagles, owls and an Andean condor, the largest bird of prey in the world, whose aerodynamic skills are demonstrated with the guidance of the professional resident Falconer. The kids absolutely loved this show.

Andean Condor in flight - low just above the log.

Andean Condor in flight – low just above the log.

Unfortunately the Trebuchet wasn’t working when we visited, (I hope it wasn’t because of this recent incident), but usually the world’s largest modern working siege machine, which measures 18 metres high and weighs 30 tonnes, does a daily display of medieval warfare by slinging a fiery canon to demonstrate its effectiveness at catapulting all kinds of unsavoury ammunition at castles under siege.

There’s also a Horrible Histories show (which we missed), and the Great Joust tournament re-enacts the medieval sport of choice for brave knights throughout August.

The Longbow

We all enjoyed the humorous and knowledgeable demonstration by Lewis Copson, the bowman at Warwick, who took his audience back to the 14th Century and the incident that inspired the creation of the longbow by two Welsh men walking through the forest. One tripped on an elm branch, and losing his temper decided to snap the branch. When he couldn’t he decided to attach some string and fired a twig at his laughing companion. Elm was used successfully by the Welsh, and later adopted by the English and their armies, eventually evolving into Yew longbows that were known for their strength and flexibility.

A bowman in battle had to be able to fire a few hundred yards, and have the strength to pull back 125 lbs of draw weight. The Warwick bowman’s Cariadus (Welsh for beloved) had a draw weight of 75 lb, the most he could physically pull and (he was no slouch).  The command to put the arrow in, pull back and fire was knock, draw, loose.

A would-be 'Kingmaker'!

A would-be ‘Kingmaker’!

In medieval England boys from the age of six would practice after church and before the pub on Sunday. Their bones hadn’t yet fully developed and fused, which meant that they developed oversized shoulders from pulling back over the years, and grew up with one side slightly higher and beefier!!

It was the bowmans’ expertise (along with bad weather and freezing mud) that meant the French were defeated at Agincourt in 1415. We also learnt that to test his bow was correctly strung the bowman would curl his fist, put his thumb up and place it in the curve of the wood. If there was a small gap between the end of his thumb and the string that was good. Hence the origination of the thumbs up sign to indicate that all is well!


Under the stewardship of the first Earl of Warwick, Francis Greville (who inherited the estate in 1727), Warwick Castle was ushered into the age of enlightenment and transformed into a civilised country house. He built a new state dining room, commissioned Lancelot ‘Capabiltiy Brown’ to landscape the gardens and paid Canaletto the sum of £58 to paint five informal landscape scenes of the castle.

South front of Warwick Castle by Canaletto c. 1749

South front of Warwick Castle by Canaletto c. 1749

The next three generations of house Greville: George, Henry and George spent a fortune on works of art collected from their travels in Europe, amassing one of the largest private collections of art in the world, containing paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembandt.


IMG_20150712_110156When staying at Warwick Castle why not try glamorous camping?!

We had a two day pass to the castle and an overnight stay in a King’s Tent, with full English breakfast in the big banqueting tent. These posh tents are right at the southern end of the grounds, and ours overlooked the River Avon.

William and I even managed to play a game of chess. It would have been wonderfully peaceful had it not been for the heavy machinery that arrived at 5.30am on Sunday morning to take down the stage from the music performance the night before.

Sounds in the grounds

IMG_20150711_193020On Saturday night we were treated to a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with Lucy O’Byrne singing some lovely arias in between their orchestral pieces. It was a relaxed atmosphere, families had brought picnics and the Pageant Field was brimming with concert goers.

When they played Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain an ace pilot came zooming above us doing acrobatics in his spitfire.

Lucy O’Byrne singing Ebben Ne Andro Lontana at Warwick Castle:

At the end of the concert there was a firework display and we managed to get back to the tent just before the heavens opened.


All in all a fun weekend of learning, exploration and culture.