Recently I’ve been taking advantage of crowd control measures to visit some popular sites without the usual crush. I’ve been to Tintern Abbey, and to Stonehenge (an amazing experience with fewer people…). And, on my recent visit to Dorset I visited Corfe Castle: the historic hilltop fortress, and the village of the same name.
Ruins And Views
It is easy to see why Corfe Castle is popular. A ruined fortress on a tall mound, with views over the Purbeck Hills, overlooking a pretty village of grey-stoned buildings. And, like most English castles, it is the subject of a long and sometimes infamous history.
The history of the site predates the castle, as it was here that King Edward the Martyr was murdered in 978. A hundred years later William the Conqueror built a fortress on the tall natural mound. The location was chosen for its strategic position, to defend the Isle of Purbeck and the nearby port of Wareham. It was clearly always intended as a prestigious castle, built partly from stone (unusual in the 11th century), and encircled by a stone wall. You can still see parts of the original wall today.
Varied History Of Corfe Castle
At various times high profile prisoners were kept at Corfe Castle. Then, in the 13th century, King John built a new royal residence around the existing structure. The building later passed out of royal hands, and eventually came into the ownership of the powerful Bankes family.
The last resident was Lady Mary Bankes, who lived here during the Civil War. She defended the castle during a siege by the Parliamentary Army in 1643, but was forced to surrender three years later. The army then destroyed the building, and bits of stone were taken away by the villagers to build their own houses.
Corfe Becomes A Tourist Attraction
Although the ruins were restored to the Bankes family after the end of the Civil War, the castle was never inhabited again. By the 18th century it had become known as a romantic hilltop ruin in a picturesque setting, and was painted by artists including J M W Turner. It became an early tourist attraction, and a 1785 guidebook, The Weymouth Guide described it in rather overblown prose: “this once noble pile, in its pristine glory, must have held its head above every other building in the neighbourhood, or perhaps in the kingdom”.
The castle was gifted to the National Trust in 1982. An interesting side note: Corfe Castle is thought to have been the inspiration for Kirrin Island, the island with a castle that features in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.
The Village Of Corfe Castle
The village grew up around the fortress, providing essential services for the castle and its inhabitants. It subsequently became a town in its own right and acquired a market charter in 1247. Today it is a quaint (and popular) spot, with craft and gift shops and a model village. There is a choice of pubs and restaurants (I can recommend the Fox Inn).
The National Trust car park is a ten minute walk from the castle and the village, passing through a pleasant natural area with marker boards inviting families to explore the nature of the area (search for creepy crawlies or spot fish in a stream…). There are plenty of opportunities for walking close to the town, with hills and footpaths, giving magnificent views of the castle.
Visiting Corfe Castle
- If you are staying in Swanage you can get to Corfe Castle on the steam train operated by the Swanage Railway
- Drivers can park in the National Trust car park (10 minutes walk) or in the town car park in West Street. Alternatively, you can park at the Norden Park and Ride (either take the steam train from here to Corfe Castle, or follow the footpath into the village)
- Corfe Castle is owned by the National Trust and entrance is free to NT members. At the time of writing (October 2020) it is necessary to pre-book tickets in advance
- The site is well set up for families. Audio recordings at various points around the grounds tell of aspects of the castle’s history, and there are activities such as the “Evil Inhabitants Castle Quest”
- The site can get very crowded. If you can, try to avoid the very busy school holiday and summer seasons. If not, you may prefer to visit at the beginning or end of the day.