driving in dorset - swanage & purbeck
driving back the years in seaside style
British coastal holiday towns are busy trying to reinvent themselves - but Swanage in Dorset's Purbeck region doesn't have to. Its Fifties finery remains as appealing today as in the time it inspired Enid Blyton, the Secret Seven and the Famous Five. Jonathan Crouch and family take a trip back in time to a forgotten corner of Britain's holiday heritage.
The English seaside holiday. Memories of candy floss, windy beaches, slot machines and sticky rock. Something you might think you'd got beyond. Something for all our yesterdays.
Or so I thought. Most of my travel writing these days is based around encouraging people to explore a little further afield than their own back yard. To fly somewhere new, hire a car and explore a new experience. Which is why I was intrigued by a recent invitation to rediscover the English coastal holiday somewhere easily accessible - and for me, rather close to home. Swanage, jewel of the Isle of Purbeck.
It's an area of Dorset you'd be forgiven for not knowing very well. I live in nearby Sussex and had never properly visited. A little surprising given that's it's in easy reach of the Southern Counties and is served by low cost air travel into Bournemouth for those further afield. Here lie holiday attractions straight from the pages of a children's Enid Blyton novel - Lulworth Cove, Corfe Castle, Durdle Door. Not surprising perhaps because they almost literally are.
Blyton spent most of her life in Purbeck, using its seaside bays, it's quaint little villages and its rolling green hills as inspiration for Famous Five and Secret Seven stories that sold in their millions the world over. People who found the books taking them back to a time of ginger beer and soda pop. When the worst that could happen was that a particularly challenging adventure might make you late for tea.
"A place that's rather refreshing and properly traditional, in many ways a journey back in time."
These may be different times, but they haven't been forgotten in this unspoilt little corner of Dorset and it was on that promise we loaded up the family estate with buckets and spades, picnic baskets and swimming costumes and headed into Swanage for the last few days of the Easter holidays. The base for our Dorset adventure, The Castleton Hotel just up from the seafront, proved to be comfortable, well appointed and refreshingly unpretentious.
A bit like the town itself. Perhaps that's what attracts celebrities like TV talkshow host Jonathan Ross to live here. The week before my visit, Radio2 DJ Chris Evans had visited to celebrate his birthday. So it's 'happening' without being too posh for the families who love to come. Affordable without the tourist trappings and 'kiss me quick' hats.
In Swanage, it seemed, we'd picked the perfect base to explore the area. Just a few minutes drive away the following morning after an excellent Castleton breakfast were the charming little beaches and inlets that pepper the Purbeck coast. So my six year old daughter Amy and I splashed happily and went shrimping in the cool blue waters of an almost deserted Kimmeridge Bay. A few miles further on, we came across Lulworth Cove, with Durdle Door, a sea-crafted arch of rock jutting out to sea, half an hour's brisk walk just up the coastal path.
Getting to these places is almost as pleasurable at savouring them up close, or at least it is if you use the little back roads that criss-cross the Purbeck army ranges. They're often closed during military manoeuvres, which means that when they are open, they tend to be pretty deserted, transporting you back to a different age. A time you can re-live in the ghost town of Tyneham, evacuated just prior to D-Day, never re-populated and left just as it was the day school was interrupted for the country's greater good. You can stay with the military theme by raking a short drive up the road to the town of Wool where the famous Tank Museum has the world's best collection of tanks, with almost 300 of them spanning 100 years.
A trip like this, with so much to keep you going during the day, also needs to offer plenty of opportunities to relax towards the end of it. Reclining perhaps in the Conservatory Restaurant in Swanage's Grand Hotel, overlooking the bay with a Dorset Cream tea at hand and a slice of the county's famous Apple Cake. Of course, there are plenty of other less traditional eateries in the town: we tried a perfectly cooked steak at The Crow's Nest pub. Then went Italian the next night at Forte's Trattoria.
When it comes to Swanage, there are two visual pictures you tend to carry away. One is of the main beach which runs the whole length of the town, then onwards around the Juarassic Dorset coastline. The other is of the Swanage railway, with its steam train service up and down the pretty line to the nearby town of Corfe Castle. If you do fancy a day's break from behind the wheel, then a trip along the railway to mooch around the castle ruins - maybe even relive your Blyton memories in Corfe's Ginger Pop shop - is a great way to do it.
Our children were a little young to fully understand Purbeck's Enid Blyton past, but they got into the spirit of the thing on our last day when a visit to Brownsea Island beckoned, an iconic gem managed by The National Trust. Positioned plumb in front of Poole Harbour, it's mainly National Trust-owned today, but you can imagine how back in the Fifties, it would have been the perfect place for a Secret Seven adventure. To get us in the mood, we took along a Famous Five-style picnic with tomato sandwiches, boiled eggs, sticky ginger cake and lashings of ginger beer. And no such trip would be complete without a visit to the Ginger Pop museum in Poole Harbour, there to bring Blyton to a whole new generation.
Swanage too is targeting a whole new generation of visitors. People, perhaps, for whom a traditional British beach holiday simply wouldn't suit but who will find in this one something rather different. Something rather refreshing and properly traditional, in many ways a journey back in time. Sometimes, there's a lot to be said for that.
VISITING SWANAGE & THE ISLE OF PURBECK
NEED TO KNOW
Where to stay: The Castleton Hotel - www.thecastleton.co.uk / www.grandhotelswanage.co.uk
Area information - www.visitswanage.com
Attractions: www.swanagerailway.co.uk / www.tankmuseum.org / www.nationaltrust.org.uk/brownsea-island / www.nationaltrust.org.uk/corfe-castle / www.gingerpop.co.uk/eileensoper.htm [Eileen Soper's World of Adventure in Poole]
Where to eat: www.crowsnestinn.co.uk / www.latrattoria.co.uk /