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Costa Rica

Lashings of ginger beer all round for this beautiful tucked-away corner of Dorset. National Trust landscapes, nature reserves and stunning views crowd around this South Coast headland like double deckers queuing down Oxford Street. The writer tries out a restored steam railway, a splendid old castle and a big choice of tea rooms, and finds little has changed since children’s writer Enid Blyton set her Famous Five stories here. Picture - Corfe Castle - station, passengers, train and castle, 2009, by Gareth Huw Davies

Blyton landscape

For all her political incorrectness, Enid Blyton told a rattling good yarn. She
spent many summer holidays in and around Swanage in this cut off corner of
Dorset (not a real island). “The hills and sea are magnificent. My husband’s
golf course is glorious, and we play there every day.”
She set her smart child detectives Dick, Anne, George, Julian (and Timmy the
dog) on the trail of smugglers and other hapless villains along its
rugged coast and around Corfe Castle (Kirrin Island) and Brownsea Island
(Whispering Island). In 2009 the BBC made the story of her
life, with Helena Bonham Carter as Blyton and
Matthew Macfadyen and Denis Lawson as her first and second husbands
respectively.


Steam supreme

Don’t tell the Fat Controller on the Swanage Railway, but it’s time to wind
down the window and lean out into that potent blast of wind and steam and
sea air, just as we used to on that last dash to our seaside holiday. British
Railways closed the line to the resort in 1972. But enthusiast power prevailed.
They relaid 7 miles of torn-up track by hand, and now run steam trains hauled
by Battle of Britain loco Manston and others from a park and ride at Norden
Park. At Corfe Castle the platforms were lined with porters’ barrows, piled
high with suitcases. I pictured the Famous Five leaving after another
adventure. The first direct train in 37 years ran from London last year, with more to come. Trains could run from the main line at Wareham
by 2012, in time for the Olympic yachting in Dorset.

Small wonders

Welcome to Britain’s Serengeti, Studland National Nature Reserve.
Instead of rhinos, giraffes and elephants, we have all six British reptiles in this
heathland fringing Poole Harbour – adder, grass and smooth snake, sand
and common lizard and slow worm. Heathland, knee-high heather flecked
with the vivid yellow of gorse, is nature’s equivalent of the subtle watercolour
you might miss in an art gallery, when it’s the most valuable thing there.
25% of the worlds’ heathland is in Britain, and some of the very best is right
here. There are nature trails in the RSPB’s Arne reserve, where a true treat is
to hear – and see - the Dartford warbler singing its heart out on the gorse on
a bright spring morning.

Walk the past

The 93 mile Jurassic Coast between the Poole and the Exe Estuary is
Britain’s first natural World Heritage site. This 185 million year old
encyclopaedia of rock formations is constantly updated as the cliffs crumble
to reveal fresh fossils. It is also the opening stretch of the epic 630 mile
South West Coast Path National Trail, starting in Poole Harbour. We
walked it west from Swanage, over the soft clifftop turf of this crinkled coast,
then cut inland for a fine view of Corfe Castle. Next day we walked 2 miles
west of Swanage to Ballard Down to meet Old Harry. Not another Blyton
character, but a pillar of old chalk downland out among the foaming waves, a
dot on the end of a geological sentence.

Eat at Joe’s

Joe’s Café may sound like a truckers’ stop on the A6, but it’s actually a
remarkable dining experience at a wooden hut on Studland Beach. We took a
table beside the sand for home-made soup with organic bread, excellent feta
cheese salad, homemade honey flapjack with Purbeck ice cream, and
fairtrade coffee.
Another walk took us out to the excellent and eccentric Square and Compass
pub at Worth Matravers, full of paintings and photos in cosy low-ceilinged
rooms. It is one of only ten pubs to appear in every edition of the Good Beer
Guide since 1974. They serve beer, direct from the barrel, and cider through a
hatch, along with their own exquisite Cornish pasty. In Swanage itself, the
Red Lion is the pick of the pubs that sell food, with the Ocean Bay for ice
cream.

Knock down prize

Corfe Castle sits gaunt and tremendous on its high hill above a pretty stone
village. Built by William the Conqueror in a gap in the Purbeck hills to defend
inland Dorset from attack from the sea, it was smashed up in the Civil War.
But enough survived to make it one of Britain’s most impressive ruins, now in
the care of the National Trust. if you don’t go in, find a table in the garden of
the trust’s tea room next door, order the prodigious Dorset cream tea and
study the slightly precarious structure close-up for nothing. Across the road is
the Church of St. Edward King and Martyr, named after our only sanctified
ruler, slain here in 978 by his stepmother. There are some good specialist
shops. Then catch the steam train back to Swanage.

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