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Corfe Castle (Wareham)

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The Square / Corfe Castle / Wareham / Dorset / BH20 5EZ / Tel: 01929 481294

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      11.05.2011 12:13
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      The remains of a great castle

      "Corfe Castle! I saw it first."

      These words were usually uttered in an excited shriek by my elder son from the back of the car as we ascended the hill that rises from Stoborough towards Corfe Castle and Swanage beyond. They would cue an agitated dispute as to who had in fact seen it first ("Matthew's making it not fair" my younger son would complain, probably justly, since I suspect his brother had memorised the point on the road from which the jutting top of the castle was originally first seen, and continued to make his claim at the same place even after the hedgerows had grown too high for it to be visible from there), but they also cued the beginning of another Dorset holiday. For family reasons we were frequent visitors, and by family consensus it was understood that the holiday did not properly begin until the first sighting of Corfe Castle. Better still from a parent's viewpoint, no one was allowed to ask "are we nearly there yet?" until the castle had been spotted.

      Anyone who is familiar with the 'Isle' of Purbeck will know how dominant a landmark Corfe Castle is. It stands on a single hill in a gap - the word 'corfe' meant 'gap' in the local Anglo-Saxon dialect - between two ranges of hills that divide the north of the isle, the heathland that fringes the shore of Poole Harbour, from the south-east, where Swanage Bay and the 'Jurassic coast' face out over the channel. If the road from Wareham to Swanage were one of the nation's great highways, Corfe Castle would be of huge strategic significance. Since Purbeck is a backwater, the castle has never been of any great importance, and the only monarch to have spent much time there (King John), used it more as a retreat for hunting holidays than for its military value. Nevertheless, its defences were strong enough to withstand a long siege by Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War, which did the castle little long-term good since it was afterwards looted and 'slighted' - i.e. partially demolished to ensure that it wouldn't be defensible another time. The local populace exacerbated the slighting by gathering up loose stones to build their own cottages. Only ruins remain today, but they are dramatically sited ruins and a visit to the castle adds value to any holiday in the area, just as it did for King John all those centuries ago.


      * Edward the Martyr saw it first *

      King John was not the first monarch to be associated with Corfe Castle. In 1080 William the Conqueror commenced the construction of the mediaeval stone castle as we know it today, or rather as we know its ruins today. Even before William, the site was certainly fortified. It is the kind of hilltop that no military mind could resist capping with a castle, and history records that it was here that the dowager queen Elfrida had her stronghold and here that she arranged the assassination of her stepson king, afterwards known as Edward the Martyr, in 978. Not only was this a dastardly act in itself, even by the lax standards of the time, but it stuck the country with Elfrida's incompetent son Ethelred the Unready as king for the next thirty-eight years.

      None of Corfe Castle's historical associations are particularly happy ones. It often acted as a state prison for high-ranking inmates. An explanatory display at the castle's entrance, presumably intended for children, relates: '1106. Have you a brother you don't get on with? Henry I did. First, he fought a battle against his elder brother Robert of Normandy. Then, when Henry won, he shut Robert in the Keep.' One can almost hear the plaintive plea of "Henry's making it not fair" from the incarcerated Robert. For King John, a monarch notorious for his repressive rule, the castle served a similar purpose in addition to its use as a hunting lodge. His niece, Eleanor of Brittany, was held there together with her knights, many of whom met their end in 'oubliettes', windowless underground dungeons into which prisoners could be thrown and left to rot. Fortunately or unfortunately, none of these loathsome cells remains to be seen by visitors today. Later, Edward II was also imprisoned in the castle - somewhat ironically, since he had been responsible for strengthening its defences - before being transferred to Berkeley Castle where he was murdered.

      Throughout the later Middle Ages and the Wars of the Roses, Corfe was assigned by successive monarchs to a series of minor royals and major nobles, only to revert to the crown when these custodians met with a sticky end. Custody of Corfe seems to have been something of a poisoned chalice. Eventually, the castle passed out of royal ownership when Elizabeth I sold it for the princely sum of £4762 to her Lord Chancellor, whose successors sold it in turn to the wealthy Sir John Bankes. It was his wife Dame Mary Bankes who commanded the long, but ultimately unsuccessful, defence of the castle during the Civil War. Despite being on the losing side in that conflict, the Bankes family survived with their possessions largely intact, though they never attempted to rebuild the castle. When their last descendent died in 1981, the Bankes Estate - encompassing the stately home of Kingston Lacy, farmland and long stretches of coastline as well as Corfe Castle - became the largest ever bequest to the National Trust.


      * What's left to be seen by late-comers... *

      ...above all is the gaunt grey stonework of the ruins atop their hill, crowned by the sheer shards of wall that originally enclosed the high square keep. You don't need to step inside the confines of the castle to see them, of course; it's impossible to miss them as they dominate the scene for miles around. Nevertheless, it's worth going inside, especially if you've any interest in mediaeval military architecture, to trace how the fortifications were organised and to envisage what the place must have been like in its heyday. Apart from which, you can enjoy equally magnificent views from inside the grounds looking out as you can from the outside looking in. To enter, you cross the stone bridge over the moat to the Outer Gatehouse, which has survived sufficiently to retain its original stone arch with 'murder-holes', slits through which suitably lethal missiles could be hurled down onto an attacking foe.

      Assuming you survive, this brings you into the Outer Bailey, a large area of open grassland that slopes up towards the castle's main buildings at the top. It is encircled by the remains of the curtain walls and the frequent towers that strengthened them, now mostly broken and leaning at gravity-defying angles out over the hillside. Ahead are further ruinous defences, prominent among them the South-West Gatehouse, vertically cracked in two with the path leading you up through the crack to the higher West Bailey beyond. The West Bailey was originally surrounded by another curtain wall with towers to defend the south-west shoulder of the hill, but the remains of these defences are now in too poor a state of repair to penetrate, so one follows the path up through further ruined ramparts into the keep.

      At 21 metres in height, the keep was an enormous structure for its day (the first decade of the 12th Century), and one of the first keeps in England to be built from stone, a material of which Purbeck has an abundance. The nerve-centre of a royal castle, it would have elaborately laid out with guardrooms and administrative offices, as well as meeting/banqueting hall, private apartments and bedchambers. Now, all that remains is a hollow shell, and one can discern little of the original arrangement of floors and halls. The only animation I found on a recent visit was provided by a crows' nest at the summit of the highest stone pillar, which reminded me obscurely of the 'towers of silence' on top of which Zoroastrians leave their dead to be picked clean by vultures.

      Beyond the keep a further courtyard strewn with rubble leads the visitor to the even more derelict 'gloriette', a later non-military addition, constructed by King John for the accommodation and entertainment of his hunting companions. This gloriette, in effect a small-scale palace, would in its day have been more lavishly equipped and furnished even than the keep, but here too little is left, just a few stunted turrets and walls with empty arched window-frames looking out across the landscape. I have read that, fragmentary though they are, these relics have contributed significantly to the understanding of the development of Early Gothic architecture. Somehow that only reinforces my impression, as an architectural layman, that they are more a tribute to the transient nature of all human pursuits, whether those of modern academics or mediaeval courtiers.


      * Do dead stones need artificial respiration? *

      If you like your castles to be more like stately homes (Warwick, perhaps, or Alnwick) a visit to Corfe might leave you feeling a bit dissatisfied, since there is so little left by way of interior decoration, or even interior. Perhaps in tacit recognition that so austere a monument might not be to the modern taste, accustomed as it has become to all kinds of aids to visitor understanding, the National Trust has made a rather half-hearted effort to move with the times and provide some illustrative displays.

      As you cross the bridge to the Gatehouse, banners fluttering in the breeze offer you three sets of paired catchwords: Murder-Royalty, Treachery-War and Betrayal-Romance, which I found to be intriguing, albeit apt, pairings. Once within, you come to five little tented pavilions, each dedicated to some particular participative educational experience - for example, wood blocks with which to construct mediaeval archways in various styles, or period costumes for children to garb themselves as guards. There is also a replica trebuchet as a rather paltry example of a mediaeval siege-engine, a scale model under a perspex cover to show how the castle would have looked in its pomp, and explanatory notice-boards placed at strategic points around the ruins.

      In principle I've nothing against such aids to understanding, and the educational intention is doubtless worthy, but it also seems to me to be gilding the lily. At Corfe, the bareness and dereliction is part of the point of the place, and certainly the essence of its atmosphere. As for engaging the interest of children, my children were intensely interested when we first visited, which was long before any of the modern displays or signage was in place. They learned by imagining themselves as attackers or defenders, by running up or rolling down the grass slope of the outer bailey, by clambering on the stone walls while parents yelled at them to come down or at least to be more careful. All these activities were in their way obliquely educational, suggesting questions to them, questions to which we could then encourage them to find out their own answers.


      * Visiting the castle today *

      Corfe Castle is open to visitors daily throughout the year from 10.00 in the morning until 6.00 in the evening (April to September), though closing earlier in the winter (4.00 December - February, 5.00 November and March), the only exceptions being Christmas and Boxing Days. Entry is £5.90 for adults, £2.95 for children, and free to National Trust members.

      The castle is situated in the eponymous village on the A351 main road, which is also the bus route, between Wareham and Swanage. There is a dedicated NT car park, but about half a mile's walk away, and another pay-and-display public car park at the opposite end of the village, about a quarter of a mile distant. Street parking around the village is reasonably feasible out of season, almost impossible in the summer.

      The village of Corfe Castle is no longer on the main rail network (nearest station Wareham), but has been reconnected to Swanage by the amateur enthusiasts of the Swanage Steam Railway. Young kids and older nostalgists alike will enjoy the ride. If you're staying in Swanage, a good way to visit is to take the train out, see the castle, have lunch in a pub and then walk it off back to Swanage following the ridge of Nine Barrow Down, with great views to either side. Or, for the really fit, walk out to Corfe Castle over Nine Barrow Down in the morning, then across Corfe Common to Kingston Matravers for lunch in the garden of the Scott Arms (from which the best view of the castle is actually secured), next along to the headland of Hounstout high above the sea and finally back around the coast. This is one of the best walks I know in southern England, even if I can't claim to have managed the full circuit any time recently.


      * Bread and butter (and scones) stuff *

      A traditionally twee National Trust tearoom offering good if slightly predictable fare is sited just outside the walls, with a pleasant rear garden affording an excellent view of the castle itself. Alternatively, you can buy tasty sandwiches or pies for a picnic in the bakery just round the corner in the village square. Corfe is blessed with several pubs: the best food is to be found at The Greyhound next door to the bakery, but the Castle Inn further along the main road is also good. The Fox in West Street has character.

      A well-stocked NT gift shop is separate from, but very close to, the castle, facing the main village square. There are loos, including disabled, behind the ticket office to the castle itself. Talking of which, wheelchair access to the castle is reasonable, though the higher areas round the keep can't readily be reached and helpers might like to bear in mind that the site is on a steeply sloping hill and bumpy in places.


      * Not just a pretty façade *

      Perched on its hill, Corfe Castle is an imposing monument. Summer visitors, relaxing in the tearoom garden, scoffing scones smothered with jam and cream while they gaze up at the sun-warmed relics under a blue sky, might view the scene as the epitome of cosy West Country rusticity. Come back on a blustery day in winter though, a north wind howling through the gap between the bare hills, and the skeletal ruins assume a sinister aspect, reminding visitors of their dark history. The local Purbeck limestone, of which the castle is built, was traditionally known as 'burr', a corruption of the French 'beurre', from its buttery colour when first quarried, though it soon weathers to a grim, gritty grey. In this, Corfe reflects the two faces of its native county. It is no coincidence that pretty, pastoral Dorset has Thomas Hardy, the most dismal of novelists, as its favourite literary son. Tess and Jude and the Tolpuddle Martyrs alike could tell you a thing or two about people making it not fair with miserable consequences. But it is the more, not the less, interesting a place to visit for all that.


      © Also published, with photos, under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011

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        21.07.2009 10:50
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        Certainly worth a visit (especially for NT members)

        When I turned 30 earlier this year one of my gifts was a National Trust membership for myself and my girlfriend. My first thought was that it was definitely a sign that I was getting old...especially as my very next thought was that it was a brilliant gift!

        I have lost count of the number of times my girlfriend and I have wanted a day out and struggled to think of anywhere to go, and even when we have, the cost has often been pretty steep, so now, to have the whole of the National Trust to choose from and to get free parking and entry would be great.

        We recently went for a short break near Poole and decided to take a visit to some of the local attractions and of course make use of the membership. We decided upon Corfe Castle.

        I have to say, I don't really know exactly where the castle is located because I just found the castle using a set of National Trust 'points of interest' on my Sat Nav and followed where it said to go. I do know that the journey from Bournemouth where we were staying was simple and didn't take too long, about 30 minutes I think.

        We were going early and when we arrived there were very few cars in the NT car park (free to members). At the entrance to the castle is a visitors centre which is free to enter for everyone and contains quite a bit of information about the castle and it's history, along with details of the design of the castle and several interesting items that have been found during digs at the castle, such as pottery, cannonballs etc.

        Once we had finished looking around the visitors centre we set off for the castle. The beginning of the journey was a fairly gentle walk around the bottom of the hill the castle is located on. After a while the gradient increases a little but is still I would think manageable for most people. Once you have reached the village of Corfe (which is about halfway up the castles' hill, you can buy your tickets for the castle (free admission for members...yay!) and go on to the castle. Crossing the wooden bridge to the entrance tower the view of the castle up upon the hill was great.

        The Castle itself stood as a stronghold for Royalists during the English Civil War, eventually captured in 1646 it was ordered to be destroyed. The results of the destruction can clearly be seen today, with several towers at precarious angles and one entrance clearly cracked in two. It is really quite a sight to see.

        As with a lot of castles of this type, it is quite fun to try to imagine what it might have been like back in it ins former glory.

        As well as the quite incredible nature of the stone work and the remains, with the castle standing on a large hill, there are some great views across the countryside to enjoy.

        My only criticism of the castle is the fact that although there is a guide book you can purchase which gives you information about the castle, there is very little sign posting or labelling of the really interesting and impressive parts of the castle on the actual site.

        Some castles I have visited (even ones in ruins such as Tintagel) have had little plaques all over the place explaining briefly what you are looking at, this would have been a nice, and useful, addition to this castle.

        I would recommend this to anyopne who is interested in castles as it is quite amaizing to see the way in which it has been destroyed. I would also recommend spending a good bit of time in the visitor centre at the bottom as it has quite a lot of information about the castles history which is very interesting.

        All in all, it's a good place to visit to spend a morning. Once you are done with the castle you can also check out the village just outside the castle where there are pubs/restaurants and tea rooms and some lovely buildings many of which were built using stone from the castle remains.

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          06.06.2009 00:40
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          well worth a visit, just get your voucher from the model village first

          Corfe Castle is located between Poole and Swanage, and is adjacent to the Swannage Railway. We parked on the park on ride at Norden and travelled by train to Swannage. After a look at Swannage and a boat trip to see Old Harry's rock, we called in at Corfe on the return train journey. The view of the castle from the train is very good and I would highlt recommend using the car park at Norden and travelling by train as parking in Corfe looked limited.

          Corfe Castle is a short walk from the railway station but is up hill. We purchased the family guide which came in very useful when we went round the castle as it gave the history and a guide to the layout of the castle.

          The castle 1000 years old but was destroyed during the civil was and has been a ruin every since. The castle ruins are great for children to explore and climb over, for older people the views of the surrounding countryside are second to none.

          For Enid Blyton fans Corfe Castle is a must after frequent holidays to the area in the 1950's and 60 Corfe Castle became Kirrin Castle in the Famous Five books, the authros links with the village are well established and there is also the Gingerpop shop within the village full of Enid Blyton merchandise.

          For those of you visiting with children a good bit of hill rolling can be expected and seemed to be extremly popular.

          The castle has recently been renovated which is completed and the scaffolding has been removed.

          After visitng the castle we went to the model village within Corfe Village, here we were given a 2 for 1 voucher for the castle, so it is worth visiting the model village first which is a stones through from the castles entrance. The model villlage has a scale model of how the castle would have looked before it was destroyed.

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          07.01.2009 17:02
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          only go if its free or you love ruined castles

          We travelled to corfe castle via the steam train that runs from swanage. Now we wouldnt normally pay to go to somewhere like here however I had printed off three tickets I got from my brit points from walkers crisps.

          So when we got there we walked to the pre entrance. Once inside cue argument that I couldnt use all three vouchers. I argued my point and told them well I'll not bother then when they decided to let me use them afterall.

          We then walked up to the entrance and there was no problem with the old guy on the gate. He took my vouchers and laughed that I must have eaten a lot crisps.

          Once in we set off up the hill to the ruins of the castle. Half of the castle had scaffolding up round it and they were working on restoring it. This restoration was running behind by six months at that point. It was now that I was glad I didnt pay the admisson money.

          There isnt a lot to corfe castle its just basically a ruin of a castle. There ist a lot of information around the place so you have to use your imagination of where each room was.

          On the plus side the views from the castle were brilliant. We could see for miles. There were good views of corfe the village an the swanage railway line.

          After a wander round a couple of times and a few photos we left after 40 mins (and we weren't rushing) as there was nothing else to hold us there.

          I glad we didnt have to pay £5 each as there was no way it was worth it. However corfe the village is really nice and well worth a look.

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          27.08.2007 12:57
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          Look around the free display at the car park - it's better!

          We visited Corfe castle on a Thursday in August 2007. We particularly chose to go on the Thursday as the website proclaimed every Thursday in the summer holidays was a Family Fun Day, with interactive games and activities. As we have three kids under 8, who see an enormous number of castles each year with us, we thought this would be great.

          Sadly it wasn't! I was really looking forward to seeing the castle, being over 1000 years old and with a good history, including two seiges during the civil war and having remained in one family (the Bankes) for the past 600 of them, I was expecting some interesting stuff.

          The little museum/display in the car park was really good - and free! Then there was a nice walk through a forest path. Then we got to the castle. It was an imposing sight. Entrance, as in all these things, was through the shop. Where they tried to flog us a "treasure hunt map" for £3.00 per child, and charged £6.00 per person to step through the door, without bothering to mention that all the internal part of the castle was closed for repairs.

          I do understand that repairs are vitally important and I do not mind them being carried out - even in high season, but I do expect to be told that I will not see anything, and really I would have expected a it of a discount to be honest.

          We paid our money, and walked around the ruined outer keep, which was interesting. We took advantage of the (very small) buggy store as (like most castles) it was absolutely unsuitable for wheeled vehicles, but the paths were reasonably good condition.

          The "family fun day" consisted of a gazeebo, under which you could make a 1" tile for £3.00, or pay £5.00 to watch someone throw a teddy bear (with parachute) off the scaffolding. You didn't even get to keep the bear! Nothing else - no activities, no historical displays - not even any dressing up! I have seen better family fun in castles as part of their every day options!

          On the way back, my kids needed the toilet. We got to them to find the door shut and locked! There was another mother there also with a toddler hopping around, and she kncked on the door. After a couple of attempts it opened a crack, a head poked round and told us to go away as the toilets were closed for cleaning, then the door slammed shut again. Other mother was pretty upset, and knocked again, asking why ALL the toilets were closed if one was being cleaned (only one cleaner), and the cleaner was really rude - only allowing us in after I stuck my oar in as well and we started building up a crowd.

          Finally, we exited - again through the shop. My kids had managed to find all the cards for the treasure hunt without the map, so we went to see what they got - you £3.00 would've won them a polished stone. just the one! There was a shop in Weymouth offering a bag full of the same stones for £1.50!

          Overall, i was very disappointed. there were hardly any information signs, no audio tour and no staff actually insde the grounds so unless you had brought a guide book you were stuffed. The main part of the castle was closed without warning (no sign on the castle entrance, nothing from the staff and a small one liner on the websie saying some reovation work was being carried out, but not that it was closed off completely), the Family Fun day wasn't, and didn't even try to hide the fact that it was just a money grabbing scheme.

          Despite the long history, I can think of 100's of other castles I would rather visit.

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        • Product Details

          Thousand-year-old castle, an iconic survivor of the English Civil War, rising above the Isle of Purbeck. The castle dates back to the 11th century, and commands a gap in the Purbeck Hills on the route between Wareham and Swanage. Even to this day, all road traffic to and from the Swanage area must pass below the battlements of the castle.