Of course there are more than a few. Ely, for example, which was an island back in the time of Hereward the Wake. Or the Isle of Dogs, more prosaically. But here I am referring to the gorgeous Isle of Purbeck.
It does feel like you’re approaching an island if you take the chain ferry from Sandbanks. You could arrive via Wareham but you don’t quite get that holiday thrill.
Purbeck has never disappointed
We managed to get away for a long weekend – and who can say how many other opportunities we will have this year? We were lucky to enjoy two breezy days of strong sunshine. I have visited many beautiful and fascinating places around the world but, cliché though it is, there is something magical about Purbeck.
One fine summer’s evening in the late 80s, Anne and I decided to drive west from Bournemouth, out of curiosity. I found myself driving up a very steep hill and lo! At the top was a pub called The Scott Arms. We stopped for a refresher, but there was no clue that the garden would offer this astonishing view of Corfe Castle: a panorama that can’t have changed in hundreds of years. Corfe stands on a mound that dominates the Purbeck Hills. It has associations with Edward the Martyr, King John’s dark deeds, and the Civil War. After a long siege, Cromwell used all the gunpowder he could lay his hands on to reduce it to its present condition.
We have been back many times
On that first occasion we failed to find the Square and Compass at Worth Matravers, surely one of England’s greatest pubs, best reached by a brisk, thirst-provoking walk along the Priest’s Way. It offers a fine choice of local beers and home-pressed cider. It is not known for its food. If you arrive starving, you will have to make do with a pasty. You might even be able to get hold of a pickled egg. But there are plenty of pubs nearby that serve excellent food. Not many have their own fossil museum or a drawing of its former landlord by Augustus John.
We used to go camping in Acton, on one occasion driving back to London on a Sunday night and heading back down the following Friday! And it was back to Acton, after a five-year absence, this year… but no longer camping.
Acton, a settlement that grew up around its limestone quarries, is riddled with tunnels and galleries. They still quarry Purbeck stone today. About 20 years ago a quarryman found the footprints of a dinosaur (probably Brachiosaurus) – and you can see them in situ.
You are on the famous Jurassic Coast, which has a strong claim to be the home of palaeontology. At Kimmeridge Bay you can invariably see fossil hunters, though hammers are now prohibited.
The area is also rich in shale oil, and has been exploited by BP for over 50 years.
One wonders what people made of these fossils in the many centuries before the earth was understood to be billions of years old. Our planet really was roamed by monsters long before there were people around to tell tall tales, but surely these relics must have made their way into local myths.
At Kimmeridge, again, there is a view of the cliffs known as the Devil’s Staircase. It is, of course, an optical illusion, but if you are standing in just the right place it is impressive. This was the first time I’d noticed it.
Stories about the Devil abound all over Europe, and the Middle East. He can be encountered at any time, and is often associated by bridges and crossroads. There is no doubt that Devil worship existed in Dorset.
A few miles away are the Old Harry Rocks, about which there are stories similar to those concerning the Giant’s Causeway in Co. Antrim.
Near Kimmeridge is the ghost village of Tyneham, which is still used as a training ground by the Army. Provided there are no exercises taking place (in which case the road will be closed, so no there is no chance of ending up as collateral damage) it offers beautiful walks, with good bird and deer watching opportunities.
I have never been anywhere with so much variety
For example, Studland Bay has some of the most beautiful long beaches in England. It is packed in the summer months, and it is easy to understand why. Behind the shore is a heathland rich in wildlife.
But there is another, grimmer story to explore.
It was here that Exercise Smash took place in 1944. Studland was chosen because the sand here is similar to that of northern France. Allied troops gathered to test British amphibious tanks in preparation for the attack on Normandy that would take place on D-Day, just six weeks later. Churchill, George VI and Eisenhower watched the events from Fort Henry (a huge bunker that still exists). Live ammunition was used to ensure the exercise was as realistic as possible. It was not an unmitigated success.
Seven Valentine tanks sank and six men died
Everywhere you look there is history. In the late afternoon you can make out the traces of medieval field terraces. Indeed, you can see you them without leaving the confines of the Square and Compass. Or you could walk down to the ancient chapel on St Aldhelm’s Head.
I haven’t mentioned the Swanage Railway…
Or the Tank Museum, Durdle Door or Lulworth Cove. But you have probably already visited all of them. And if not, why not?