In May, the lockdown eased a wee bit and I seized the first opportunity I could to get out and do a spot of painting. I wanted something within easy distance of Pilton where I live so I pulled out a map and studied my options.
I eventually plumbed for the ancient village of Corfe and its ruined Castle in Dorset. I have always wanted to visit Corfe but have never really got around to it for some reason or another. So. as covid has hammered home the lesson of ‘no time like the present’, off I went.
A brief history of Corfe and the castle
The story of Corfe goes right back to pre-history, and substantial evidence of settlement by the Romans has been found in the form of pottery and copper they used to make their bronze weapons and tools.
The first mention of of the castle was in the time of Alfred the Great when he built “Corffe’s Gate” in the 870’s, aiming to discourage Danish raiders.
The big build began during the Norman Conquests of course, by Henry I, the son of William. Henry left no legitimate male heir so his daughter Matilda took the crown.
Moving into the medieval period Corfe castle was expanded further and was used as a Royal Castle and viewed as secure enough for King John to keep the crown jewels there.
It then passed through Plantagenet hands to Henry Tudor (VII), and from there to the infamous Henry VIII. It then went to his daughter Elizabeth 1st who must have tired of it as she sold it to her Chancellor, Christopher Hatton, who fortified it further to defend against the Spanish Armada that never came.
The English Civil war
Corfe Castle is most famous for its part in The English Civil war in the 17th Century. At this time is was owned by Sir John Bankes, Lord Chief Justice to King Charles I.
Whilst he was out fighting, the defence of the castle was left to his wife Mary Banks. She became a bit of a royalist hero as she held out for two years, through two sieges, and so became known as ‘Brave Dame Mary’.
She was however, eventually betrayed by one of her own officers, Colonel Pitman who snuck through Parliamentarians in disguise. The defenders lost the ensuing battle and the castle fell into Parliamentarian hands.
Following an Act of Parliament, the Castle was then blown up from the inside by engineers leading to the thrilling ruin we see today.
I decided to paint the view looking up from the outer bailey to the up to the ruins of the keep.
Once the main ideas were down, I climbed up to the keep catching views right across Dorset and beyond. From there you can really appreciate why it was such a valued position for a defensive structure in the days before cannon. It really does command the terrain.
The Swanage Railway
As I was walking back down the hill from the keep, I passed through the outer Bailey and below I saw stream rising from a train on the Swanage Railway.
This was one of the two daily steam trains providing a 40 minute service between Norden Park & Ride at Corfe Castle, Harmans Cross and Swanage. It was an incredible sight, an idyllic British scene showing the pure white plumes of steam and the hills of Dorset rolling into the distance, just like a 30’s railway poster.
I didn’t get to visit the station even though it has fine views across to the Castle, with the station itself being a wonderful recreation of a 1950s design. I must go back to ride on the train one day. Only 22 minutes to Swanage.
The Dorset Landscape and Vineyard Farm
Looking down from the castle you can see the ragged shapes of the Jurassic landscape stretching out to Poole Harbour. Due to the nature of this landscape it’s not really practical to have vast open fields as they do in some parts of, say, Wiltshire. Here, the ancient small holdings still remain and the hills are crisscrossed hedges interspersed with gorse and outcrops of Purbeck limestone.
Below the castle you will find Vineyard Farm which is owned and hired-out by The National Trust. They have a page on their site which reads.
“Vineyard Farm is a pretty thatched cottage situated just below Corfe Castle. The cottage takes its name from the castle’s vineyard, which was located in field nearby. The cottage boasts wood burning stove and large, traditional inglenook fireplace.”
If you have such a powerful castle such as Corfe Castle, you will always gain a substantial community huddling in the safety of its shadow. And Corfe village grew along with the castle.
Much of the central part of the village has been preserved, now making it’s trade through tourism rather than farming. I rooted around the village for something to paint, considering the Church of St. Edward for a while, but in the end I decided on a village shop.
Outside there was a sign which proclaimed ‘350 different types of Gin!’. Prior to getting down to work, I had a quick look inside.
Yes they had the usual staples like washing up liquid, tins of food, sweets etc. etc., but it was fair to say that most of the shelves were dominated by about 350 different types of gin.
Cromwell would not have approved…