Swanage & Durlston

Today I’m in the UK and I have a travelling companion. This is Tom:

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We took advantage of a beautiful day during the Christmas holidays (the first Christmas holiday I’ve had in five years). Actually, we chose the date five days in advance and the fact that it was beautiful was just us being lucky.

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So off we went to Swanage. Swanage is – was – a smallish seaside resort, its heyday back in the Victorian era when “taking the waters” was popular. Today it’s deceptively large, suburbs sprawling all over the surrounding countryside, but despite the appearance of assorted high streets chains and an overabundance of cafes, the centre still feels a bit old-fashioned. The buildings are stone and the view never changes – a great round open bay with rounded chalky cliffs around the sides.

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We started our day on the pier. Swanage historically had two piers – the older pleasure pier, which is now nothing more than a double line of rotting piles, and the steamer pier. The steamer pier is still there but it’s got to be a total Trigger’s Broom of a pier – extensively renovated since it was first built in the 1850s, there can’t be a single original plank in it. What we enjoyed was reading the plaques: you can sponsor a plank and for £100, you get a brass plaque on the pier for twenty-five years. A lot of them are pretty boring – tributes to husbands and wives and parents and babies and holidays enjoyed in Swanage but if you look closely, you can spot some funny ones:

These days, although the pier is visited by the steamer Waverley, most of its visitors are either fishing or simply strolling and if you’re strolling, you have to make sure you look up from the plaques every now and then so you don’t spear yourself on a fishing rod.

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On the south side of Swanage Bay is a little collection of expensive-looking holiday apartments, the new RNLI station and the Wellington clock tower. It was covered with scaffolding when we were there but I like to point it out. It was a tower in central London once upon a time, built from Purbeck stone, but it was unloved and unwanted, Wellington having fallen out of favour, and it was eventually sent back to Swanage as ballast in 1867 and has now become a slightly odd landmark in its place of origin.

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After our trip to the pier, we walked up to Peveril Point, the headland behind all that, the southern tip of the ring around the bay. It has a volunteer-manned coastguard station and a spectacular view of the cliffs along the coastline. This is a really wild-looking stretch of coast. The cliffs are crumbling, there are visible landslides, the sea crashing against the rock and at the next headland, Durlston Castle is visible.

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Durlston Castle is in the red circle

It’s actually only a mile and a half from the centre of Swanage to Durlston Castle but it looks a lot further. Once you’ve scrambled up from Peveril Point to the clifftop meadow through the mud (Tom doesn’t wear suitable shoes for a Juliet Adventure), it’s an easy uphill walk to Durlston Village. Actually, Durlston Village isn’t a village at all, it’s just a suburb of the deceptively sprawly Swanage. The normal route to the castle is through the village but we spied a sign that pointed to “South West Coast Path alternative route” so we went that way. It’s an awkward scramble down the side of the cliff, basically, going under the village, and there’s a great tree down there. It’s the sort of tree that makes me feel like my life is richer for knowing of its existence. Trees can do some spectacular and freaky things and I think this tree used to be several trees.

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We climbed back up to the main road via some muddy steps, met a friendly dog and then followed the woodland path up to the castle. The first interesting thing about the castle is the carved stone timeline leading from the car park to the front door. It goes from pre-big bang right the way up to present day and everything from the existence of the dinosaurs onwards is in the final seven steps.

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The second interesting thing about the castle is that it was never a castle. It was built as a restaurant, a folly in the grounds of Durlston Country Park, and it’s still a restaurant – well, a slightly upmarket cafe. It was packed, so we sat outside. Tom had a pint of cider and some cheesy chips and I sat and enjoyed the view. Peveril Point looked so close from the castle – far less than the mile and a half it actually is, which was weird because it looks so much further from the other end. It was clear enough to see the Isle of Wight – not just see it, but be able to pick out the individual Needles with the naked eye.

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The Needles were once joined to the headland just north of Swanage, the collection of sea stacks and arches called Old Harry Rocks. Sitting at Durlston Castle, you could see how the two point at each other.

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The walk back to Swanage seemed so much quicker. We took the main road rather than the alternative route and the walk across the meadow was downhill so we were back in Swanage in no time and our next stop was at a place that used to be one of Swanage’s better kept secrets. It’s not any more. It’s a chocolate shop called Chococo. Usually I pop in there to buy chocolate dinosaurs or pirate coins but we had come for hot chocolate and again, we sat outside.

I had opted for orange hot chocolate and Tom went for chilli. It took a while to arrive, so I borrowed a local newspaper from outside its office opposite and discovered that there’s not really a lot going on in and around Swanage. When it did arrive, it came with a cute little chocolate on the saucer. The orange one tasted like a liquidised orange chocolate bar – so thick and creamy and orangey and perfect. Tom’s verdict was that the chilli was just the right amount of spice but startling in the first mouthful, even if you know it’s coming.

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We made a quick stop in the knitting & craft shop on Station Road and then ambled down to the beach. It’s a while since I’ve seen Swanage at low tide and I’ve never seen the cliffs stained red by the setting sun. I took so many photos, trying to capture the colour. I wanted to take the entire cliff home with me – but sadly, it wouldn’t fit in my little car. I played catch-me-if-you-can with the waves (they won but fortunately, my boots are pretty water-resistant and they’re not going to get soaked by a simple wash of the sea) and then we tried to walk along the beach and up the slipway back onto the promenade. Unfortunately, the Swanbrook River flows through the middle of Swanage and gets to the sea through the middle of the beach. It’s actually pretty spectacular – it carves surprisingly deep and fragile little cliffs in the sand and if you stand too close, it crumbles and tries to dump you in the water. We tried but there was no way to cross without getting our feet properly wet so we gave up and walked back through town.

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Our last stop was in the Prince Albert Gardens between the pier and my car. We’d spied it earlier and decided to go back and have a closer look in the hope of solving the mystery – why is there an ampitheatre and pillars in the gardens? Unfortunately there was no explanation right there – no board, no carving – and the best the internet can manage is that it was part of Swanage Seafront Improvement Scheme in 1996. Either way, it’s both weird and decorative.

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By the time we got back to the car, it was getting dark and as we drove home through the Purbecks, Corfe Castle was almost a silhouette against the yellow sky.