When our summer trip got cancelled by the pandemic, mum spent weeks trying to find a good staycation alternative that would fit the six of us in an area that we could get to from London (where both me and my sister live with our partners). As usual, she struck airbnb gold and we ended up spending 4 chock-full days near Corfe Castle on the Dorset coast, exploring the countryside.
If you liked the mapometer content in my post 3 Christmas Walks In The English Countryside, then you’re in for a treat here. Ahead you’ll find no fewer than five maps for walks around the Purbeck Hills and along the South West Coast Path. Oh, and don’t forget the Tank Museum.
Where To Stay
What a great airbnb! The old Post Office in Kingston is a renovated historic building on the steep hill across from St James’s Church. It’s a great option if you’re looking for a place for a group or family, with three double bedrooms and one single, plus two bathrooms. It’s also got a lovely dining room for evening meals and a big old living room perfect for playing games.
My favourite part of this house was 100% the amazing views. Looking out the windows all you can see are the long gardens of the neighbouring cottages, overflowing with orchards and vegetable patches. And the lush green spreads on and on into the distance, over fields and woodland and rolling hills.
The absolute crown of this place is the incredible view of Corfe Castle itself, the ruins poking up between the dip in the hills. Appropriately, the name Corfe actually derives from the Old English ceorfan, which means ‘a cutting’, because of the gap it sits in. You can’t really appreciate the view properly from these photos, you’ll just have to trust me that you can see the castle ruins really well.
The village of Kingston is right on top of a hill, at 400ft above sea level, so you can see for miles and miles in most directions. We noticed straight away that the village has two churches. Curious, I looked it up, and it turns out that the smaller church on the east side has been there since the 12th century, and up until 1877 was a chapelry of Corfe Castle. In 1874 a new church was built by the third Earl of Eldon, and the old one is now a private house. The new church, St James’s, is so elaborate it’s like a mini cathedral, and you can see it poking through the trees for miles around because of the disproportionately tall tower (which has a whopping ten bells inside).
Oh, and last but not least, there was a hamper of goodies waiting for us in the kitchen of our airbnb, full of local products like jam, flapjack and coffee.
Day 1: Houns Tout
The traffic from London to Dorset was HELL. An accident on the motorway meant winding through little towns along with everyone else following Google maps. After about 4 hours we managed to meet up with my parents at a lovely pub on the side of the road, halfway between Wareham and Corfe Castle. Luckily it was still serving food and drinks, with table service outside. We tucked into some whopping fish finger sandwiches with chunky chips before setting off again to get to our airbnb.
Kingston to Houns Tout (3.43 miles)
The first thing we did after unpacking was pull on our walking boots and head out to explore. Matt commandeered the map and we set off towards the South West Coast Path. I’ve actually saved this walk for you to look at on mapometer! Follow it here.
Despite the hazy weather, the rain stayed away, and the views stayed incredible for our entire walk, which ended up being about three and a half miles long. This was probably my favourite walk of the holiday – nice and flat, not too long, amazing views, perfect conditions. Not to mention the novelty factor of it being our first walk!
Something we talked about a lot on this walk was the book The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a moving account of how a couple lost their farm, found themselves homeless just as the husband was diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease and subsequently rediscovered happiness while walking the South West Coast Path. It seemed everyone but me had read it!
After we got back to our airbnb and shed our walking boots, we cracked out the gin. I made us all spiced orange G&Ts to enjoy on the patio at the bottom of the garden – the best place to watch the sunset and a lovely end to our first day.
Day 2: Corfe Castle & Swanage Railway
We woke up on Saturday (my mum’s birthday!) to find the surrounding countryside coated in thick mist. The silhouette of Corfe Castle loomed on the horizon, and we could no longer resist the pull.
Kingston to Corfe Castle (1.69 miles)
So we set out in our walking boots again, Matt (with map) leading the way. As you can see it’s a pretty straight line, but you do have to cross fields of cows and fight your way through a few hedges. Follow it here!
Since we’d brought so much food with us on our holiday, the plan was to walk to Corfe Castle village, have a coffee, look around the castle ruins, and then come back to the airbnb for lunch. The walk was fairly quick, just over a mile and half long, with not too much climbing. Although there was a steep drop down the hill from Kingston and you know what that means – a steep climb for later!
The castle itself dates back to the 10th century AD, but burial mounds around the common of Corfe Castle suggest that the area was occupied from as early as 6000 BC! The village is mainly these cute cottages in the uniform grey stone of the area, all sitting in the shadow of the castle ruins.
The Pink Goat Cafe, Corfe Castle
On West Street leading up to the castle, we found the Pink Goat, a cafe I’d actually read about beforehand. Fortunately they had a spare picnic table for us outside, so we could satisfy our midmorning caffeine needs. Even better – there was a fresh batch of apple sponge cake hot from the oven!
The main square in the village has a few landmarks – a cross commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a defunct village pump, a National Trust shop, the village bakery, a model village (with scale model of the castle pre-ruin), The Greyhound Inn (most photographed pub in England according to the sign), The Bankes Arms, an ice cream shop, and a homewares shop called The Town House (the building on the right with the amazing windows).
Then the crushing blow. We got to the entrance of the castle to realise that, as a National Trust landmark, you need to pre-book tickets to enter. I felt like such an idiot, since Matt and I had literally encountered this new rule a few weeks before on our trip to the South Downs when our plans to visit Petworth House were similarly thwarted.
Instead, a new plan was formed, to pack a lunch of Cornish pasties from the bakery, and set off over the hills, following The Purbeck Way to Swanage. There we could catch the steam train back to Corfe Castle. Full disclosure, I did not welcome this change of plan. I’m not an enthusiastic walker at the best of times, and this would be a long one. Matt was trying to suppress his excitement, but I could tell he was keen. So I swallowed my trepidation and tightened the laces of my walking boots.
Corfe Castle to Swanage (5.78 miles)
So we set off again, with mum’s backpack smelling strongly of pasties and a concrete arrival time of 4:48pm (the last train). Follow the route here!
“Enjoy the magnificent views from the chalk ridge of Ballard Down across Poole Harbour on your way to Old Harry rock or Swanage.”Dorset Council website
Those “magnificent views” mentioned on the Dorset Council website were more “impenetrable mist” on this occasion. If we enjoyed anything it was the eerie feeling of walking through the clouds themselves! We stopped pretty early on, spread out our waterproofs and ate our pasties, with some wild blackberries for dessert. After that, the weather closed in, and it got to the point where we couldn’t see 20 feet in front of us, let alone all the way out to Poole Harbour!
It might sound damp and disappointing, but it was actually a really fun walk. After the initial climb to get up to the ridge, it was pretty flat all the way to Swanage, and the temperature was still really pleasant. We passed quite a few groups of walkers going the opposite way, so clearly we weren’t the only ones refusing to be put off by the weather.
By the time we got to Swanage we were actually cutting it pretty close time-wise, and had to sprint through town to get to the train station in time for the last train back to Corfe Castle!
Disappointingly, the last train out of Swanage was not an old-timey steam train, it was an old-timey deisel train instead. It was still worth the trip though, especially when we got to watch an actual steam train go past on the tracks. The Swanage Railway is a great way to visit Corfe Castle from Swanage, and you’ll even get a discount at various places in the village if you show them your train ticket.
Corfe Castle train station re-opened on 1st August, but there are still restrictions on passenger numbers, and a limited timetable, so make sure you check their website before you plan your trip!
The Fox Inn, Corfe Castle
Before our walk back up the hill to Kingston we decided to stop in Corfe Castle for a swift one. The Fox Inn seemed like a good option, with views from the beer garden towards the castle. The signs outside claimed it as the oldest pub in the village, steeped in local history.
This last walk back was a challenge. I was wiped out. Although less than two miles, I knew it would end with a climb. I gathered my remaining energy and we set off back to our airbnb. Spoiler alert: I made it.
The Scott Arms, Kingston
We were really unsure whether we’d manage to get a table here. We had a back up table booked in Corfe Castle, but it seemed a shame not to try The Scott Arms when it had been recommended by our host and it was only 2 minutes stumbling distance away from where we were staying. Why drive when you don’t have to?
There was no need to worry – the pub’s ample garden had plenty of picnic tables available, even with social distancing. We even managed to find one with proper backs on the benches.
Normally they serve a full pub menu with all the classics, but the menu had been pared back during lockdown. We didn’t mind though, as all our attention was fixed on the Jerk Shak. This open BBQ in the garden of the pub serves up traditional Jamaican cuisine with homemade jerk marinade. Turns out the co-owner Nicky is Jamaican and the menu is made up of her family recipes. It’s so popular in the area it was even featured on Countryfile!
Mum managed to get the last jerk pork, while the rest of us tucked in to jerk chicken and wings, all with deliciously spiced rice and literally the nicest fried plantain I’ve ever tasted. Plus, as a BBQ sauce lover, I can tell you this marinade was up there with the best I’ve tried: Perfect level of warmth from the chillies, sweet, spiced, rich and thick. Delectable.
Day 3: The Tank Museum & Worth Matravers
On Sunday morning, the weather had not improved, and a thick drizzle was tapping on our windows. We decided to split up and do our own thing. Mum and dad went off to do some shopping and grab a coffee; Rosie and Luke trekked back to Chapmans Pool for a swim in the sea; and Matt and I decided to visit one of Matt’s childhood haunts – The Tank Museum.
The Tank Museum
The Tank Museum brings the story of tanks and their crews to life, with the world’s best collection of tanks in awe-inspiring, modern exhibitions.
The museum houses 300 military machines, representing the key battles of every major conflict since the First World War. Our moving exhibitions tell the story of this British invention; from the mud of the Somme to the beaches of Normandy and the deserts of Iraq – featuring powerful stories from the soldiers that fought in them.
Get ready to experience the Biggest Day Out in History…tankmuseum.org
When we arrived at the tank museum I was struck by two things. Firstly, there were tanks everywhere, including the car park. Secondly, the museum was not accepting walk-ins. Luckily there were still a few tickets available to buy on the website.
- The Tank Story – This main exhibition tells the story of tanks, from the first working prototype Little Willie to the modern Challenger 2.
- The Trench Experience walks in the footsteps of a WWI soldier, from the recruiting office to the Front Line.
- Tank Men – This room focuses on the lives of eight of the first tank crewman.
- Warhorse to Horsepower – Learn about horses in the army during the First World War.
- WW2: War Stories – The story of 1939-45 told through the eyes of the British tankie. Phase 1 opens in 2020. Phase 2 opens in 2021.
- Cold War – A selection of the Museum’s post-WW2 and modern tanks. The cafe is also in this room.
- Battlegroup Afghantistan – Explore a recreated Forward Operating Base and see the vehicles used in the conflict in Afghanistan.
- Tank Factory – How tanks are designed, manufactured and assembled.
Most of my photos are from the Trench Experience exhibition, which I found totally fascinating.
Matt was in his element the whole way round the museum. His dad used to take his brother and him around this very museum when they were kids, and it was always a proper treat. It’s open 10am – 5pm and you need to wear a mask to get in. The website recommends 4 – 5 hours for your visit, but if you can stay interested in tanks for 5 hours then you deserve a medal in my opinion. I’d say 2 hours, maybe 3 if you want to read all the info.
After dragging Matt away (let’s be honest, he could spend 5 hours here), we returned to our airbnb for some lunch and an afternoon relaxing in the living room.
That is, until the sun broke through the clouds, and dad looked out the window and exclaimed “it’s brightening up!”
Worth Matravers to Seacombe (3.28 miles)
Pronounced muh-tra-verz (/məˈtrævərz/), this little village seems to be mainly known for its duck pond and its pub. Funnily enough, Matt had been here before, on a stag do no less!
We parked in the Worth Matravers car park and made our way through the village, our (or rather Matt’s) sights set on the sea and a little rocky beach on the map called Seacombe. You can follow our route here!
After a lovely sunlit walk up and down some sheep-speckled hills, the footpath sliced its way through the hillside and arrived at the rocky shelf of beach. A small group were enjoying the sunshine on one side, their little dogs chasing each other through the rock pools.
We dumped our bags on the rocks and Rosie and Luke stripped down to their swimming costumes. It’s at this point that my mother – title holder of Least Likely To Go In Water Unless It’s A Bath – got out a wetsuit of all things and followed them into the sea! Shock of the holiday I can tell you. She did later admit that the main motivator behind her swim was dad’s derision at her packing a wetsuit for the walk.
While the three of them swam around, Matt and I explored the beach. I was quite fascinated by the little snails living in the rock pools, and dad discovered a big cave in the rock just round a corner.
After the swimmers had dried themselves off, we headed back up off the beach and onto the South West Coast Path. This was another stunning set of views, and Matt got quite frustrated at how many times I stopped to take panoramas.
The Square & Compass, Worth Matravers
As we reached the village again, we passed the Square & Compass pub and couldn’t resist climbing up to see if there was space. We were in luck and managed to grab a table. It was a great place, with a panoramic view of the hills and the sea. It’s actually a Grade II listed building with a small museum exhibiting fossils and other local artefacts inside!
Like everywhere, the Square & Compass had some COVID measures in place. There’s no inside seating, and you have to order your drinks at the window and bring them to your table yourself. It seems like they normally have live music and festivals and all sorts here, but they’ve had to cancel everything. At least they still have a local dog that likes to sit on the roof.
We planned our visit so perfectly, right in time for the sunset. Everyone even said this was their highlight of the whole weekend!
Day 4: South West Coast Path
For our last day in Kingston, we planned our most ambitious walk yet. Luckily, we got to Swyre Head and Matt decided on a shorter route. If you’re fancying our original 10 mile plan, you can check it out here.
Kingston to Swyre Head (6.45 miles)
Our actual walk was much more civilised, but still quite challenging! The South West Coast Path has some pretty extreme hills you have to climb. You can follow it here.
Note: There are two Swyre Heads in Dorset, the other one is 11 miles away near Durdle Door.
If you’re driving to Swyre Head, you can leave your car at Swyre Head car park before you set off. It’s a great place to check out if you’re in the area, with by far the best views of our whole holiday. And it’s no wonder – at 682ft above sea level, Swyre Head is the highest point in the Purbeck hills. On a clear day you can see all the way to Dartmoor and the Isle of Wight!
On spotting a possible route down through the farmland towards the South West Coast Path, Matt suggested we cut our original walk short, to 6 miles instead of 10 (hurray). The footpath is across private land, which the owners have allowed to be used by the public. The only thing to watch out for is farm animals!
This was the walk that made me appreciate how challenging the South West Coast Path must be – there are some pretty steep climbs. The thought of a dip in Chapmans Pool is what kept me going. Tired, sweaty, sunburnt, we made our way down the steep hill. It was quite useful that Rosie and Luke had already navigated the path down to the beach. If you’re planning to do it yourself, make sure you avoid wet weather. Much of the climb involves picking your way over clay, which becomes a slippery mess whenever it rains.
Swimming in the sea at Chapmans Pool was such a relief after one of the hardest walks of the holiday. Did I mention I’m not an enthusiastic walker? I was hot and exhausted and my morale was pretty low at this point. The sea on the other hand was clear and freezing. Under different circumstances it would have been hard to go in, but we were all ready to be refreshed. Mum had her trusty wetsuit with her and before long we were all happily floating in the chilly water.
Chapmans Pool is such a cool place to visit if you really want to really feel like you’re on the Jurassic coast. The shelves of rock that slice through the sand are spotted with pale fossils (bivalves and ammonites). You can also go hunting for manganese oxide, which looks like shiny bubbles in the rock. These are nothing to do with the Jurassic period though. They’re the remains the cargo of the SS Treveal, wrecked on the Kimmeridge Ledges below Houns Tout in 1920!
The Fish Plaice, Swanage
After a long day of physical exertion, what better reward than a dinner of fish & chips? We drove to Swanage to get ours from the highly recommended Fish Plaice, right by the beach. Unlike the other chippies we passed, this one had no queue – because it’s so popular and efficient they serve you almost straight away. What a fab way to end our trip!
The countryside around Corfe Castle was the perfect nature-filled escape from lockdown in London. We got in some proper family time, some serious steps, and as you can see some of the most beautiful views.
I’d highly recommend our airbnb if you’re looking for somewhere with a group of grown ups, but the area is absolutely packed with lovely places to stay for families and couples. If you’re eyeing up other parts of Dorset and the Jurassic Coast, check out the farmhouse we stayed in near Axminster, or the cosy cottage Matt and I found in a Victorian gated village near Lyme Regis.
If you’ve been to this area before, I’d love to hear your recommendations – pop a comment in below!