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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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’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’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.
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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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.