Corfe Castle and Knowle Hill

Starting at the base of Dorset’s most famous castle, wander through the ancient woodland and local nature reserves, once the setting of clay mines dating back to the Romans. Skim past the peak of Creech Barrow, before climbing Knowle Hill with far reaching views across the Isle of Purbeck. Follow the ridge to return to the castle, towering over the ruins with a birds eye view. Return by circling the tumbled towers and exploring the haunting grey limestone village.

Distance: 4 miles/6km
Time: 1.5 hours
Total climb: 450ft.

Max height: 490ft.
Min height: 60ft

Terrain: Track, path, and field.
Exertion: Medium, one big climb.
Start: National Trust Castle Car park (Postcode: BH20 5ED. Grid Reference: SY959824, What Three Words: listening.ample.skewing)

Map: OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck and South Dorset
How to get there: From Wareham travel south on the A351 for about 4 miles. The Castle appears ahead of you and as you approach the base, turn left into the car park. There is a cost if you are not a member. Alternatively there is a small layby, for a number of cars, on the road opposite the car park.

Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.

Refreshments: The National Trust Visitor Centre and also a number of places in Corfe village including The Bankes Arms and The Greyhound.

The name “Corfe” is derived from the Saxon word, ceorfan, meaning to cut or carve, referring to the gap in the Purbeck hills where Corfe Castle is situated. The village is constructed almost entirely from the local grey Purbeck limestone and comprises of two main streets, East Street and West Street, linked at their north end at the Square. The village and castle stand in a small a gap in the Purbeck Hills that is also utilised by the main road and the Swanage Railway. The civil parish of Corfe stretches across the width of the Isle of Purbeck, with coasts facing both the English Channel and Poole Harbour. It includes sections of both the low-lying sandy heathland, which lies to the north of the castle, and the rugged Jurassic Coast upland to the south.

The children’s author Enid Blyton spent time in the area, and some of her adventure stories like The Famous Five (Kirrin Island) featured castles that were said to be based on Corfe Castle. It was used as a shooting location for the 1957 film series ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ and the 1971 film ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’. Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan traced her ancestors to the village, once owning the Bankes Arms, in the 2019 BBC programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’.

From the National Trust car park, turn right on the main road and then cross over to meet a gate taking you into a field on your left. Head straight on up, towards the woodland, where you meet another gate. Ignore any diversions and continue straight ahead on through the wood. This is wonderful wood, tracing the steep base of West Hill, with gnarly branches and protruding roots you have to dodge, duck and jump. Remain on this path for almost a mile, until the trees fade away on your right. Turn right through the next gate and onto open fields. Head down the hill to meet with the woodland and turn left at the next track to enter Kilwood Nature Reserve.

Kilwood Reserve is home to a rich array of wildlife, enjoying the woodland and small areas of old hazel coppice. There are also scattered oak trees and unimproved meadows. The area was once a hive of activity for clay mining, dating all the way back to Roman times, and was at one time the main source of employment for the inhabitants of Corfe. The regenerated area also features a series of deep ponds, many of which you pass or cross over on this walk.

At a T-junction of paths, turn left, joining onto the Furzebrook walk. Follow the path through the wood to meet a road and turn left. Pass a small road on your right, tempting you with the offer of a break 300 or 350 yards away in East Creech, but instead continue walking straight ahead.

The next turning is marked with a memorial to the Creech Barrow Seven. Seven local men, not liable to sign up due their employment as clay miners, were used in the war effort in a different manner. Their deep knowledge of the area was seen as an asset and they were trained in demolition as well as guerrilla tactics and hidden in a base in the woods nearby. This was all in preparation for an invasion of German forces across our borders and consequent advancement, which would have placed these men behind enemy lines. An incredibly forward thinking plan by Winston Churchill.

Veer to the left, ignoring the track taking you back into Kilwood Nature Reserve and instead cut across the field to the wood at the bottom of the hill.

The last stile before the big climb!

Cross over the stile and begin the steep climb up Knowle Hill. Gradually as you approach the top, the trees thin out, hathland then dominates, so don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the views growing behind. You can also track your previous footsteps, back up the road and though the nature reserve.

Once at the top, you have another stile to climb, but then the heathland disappears and you are (almost) at the top. Continue straight ahead to meet a memorial stone, marking the peak on Knowle Hill, and the highest point of the walk.

Corfe Castle’s history is overshadowed by the castle, but it is important to remember that this hill also has a history.

Memorial stone at the top of Knowle Hill

Knowle Hill is a prominent chalk ridge overlooking Poole Harbour to the north and the hills of Kimmeridge to the south, beyond which is the sea. At the summit there are a number of barrows, suggesting that the area was occupied from as early as 6000 BC. There are also the faint remains of Iron Age cross-dykes. Evidence suggests that the Durotriges tribe, that dominated the area, co-existed with the Romans in a trading relationship and nearby Poole Harbour would have been a crucial location in this partnership. The hilltop enclosure covers an area of 3ha, and is defined by steep natural slopes to the north and south and cross dykes to the east and west. This cross dyke is likely to represent the most substantial set of earthworks built on the hilltop during the Iron Age period and it has fierce competition from Bindon Hill and Maiden Castle. Occupation debris including Iron Age pottery, animal bones, teeth, horns and antler and Kimmeridge shale bracelets have all been discovered. If you are unsure what you are looking for, naturally this hill top should be smooth, therefore anything bigger that a mole hill is a sign of some kind of ancient activity!

The undulating ground signs of earlier activity.

As you approach the memorial stone, to your right is a sight raised strip of ground which is the western flank of the Iron Age cross-dike. Walking away from this earthwork, continue to follow the ridge of the hill, veering slightly right toward a gate. Head on through, keeping the boundary fence on your left. Ignore the OS map at this section of the walk. Although there are no rights of way, there are permissive paths allowed by the National Trust.

Corfe Castle and Village

Follow the ridge all the way to the end, passing the trig point on your right. Corfe Castle comes into view below you, with the village beyond. No matter what the weather, this is an impressive site. The size and survival on this magnificent building is astonishing. Go on through the last gate at the spur of Knowle Hill and follow the path to the left. When it is appropriate, divert right to make your way down the hill, carefully, to meet the path at the bottom, and turn right. Follow it to another gate and go straight though, but before turning left through the next gate, glance up the hill to spy another set of earthworks called The Rings.

These earthworks are the remains of a siege castle constructed by King Stephen when he unsuccessfully besieged Corfe in 1139. King Stephen claimed the throne in 1135 from its rightful inheritor, the Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I. Most were loyal to Matilda and his reign was seen as weak. Stephen prepared for a long siege at Corfe and ordered his troops to construct a ‘counter-castle’, the remains of which include a ringwork and bailey. It must have been an annoying view to those in Corfe Castle.

The earthworks were later re-used as a 17th century Civil War battery, the war that ultimately led to Corfe’s demise. The position of the ringwork and bailey, commanding the castle, town and approach route, supports the view it would have been a prime location. The later battery is an example of how earlier monuments were later reused, in this case to perform a similar military purpose.

Take the left hand gate and follow the path down to a bridge, cross over the water and then the road to walk parallel to the river and under the shadow of the castle.

Corfe Castle’s history is deep. It saw the murder of St Edward, English king and martyr, in AD 978 in circumstances that are not altogether clear. He was hurriedly buried at Wareham, but was reburied with great ceremony at Shaftesbury Abbey early in 979.

The castle we see today was built by William the Conqueror, and dates to the 11th century, between 1066 and 1087, and is one of the classic images of a medieval castle. Corfe was one of the earliest castles in England to be built using stone when the majority were built with earth and timber. This suggests that it was of particularly high status. The castle also underwent major structural changes in the 12th and 13th centuries, for reasons of both defence and social status.

In 1572, Corfe Castle left the Crown’s control when Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton. Sir John Bankes bought the castle in 1635, and was the owner during the English Civil War. When the castle was besieged by Parliamentarian forces, (twice), Sir John Banks was away and it was down to his wife, Lady Mary Bankes (and her children), to defend her home. The first siege, in 1643, was unsuccessful, but by 1645 Corfe was one of the last remaining royalist strongholds in southern England and fell to a siege ending in an assault. Lady Mary Banks managing to escape safely with her family. In March that year Corfe Castle was slighted on Parliament’s orders. Villages scavenged the building material, and its stones were reused, evidence of this all around. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Bankes family regained their properties. Rather than rebuild or replace the ruined castle they chose to build a new house at Kingston Lacy on their other Dorset estate near Wimborne Minster. An effigy of Lady Mary Banks stands in Kingston Lacy with the key to Corfe Castle in her hand.

Follow the path into Corfe but keep the castle tight on your left. Walk past the entrance, ignoring any shouts to buy tickets, walk over the drawbridge and when you reach the portcullis, turn right through a gate and onto a small footpath. This is a great part of the walk. The castle towers above you, leaning at an often unforgiving angle, the main road is below you and on the opposite side of the hill is the Swanage steam railway. Follow the path, gently making your way down to the road. Cross straight over to arrive back at the National Trust car park.

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