Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there…
— Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928), At Lulworth Cove a Century Back
Three hours on the train, moving westwards from London, and we see the sea for the first time heading into Southampton – a sea so tame we wonder if it’s just a lake at first. A stroke of good fortune, to have relatively mild weather.
When we reach Wareham, our friend is already waiting there, and she’s got everything planned out. The first thing we do is to get on a bus.
What is the value of loyalty? At what cost will someone keep to their principles? We can see Corfe Castle on the bus from a long way off, and even as a ruin it is still magnificent – lengths of undestroyed ramparts with arrow slits on their faces, and slices of the keep sticking defiantly into the sky.
The land has been a fortification since the days of William the Conqueror, dominating the road from Swanage on the sea into Dorset. Since stone was plentiful locally, it was also one of the earliest stone castles when wood and mud was still the main thing elsewhere in England.
But how it came to be a ruin is like the story of the Rains of Castamere. During the English Civil War (1642 – 1651), the castle was owned by the Bankes family, who were Royalists when the Parliamentarian faction dominated the region. Mary Bankes nonetheless stayed in the fortress and defended it for three years against Parliamentarian siege and assault until 1645.
Happily, the Bankeses didn’t share the fate of the Reynes; Mary’s courage was admired and she was allowed to leave safely. But it would be dangerous to leave a fort as strong as this standing, so it was blown up with gunpowder not long after capture. The village was also destroyed, and later rebuilt – using the stones from the ruins of the Castle. And life went on.
We wander the village of Corfe for a bit and then spot the white, rising wisps from the edge of town, resolving into a locomotive spewing white steam. The steam train which runs from Corfe Castle to Swanage on the coast is not just a scenic diversion, but is a story of real grit and determination to preserve local heritage.
Trains used to run regularly for nearly a century before the whole thing was closed and then demolished in 1972. Having failed to save the railway, though, the conservationists went about things the hard way – they would build it all back, sleeper by sleeper, bolt by bolt.
Four decades and two generations later, the prospect of reopening the entire line – with steam and normal trains from Wareham to Swanage – is getting close to becoming a reality. And all this from a crew of mostly volunteers!
The trains are old school inside as well, with soft leather benches. We trundle along, the faint smell of diesel hanging over us as much as the pennant of steam, the green-cloaked hills receding slowly until we reach Swanage.
What makes a good fish and chips? We are guided by the local friend to Fish Plaice, almost right by the sea, where the display has plenty of battered stuff – fish, but also sausages and fish cakes.
The quality of chips, if you ask me, really doesn’t have much to do with the quality of a chippy. If you get takeaway for eating by the seaside, the whole dish is wrapped in paper, which bathes the chips in their own steam. By the time you unwrap them, what was crisp is now gnarly, and what might have been powdery is now moist and grainy.
But I love them that way. I love that the fish batter, on the other hand, has withstood the steaming very well – it cracks audibly when pulled apart with the fingers. The cod is mild, unadorned, slipping apart into fat, silvery chunks.
A sharp cloud of malt vinegar rises from the chips, but they are mild to taste, a little deep and sweet. And the fish cake – mashed potatoes, parsley, onion and firm threads of fish, all pressed into a breaded patty – is brilliant, broad in flavour and texture.
Then again, surely there are chippies with food that’s just as good everywhere. Fish and chips is often good, almost never spectacular. It’s the view that is spectacular. The gurgling and scrabbling of pigeons who have spotted a dropped chip or crumb. The cold wind sprinting in from the cold, blue sea, and the ghoulishly joyful cries of the gulls who ride and swoop in it.
What makes a good fish and chips is what you remember about it, and there’s plenty to remember at Swanage.
Cliffs abound along the southern coast of England, but the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and Devon has maybe the greatest range of coastal landforms. Swanage lies on the eastern end of this stretch of coast that goes west to Exmouth.
The area is a rich source of fine, grey-white limestone, ideal for monuments, and a local businessman who got rich trading on this decided to build an attraction to his hometown. Therefore he bought the coast around Durlston Head and built the ‘castle’ there, which was intended as a restaurant and a vantage point.
Unfortunately my phone died in the high winds and could not be revived until we returned to the town.
Despite the fierce wind, we tarry along the deep, calm (and slightly muddy) woods and cliffs until the time comes for us to go to dinner. But that’s a thing for a full review later…