I drove through Corfe Castle on an August bank holiday weekend a few years ago during a stay in Dorset and didn’t stop as it was too busy to park. But the memory of a stunning ruined castle towering over a pretty village stuck with me. So, when the coronavirus pandemic put paid to my planned overseas trips in May and June 2020, I decided to book a return visit to Corfe Castle for the first week the hospitality sector could reopen and was very pleased I did.
Corfe Castle is just a small place but packs a big punch with some lovely places to stay, eat and shop, as well as the National Trust owned castle. Our guest house, Olivers in West Street, had just reopened a few days before we arrived and the owner Leigh was delighted to have guests again. There are just four rooms accessed from an outdoor staircase at the back of the building. At the front under the rooms is the Pink Goat, a fab little cafe run by Pav where we had breakfast every morning.
A stone’s throw along West Street is the Fox Inn where we’d booked a table for lunch, figuring it was a good idea to have something already sorted after driving down there. It’s reputed to be the oldest pub in Corfe Castle and has lots of atmosphere and a huge garden. Lunch was great and we went back there another evening for a drink as thought the people running it were really nice and friendly.
Also on West Street is Seasons Green, a gorgeous shop that we were delighted to see reopen a couple of days later. It’s small but chock full of lovely things to buy and has a recently launched website for online purchases. Corfe Castle Model Village is just a bit further along and is well worth a visit to see the scale model of how the village and castle looked in 1646. It’s only £4.20 to get in and you can go back as often as you like to sit in the lovely garden.
Next to the model village is the National Trust shop which overlooks Corfe Castle’s main square and is another nice place to browse and pick up some local souvenirs. The castle itself is of course close by and since coronavirus came along it needs to be booked in advance on the NT website. Tickets for all open NT properties are released early on Friday mornings for the following week, Monday to Sunday. So a bit of an effort but well worth it in the case of Corfe Castle.
The castle was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror. Evidently Corfe was strategically important to William and his successors because it defended the links with their Norman heartlands across the Channel. It was constructed using Purbeck limestone which was quarried nearby and was one of the first castles to be built using stone rather than earth and wood. As soon as you walk towards the entrance you can see the solid stone walls that couldn’t be destroyed.
The castle was besieged a couple of times during the English Civil War when it was owned by Sir John Bankes. He wasn’t home at the time, but his wife Lady Mary Bankes helped keep it as a royalist stronghold before it eventually fell in 1645. Parliament then ordered it to be slighted, which means deliberately damaging high status buildings to reduce their value. Incredible now to think that sort of thing used to happen. Fortunately as Corfe Castle was built of strong stuff they weren’t able to completely destroy it and what was left were the hugely atmospheric ruins that dominate the local landscape. Even after the monarchy was restored and the Bankes family regained the castle they decided not to restore it and instead built a house at Kingston Lacy, which is now another gorgeous National Trust property. To close the loop I visited it on route home from another trip to Dorset later in the year. More of that in a later post.
Back to Corfe Castle and it really is a wonderful place to wander around. Even though it’s in ruins it’s quite easy to imagine it’s original splendour and there are some great photos on boards to help bring it to life. And of course being high up, the views of the surrounding countryside and the village are stunning too.
I think one of the things we liked best about staying in Corfe Castle village rather than just visiting, was how friendly everyone was when we went out in the evenings. As well as having an excellent tapas style meal at the Pink Goat we also had a really good one at the Bankes Arms. It’s a pub in the main square with rooms and the menu was a bit more interesting that your average pub. We also ate at the Greyhound which has a great garden overlooking the castle. We went in the evening and had pizzas which were very good, though the staff did start clearing up around as at 8.30 as rather oddly they were closing at 9pm. But it was the first week of reopening so maybe things normalised after a while.
Just along from the Greyhound is Corfe Castle train station which is well worth walking along to see as it’s very cute and there’s a gallery on the other side of the tracks selling work by local artists. The only trains that go through Corfe Castle are the steam trains run by the Swanage Railway, but as it has only just started operating again the station wasn’t open yet. But it looked like a fun thing to do on another occasion.
That pretty much sums up what Corfe Castle has to offer, apart from the fact that its perfectly positioned to visit a whole host of other places. I’ll write about our adventures along the Jurassic Coast in a separate post, but also nearby is the historic market town of Wareham. We popped there on the way home and took a walk around the walls. They were built in the 10th century to defend the town but are now grassy mounds.
We parked in the Streche Road car park where you can easily start a walk at the West Walls and follow it round along the North Walls and passed the Saxon church St Martin-on the -Wall. Then it’s the East Walls before reaching Lady St Mary Church where you can easily cut through to the pretty Wareham Quay on the River Frome.
Wareham is considered the gateway to the Isle of Purbeck which is the name of this part of Dorset and extends beyond Corfe Castle to the coast stretching from Lulworth to Studland Bay. As mentioned I’ll cover my coastal visits in another post, but our last stop before heading home was just across from the tip of Studland Bay in Sandbanks. Probably best known as the home of a famous former football manager, it’s also home to a Rick Stein restaurant which had just reopened following the lockdown. Sunday lunch at Rick’s was the perfect way to end our trip. The fish dishes are of course excellent and the views of Poole Harbour are great.
Before the drive back we had a walk along Sandbanks lovely beach and reflected that while a visit to Dorset wasn’t the original plan for 2020, we were very happy to get away for a few days, enjoy some great hospitality in Corfe Castle and see more of the excellent sights that our home nation has to offer.
Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and look out for more posts coming soon on other staycations I’ve enjoyed in this strange old year.