Corfe Castle And Swanage

The Purbeck peninsula is officially protected as an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Its two most popular man-made attractions are Corfe Castle and the seaside town of Swanage. They were linked by rail from 1885 by a branch line from Wareham which was closed in 1972, but has since been restored privately as a tourism attraction, with steam locomotives.

Swanage at sunset Swanage


A steam train en route for Swanage passes through Corfe village. The line is now being linked up to the mainline at Wareham.
Above the train, you can see the chalk ridgeway path leading up eastwards towards Nine Barrow Down.

Corfe Castle
Throughout history, the peninsula was protected from overland invasion by the Purbeck Hills, a downland ridgeway across its neck. (To distinguish them from the usual rounded hill, long narrow ridge-like hills in England are called downs, from the Celtic word dwn which also gives us "sand dune.") This line of downs runs westward from above Swanage and offered a trade route connection to the Great Ridgeway across England to the North Sea. The final down here above Swanage is called Nine Barrow Down because on top of it are nine barrows or burial mounds, where nine 'kings' were popularly thought to be buried with their Bronze Age treasures. Whether the mound on which the castle was built is natural or man-made or a combination of both is not known.

Corfe Castle, western approach
Corfe Castle, western approach
Corfe, from the south
The castle was strategically sited in a gap in the Purbeck downs across the neck of the peninsula (view from the south)

Corfe Castle entrance
Corfe Castle entrance, off the village square

This Down is cut off from the others by a cleft or small pass. The Old English word for this was cort or ceorfan, meaning a cutting. After the Norman Conquest, a castle was built to guard this pass, now known as Corfe Gap, and called Corfe Gate. From here the occupants or defenders could see overland for miles, including eastward down into England’s largest natural harbour, Poole Harbour. After defeating a Danish fleet that occupied the harbour in 877, Alfred the Great had a tower built on the mound that stands in the gap in the Downs. The Saxons called the Harbour below 'Longfleet.' Saxon fleot meant a length of tidal water - at low tide a long winding route was needed to sail safely all the way up the River Frome, to the walled port of Wareham. The Saxons called the peninsula between Poole Harbour and Corfe Stolland - modern Studland, meaning a “stud ranch” or place where stallions and mares were taken for breeding.

Corfe had a bad reputation even before the castle was built. Here in 978 AD, the 16-year old King Edward was killed by the royal family servants. When he returned from a hunt to the hunting lodge here, they stabbed him and his horse ran off, dragging him to death. The Church of St Edward the Martyr, originally built off the village square in front of the Castle as St Aldhelm's (Dorset's patron saint), was re-dedicated in his memory. His step-mother Queen Aelfrida was suspected of ordering the killing so her own 10-year old son Aethelred could become king. Aethelred was said to be the worst king England ever had, nicknamed "Ethelred The Unready."
The castle was probably begun in the 10th Century, though the core of it was built in 1080, with additions in 1095-1105 (the Keep) and 1190-1210 (outer walls). It was used by King John in the 1200s as a treasury and a royal dungeon for political prisoners in his war with France. After it withstood a siege by parliamentary forces for two years in the Civil War, it was finally ruined by gunpowder charges in 1646 on government orders as a threat to the realm, and since has been one of England's major scenic ruins.


2 castle views

Dorset landowners were mostly Loyalist, loyal to Charles I. Corfe was besieged by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces who fought to make England a republic. Defended by Lady Mary Bankes and a few soldiers, Corfe Castle proved impossible to capture. After three years, Cromwell’s men captured it through a ruse, pretending to be friendly forces. It had been the last Royalist stronghold left, and Parliament ordered it ruined as a threat to the realm.

2 views of Corfe Castle



Castle;Post Office/Enid Blyton shop,church
In 1646 Cromwell’s engineers spent months tunnelling into the hill, and fires were set in the tunnels. The walls above were blown up with gunpowder. The village below, also called Corfe Castle, was damaged in the three-year siege, and stone from the castle ruins was used in rebuilding it. The village today still has many old inns and buildings of Purbeck Stone. A few buildings even date as far back as the 1640s. The castle proved so well built that much of it was left standing, remaining as the dramatic ruin you see today. In the village is a model of the castle as it was pre-1646.


Corfe CastleCorfe is England's most famous ruined castle. It is now protected and administered by The National Trust, and is their most popular Dorset site, attracting over 150,000 visitors per year. As Sir Arthur Mee's The King's England put it, "England has no ruin more imposing."
For centuries after Corfe Castle was left in ruins, Swanage remained a tiny seaside village. The water just off-shore is very dangerous due to under-sea Peveril Ledge, which causes broken or rough seas that can be seen from Peveril Point just above Swanage. In 877 A.D. King Alfred somehow lured or led a Danish Viking fleet of long-ships, who were then occupying Wareham, out around the Point — and all were sunk.
For a long time the Purbeck headland remained remote or cut off, hence its full name the “Isle” of Purbeck. The name Purbeck refers to a headland, literally a beak (as in French bec). The meaning of Pur- is not certain; it may have meant an area “pure” in the old Norman legal sense of being in some way legally exempt. There was some sheep farming as today, but it may have been a hunting preserve. Many local families made a living by smuggling, acting as entrepreneurs or middlemen for pirate ships which would unload their loot in the bays of Studland and Swanage - even setting up trading markets on the beach.
Swanage Bay
 Swanage Bay
Old Harry Rocks
Old Harry Rocks, which form the north tip of Swanage Bay

The old records say that on the cliff-top between these two bays was Studland Castle, where King John had stayed. It fell into the sea as the cliff itself fell away, due to tidal erosion. A fort built by Henry VIII to replace the Castle in 1540 in case of an invasion from France or Spain also fell into the sea.
Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I finally put a stop to the pirate trade during her reign. She also fought off the Spanish in 1588, when the Spanish Armada, sailing eastward along the Channel coast to prepare for an invasion of England, was wrecked by a series of storms all around the coast. There were sea-battles along the coast, and a captured treasure ship from the Armada, called the San Salvador, sank ablaze in Studland Bay. Some Swanage families later claimed dark-haired ancestors were Spanish survivors of the Armada.

Winspit Quarries
Winspit Quarries - once a source of local wealth, and since a popular film-tv location.
The area luckily had a major industry to replace smuggling, in the quarrying of Purbeck Stone and Purbeck “marble”. The latter is a popular local limestone which can be polished to look like a marble facade. This had already been used in the building of the great Mediaeval cathedrals of Lincoln, Exeter, Salisbury, and Westminster Abbey. The town of Swanage would be established in the 19th century as the main port for shipping Purbeck Stone and Marble from nearby quarries such as Tilly Whim and Winspit [pictured] to London.

The local family who handled this trade in Purbeck Stone was the start of the now well-known Mowlem group of companies, after whom the town’s seafront theatre is named. Mowlem and his nephew George Burt, nicknamed by Thomas Hardy "the king of Swanage," also helped make the town into a popular place to holiday with a pier for a “pleasure-steamer” service. (The work of Mowlem and Burt also helped inspire John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga novels.) Mowlem’s cargo ships needed ballast to keep them steady on the return passage along the coast, and stonework pieces were used that had been removed from London buildings.

Swanage Pier

Swanage Pier, orginally built in 1896 and recently refurbished.

Swanage Railway - Corfe Station platform
Swanage Steam Railway - the platform at Corfe Castle village.
Swanage became a holiday destination after the railway (actually built to serve the stone trade) reached it, via a branch line from Wareham via Corfe Castle village. After British Rail closed the line, it was reopened by local enthusiasts as a steam railway, and is a a popular tourist draw in itself, with its northern terminus at Norden Park 'n Ride car park just beyond Corfe.
Swanage Railway

Durlston Castle headland



Durlston Castle was built by George Burt in the 1880s on the headland just south of Swanage to help promote the town.

Durlston Castle
Durlston is a mock-Gothic edifice, described by one early travel book as "a stronghold of the Bank Holiday period," and was in fact was built as a public restaurant, with a viewpoint holding a great stone globe. It is being refurbished as a Jurassic-Coast info-centre, but the new cafe at the rear is open.

Because the town is made up from London bits and pieces, the architecture of Swanage appears slightly eccentric. An example of the way the town was built up using this way can be seen at the Sisters of Mercy convent building along the High Street, south side. This was built in 1875 as George Burt’s home, Purbeck House. It re-used such relics of old London as columns from Billingsgate fish market and statues from the Royal Exchange to create a manor house in Scottish Baronial Style. His other residence was cliff-top Durlston Castle manor-house, with its famous giant stone globe. And Alfred the Great’s destruction of the Danish fleet in 878 is commemorated by a seafront column with a pile of cannon-balls from the 1854-6 Crimean War on top!
So many London stonework bits and pieces were re-used in Swanage to “dress up” the town that it became known by the end of the Victorian era as Little London By The Sea. The poet and travel writer Paul Hyland called it "the craziest town I know. It has the sublimity of long history, the charm of a fishing village, the ambition and pragmatism of a port, and the calculated grace of a watering-place." It is regarded as a classic example of the quaint English seaside resort.

Swanage Architecture
Swanage architecture is a mix of the old and the new, of local stone and discards from London. (The clock tower, originally a memorial to Wellington, came from London's Tower Bridge in 1867.)

Swanage, old and new


Swanage - new buildings (the so-called "Spanish flats") on the south side of the bay now stand alongside the Victorian clock tower.

Studland Bay sunset


Corfe, Swanage and the surrounding area of the Purbeck hills and coast may seem slightly familiar even if you have never visited, as the locality has often appeared in film and TV dramas.
For more details, see our separate page on The Isle of Purbeck On Screen.

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