Travel Story Romance in the castle ruins

Evening descends on Corfe Castle.
Picture: Mark Thornton
Photo of Mark Thornton

Even as a pile of rubble, Corfe Castle in Dorset is vast and dominates the countryside.

I first learnt about Corfe Castle, a magnificent ancient ruin in Dorset, England, when I was about six years old. At the time I created castles out of the mashed potato on my dinner plate. Some were quite grand and, far from admonishing me, my mum used to say they looked like Corfe Castle, near where she grew up.

Mum took me to see it when I was nine and I hadn’t returned until recently with Dianne, my Australian wife. The occasion was the wedding of my niece Lottie to her Royal Navy Lieutenant Tom in the castle’s village, also somewhat confusingly named Corfe Castle.

Dianne and I first saw the castle together from several kilometres away as we drove south from Wareham. We pulled over and stared. Even as a ruin it is vast and dominates the countryside — as its builders intended.

Work began on the castle more than 1000 years ago and it became one of the most impregnable fortresses in England. William the Conqueror’s son King Henry I built it on top of a steep-sided 55m high hill as an expression of his authority and power. The 21m tall central keep and surrounding walls on the hill top dominated the landscape. It was one of England’s first stone castles; previous fortresses were built from wood and rammed earth.

It would have been a forbidding sight for the many armies that tried to capture it over its first 600 years. Attackers would have had to struggle up the steep grass under a hail of arrows, rocks and boiling water even before they reached the walls. You can still see the narrow slits in the walls through which archers fired and the holes known as murder holes through which the boiling water was poured.

While waiting for the wedding guests we had a drink of excellent local Ringwood ale at the village pub, Bankes Arms, named after Sir John Bankes, the attorney-general to Charles I, in 1635. Actually, it might have been better named after Sir John’s wife Lady Mary who, in his absence nine years later during the Civil War between the Royalist Cavaliers and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian Roundheads, bravely led the defence of the castle.

When the first Roundhead attack came she heroically held the castle for 13 weeks until the exhausted attackers withdrew. Throughout the winter of 1644 and 1645 the castle survived all manner of assaults. But in February 1646, Brave Dame Mary, as she became known, was betrayed by one of her own people and the castle was plundered and destroyed by the Parliamentarians.

Yet in 1660, following the failure of Cromwell’s son Richard to rule effectively, royal rule was re-established in what became known as the Restoration. King Charles II regained the Crown and the Bankes’ properties, including the ruined Castle, were returned to them. The castle and surrounding land remained with the Bankes family right up until the 1980s when their descendants gave the entire estate to the National Trust.

Handing over such historic and valuable property to the Trust is becoming increasingly common. Such places are very expensive to maintain, let alone operate, and in many instances families pay the Trust to take their properties because it’s the only trustworthy (literally) organisation that has the capacity and will to do so. That’s why we shouldn’t begrudge entry fees to visit them. It costs the equivalent of $8.50 for a single ticket and $20 for a family to visit Corfe Castle — and it’s worth it.

The entire countryside around the castle, which stands at the high point of the Purbeck Peninsula on the southern Dorset coast, is steeped in both natural and social history. Fossil hunters continue to find the remains of dinosaurs from the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods. Locals claim that on their peninsula, which they curiously call the Isle of Purbeck, even though it’s not an island but a promontory, nearly all periods of history are represented and that nowhere else in the UK is there such variety.

On, or rather under, Corfe Common on the southern edge of the village locals have found material evidence of a civilisation dating back 8000 years. There are also several Stone Age barrows, or burial mounds, close to the village on the common. Even more delightfully mysterious, an apparently genuine witch’s bottle dating back to medieval times was found under a drystone wall on the National Trust’s Purbeck estate.

Other supposedly magical artefacts have been found, including mummified cats buried within walls, though I was unable to discover quite who claimed the knowledge to be able to say the bottle was a witch’s or that a dead cat was magical. Perhaps they tried bouncing it.

The early inhabitants were followed by Celtic settlers, mostly of the Durotriges or High Kings tribe. They built hill forts and archaeologists have found evidence of an early wooden fort and habitation beneath and among the ruins at Corfe Castle. After the Romans invaded in AD43 they subdued the Durotriges but allowed them to continue occupying the land. The tribe hammered their spears into ploughshares and became excellent farmers.

Over several generations the tribe formed a close trading relationship with the Romans, supplying them with agricultural produce, pottery and copper. The local Roman governor built a large villa at Bucknowle just a kilometre south-west of where Corfe Castle was later built. 

Yet despite the ongoing peaceful relations, English author Thomas Hardy, who lived in Higher Bockhampton 25km north-west of Corfe Castle and knew it well, chronicled a legend about an entire Roman legion of 5000 men being wiped out in a battle close to the Castle. Late on Saturday evening in the village pubs locals are happy to regale tourists with stories of ghostly soldiers patrolling the peninsula.

But I’ll end on a happier note and return to Lottie and Tom’s wedding. It occurred on a perfect English summer’s day in May after a cold and wet month. Following the church service the couple led their guests up to the castle to explore the ruins and pose for photographs before returning to local hotel Morton’s House for the reception. Apparently the ruins are a popular backdrop for weddings.

Lottie wrote: “I’ll never forget walking to the church with dad, (my brother) Mike and my bridesmaids. And then up to the castle and back to the hotel. All the cars were beeping and tourists were taking photos, we must have made quite a picture — a quintessential English village with a naval wedding, all the men in full uniform and carrying their swords, though the only thing those were used for was cutting the cake of course! It was an enchanting weekend.”

Actually, doing almost anything in such surroundings enchants one’s thoughts. For one thing, after so many years as a battlefield, there was a gentle irony that the naval officers came in peace and love and their swords were sheathed.

As Tom and Lottie posed among the ruins it was easy to see the castle as much more than a pile of stone and rubble — certainly more than a pile of mashed potato. Although Corfe’s past has sometimes been bloody, it is and always has been steeped in romance, a constant reminder of its place in the history of England.

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