The Isle of Purbeck: Corfe Castle to Swanage

One of our favourite parts of the UK is Dorset.

Dorset is a large county but we love the coastal area of the Isle of Purbeck, a peninsula with beautiful countryside, fabulous beaches and chocolate box villages.   The Jurassic coastline is waiting to be explored and there’s an absolute ton of things to do with kids.

When we visit we stay in the area between the ancient village of Corfe Castle and the bigger coastal town of Swanage.  There’s plenty of things in these two places to see and do; perfect for a family break.

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle village
The village of Corfe Castle seen from the ruins

Tiny and unspoiled, Corfe Castle can’t look much different now than it did hundreds of years ago.  Many of the buildings are made of silvery grey Purbeck stone, giving the village a uniform, whimsical look.  Traditional English pubs, little souvenir shops and tearooms line the streets.

Even if you don’t choose to stay here, it is worth a half day at least to look around.

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle
The ruins of Corfe Castle

The ruins of this ancient castle tower over the village.  The castle sits on a small hill in between a natural gap in the Purbeck Hills – an obvious site for a defensive post, and it’s thought that there has been a fortification of some kind here since Roman times.

The current castle dates from the end of the 11th Century.  It was once a Royal castle, was the site of murders, tortures and political intrigue.  It was besieged during the civil war, and was finally destroyed by Cromwell and the Roundheads in 1646.  Today you can walk amongst its precarious-looking facades and climb some of the remaining staircases.  The best view of the village is to be had from its terraces.

You’ll also find fairs, re-enactments, falconry and demonstrations of medieval skills such as archery on selected dates – check the National Trust website for up-to-date information.

Visiting the Castle is a must.  Tickets can be bought online or at the ticket office by the entrance; they cost approximately £9.50 per adult in peak season.


Model Village

Corfe Castle Model Village
See how Corfe Castle looked before it was ruined

Just along the road from the Castle entrance is a model village which is fun for a visit with kids.  The detailed models here show you what the castle would have looked like before being destroyed which is interesting to see after walking around the real thing.

Corfe Castle Model Village
The Cub walking in the streets of the Model Village

The Cub loved walking through the streets and running in the pretty gardens.  There’s a tea room for drinks and snacks but you can also bring your own picnic.


Swanage Steam Railway

Corfe Castle train station
Corfe Castle train station

The best way to get from Corfe Castle to Swanage is the steam railway.

The railway, which dated from the 1880s, was demolished in 1972 courtesy of British Rail (boo!).  Just four years later, a team of volunteers began to raise funds to rebuild the line.  It took them over 30 years but today the line runs from Swanage to Norden and is still run entirely by volunteers.

Steam train pulling into Corfe Castle station
Steam train pulling into Corfe Castle station

Running every half hour or so, you can travel down to the coast on the restored tracks.  Both steam and diesel locomotives run along the tracks and if you get the chance, the observation carriage with its large windows gives a better view of the countryside.

Swanage steam railway
One of the stations along the steam railway

The stations have been beautifully restored in a vintage style with examples of luggage and poster art and they themselves are interesting to look around.

Buy your tickets and check train times online, or directly at the stations.


The Purbeck Hills

Purbeck Hills
On top of the Purbeck Ridge, looking towards Poole Harbour

If steam trains aren’t you’re thing, or you’re just feeling energetic, you could walk between the two towns over the Purbeck Hills.

Swanage steam railway
The steam train seen from the Purbeck Hills

Climb up the steep steps just by Corfe Castle and enjoy the views left over Brownsea Island and Poole Harbour.  To your right you’ll be able to spot the steam train carrying the less adventurous.  The walk is fairly flat once you’ve ascended the steps – don’t forget to look behind you for a great view of the castle.

It’s an 8 mile trek so make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes and take some provisions!  Cows and sheep graze along this path so don’t be surprised if you have to walk around them.


Swanage bay
Swanage bay

If Corfe Castle is too quiet for you, the town of Swanage would make a great base for exploring the Jurassic Coast.  The town has a gorgeous setting in a sheltered bay looking over the Isle of Wight.

Some British seaside resorts can have a run-down feeling about them but there’s not much evidence of this in Swanage.  Despite a few shabby facades and some out of place 60s architecture, for the most part Swanage has retained its charm.

Swanage beach
Swanage beach

Swanage’s Blue Flag beach is sandy, quite wide and perfect for spending an afternoon on if you get the right weather.  If you forget your bucket and spade, fear not, one of the nearby shops will sell everything you need for the day.

A small fairground opposite the beach has rides and a playground for little ones.  You can also try your hand at catching crabs from the piers (the vegetarian in me pleads that you put them back afterwards ;-)).

Swanage beach
Playing on the beach with the kids; the pier in the background

Swanage’s large pier is Grade 2 listed and was built in 1859.  It’s got some beautiful ironwork and is an interesting throwback to Victorian times.  You can get a great view of Swanage and Old Harry’s Rocks from here.  There’s also a small museum by the pier if you want to learn more about Swanage’s history.

Morris dancers at Swanage carnival
Morris dancers at Swanage carnival

In the summer months there’s a carnival including large market stalls and an extensive morris dancers’ parade; a proper slice of traditional British custom.  The children enjoyed meeting/being scared by some local pirates in last summer’s parade.

If you’re more interested in watery pastimes you could be brave and try your hand at watersports.  Local companies offer sailing, kayaking and scuba diving (brr!).  Our kids are far too small for this so it’s something that we’ll try when they’re older.

Otherwise, browse in the arcades or in the shops, many of which cater to tourists.  Beware the arcades with small kids though; ours are notorious for throwing epic tantrums when it’s time to tear them away from the flashing lights, blaring sounds, tempting buttons and little rides.  Currently the kids are on an arcade ban until we recover our dignity…

Around Swanage

Swanage has plenty of lovely coastal walks; some of the best are found at nearby Durlston Country Park.  There are plenty of educational opportunities for children here – make sure you pick up a family explorers rucksack at the Visitor Centre.

Studland beach
Studland beach

And finally, just over the ridge of the Purbeck Hills is Studland beach; a large, unspoiled expanse of sand and dunes which is ideal for a quieter day.  Pack your bathers, or not; there’s a popular nudist area if that’s your sort of thing.

I’ll be writing more about things to do on the Isle of Purbeck in later posts, so stay tuned.  Also on my unmissable list and the subjects of upcoming posts are Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door beaches, Monkeyworld ape rescue centre and Compton Acres gardens.


Know before you go


Getting there and away

Trains run frequently from London Waterloo to Wareham.   From Wareham you’ll need to catch a bus to Swanage.

Alternatively, a cheaper option is to take the National Express from Victoria Coach station, departing daily at 19.00.

We always drive but it’s slow going once you get into Dorset due to the narrow roads and an inordinate amount of roundabouts.  Your sat nav does not lie; it will take you an hour to drive the last 30 miles…


Where to eat: Corfe Castle

The Greyhound at Corfe Castle
The Greyhound at Corfe Castle

We have eaten at the Greyhound many times.  This pub does a roaring trade and has a beer garden overlooked by the castle.  It is rare that you won’t find a beer, cider or ale festival of some kind going on at the Greyhound so if you’re interested in trying some real English ale, this is the place to come to.

The Bankes Arms, Corfe Castle
The Bankes Arms

Across the road, we’ve also had good meals at the Bankes Arms, which has changed hands fairly recently.  There is also outdoor seating and a small garden for kids to burn off energy.  You’ll walk right past this pub on the way to/from the station.

The Halfway Inn, Corfe Castle
The Halfway Inn

A little further up the road away from the coast is the Halfway Inn.  Good pub grub and a large outdoor space with a playground for the kids, this is one pub that we’ll happily drive to.


Where to eat: Swanage

There are more places to eat in Swanage than you can shake a stick at but we always like going to Mick’s Shell Fish Bar by the piers.   You get a great view of Swanage and the bay.  The husband rates the fish and chips and the pizza is pretty good.  Prices are reasonable too.

Don’t miss Chococo, a local Purbeck chocolate shop and tea room, hidden down some little back alleys.  A little tricky to find, the sublime homemade chocolates are on the pricey side, but worth it.


Where to stay

We stay with family so I can’t personally recommend anywhere in particular to stay.

However there are plenty of options in both Corfe Castle and Swanage.  Many of the best rated are locally run B&Bs.  In the summer months pre-booking is essential.

The Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, UK, has beautiful scenery, stunning beaches and pretty towns. Read on to find out what you can do here.
The Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, UK, has beautiful scenery, stunning beaches and pretty towns. Read on to find out what you can do here.
The Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, UK, has beautiful scenery, stunning beaches and pretty towns. Read on to find out what you can do here.
The Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, UK, has beautiful scenery, stunning beaches and pretty towns. Read on to find out what you can do here.

28 thoughts on “The Isle of Purbeck: Corfe Castle to Swanage

  1. Vannie says:

    Just loved reading your story…..and fell in love with the place….hoping to get there one day. I really like model villages…I have been to the one at Bekonscot. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Natasha says:

    Hello fellow UK travel family! We are in Scotland. I love the look of the Isle of Purbeck – we would love to go here some time. This is the first time I have heard of it

  3. Suzanne says:

    Wow! Your pictures of Dorset are simply scrumptious. Why did I never visit this place when I lived in the UK? It’s all so lovely: the castle, the carnival, the landscape! If I ever get to the UK again, I’ll be sure to stop by the isle of Purbeck.

  4. Henry says:

    Any place that has a steam train built by volunteers is going to be a must see! I still haven’t ventured much outside London when I’ve been to the UK, but you’re providing some great inspiration.

  5. Only By Land says:

    Corfe Castle and Corfe Castle village are so picturesque, you had a good day and the greenery really shone. I wouldn’t like to be in Corfe Castle overnight with all that history! The eating options in Swanage look perfect, especially eating fish and chips outside on a clear day!

    • Emily Cole says:

      I’m sure they say the Castle is haunted. There are some pretty horrible stories about the castle in medieval times – so awful that you can’t imagine them really happening! Fish and chips is a must at the UK seaside!

  6. Kristina says:

    I lived in London for three years, yet I never really got the chance to explore that much of it outside of London. That’s a real shame, as this looks SO up my alley. I really love the English countryside and all the random castles! Enjoyed reading this.

    • Emily Cole says:

      Thanks Kristina. Despite having always lived in the UK there’s so much I haven’t seen, something I’m trying to rectify! Hope you get to visit again one day.

  7. Abhinav Singh says:

    Corfe Castle Railway Station looks so beautiful. I am a train enthusiast and have traveled across India in trains, including a luxury one. I did not know about this side of UK. I like to visit such unknown places than the usual suspects.

    • Emily Cole says:

      Yes, yes they are! Likely to remain on a ban for some time! I’ve never seen Studland crowded, which is surprising as it’s so sandy and clean. It’s a good one to pick!

  8. jo says:

    We did the same trip with our children when on holiday in Dorset and had a wonderful time. Corfe Castle is so stunning and to arrive by steam train adds to the famous five mystique. A wonderful day out!

  9. Skye says:

    What a beautiful piece and what a gorgeous part of the world. I have to say I’ve never been to Dorset but it is the image of what I think of when I think of England. Looks like you guys covered a lot of ground. How much would the kids have loved the train ride in that observation carriage? Thanks for the guide.

  10. Jade Mortimer says:

    It’s so lovely seeing beautiful pictures like this of our home country! we travel all around the world to see amazing places when there are so many gorgeous towns and villages right on our doorstep!

  11. Corinne says:

    You’ve sold me. This is just the kind of town I love to visit and being an island makes it that much more enchanting. I would love to visit.

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