Wander through the landscape of Corfe, under the shadow of the famous Castle. Explore the village to find the hiding places of a murdered King and elusive treasure. Cut across medieval farming land before venturing onto the common, littered with ancient Bronze Age Barrows. Climb the hill to the little village of Kingston with a Lord caught dead to rights and the cathedral he built to apologise! Discover Blashenwell Farm complete with its pond and water wheel, all with views back to the crumbling castle. Walk along a prehistoric road that once linked a number of lost settlements, including one of the biggest Mesolithic sites in the country as well as a Roman villa, but has since been trumped by modern day routes. Return by following the river past earthworks of fishponds and fighters, tracing the base of the castle.
Distance: 5 miles/8km
Duration: 3 hours
Max Height: 475ft.
Min Height: 60ftft.
Total climb: 450ft.
Terrain: Tracks, paths, fields and roads. West Street, through Corfe Common, is easily accessible for all.
Map: Explorer OL15 Purbeck and South Dorset
Start Point: Corfe Castle National Trust Car park. (Postcode: BH20 5DR, Grid Reference: SY959824, What Three Words: scarred.fidgeted.deadline).
How to Get There: From Wareham, travel south on the A351. The National Trust car Park is clearly signposted on the left hand side of the road, just below the castle.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Toilets: In the National Trust Car Park and near the entrance to the Castle.
The little village of Corfe is set in a small valley as it cuts through the high chalk ridge of the Purbeck Hills. Ancient earthworks, which include Bronze Age burial mounds and Iron Age field systems, scatter the peaks but the landscape is dominated by the Norman Corfe Castle. The name is older than the castle, dating to the Saxon period and translates to the Saxon word ‘ceorfan’ meaning to carve, referring to the stream cutting though the gap between West Hill and East Hill.
From the National Trust car park, cross straight over the road and turn left, heading for the footpath at the base of the castle’s hill. Follow the trodden path as it runs alongside the road and railway to the left and the defensive slopes rising steeply to the right. As you rise, in the valley sits Boar Mill. The building seen today dates to the 18th century but it replaced a much older building with evidence of its activity recording as far back as 1510. The mill produced mainly animal food until, in 1914, it was turned into a bakery. Today it is a private home.
The castle, which towers precariously above, dates back to the 10th century and was built by William the Conqueror. It was one of the first castles to be built out of stone instead of timber. It left the ownership of the Crown in 1572 when Queen Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton. In 1635 it was sold to the Bankes family who also owned Kingston Lacy. However, it was only eight years later when the Bankes experienced their first siege by Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarian army, but the attack was unsuccessful. It took another two years before they broke through the defences, helped by a treacherous maid. Lady Charlotte Bankes was only in the company of her children at the time and bravely fought the invasion but to no avail. Once defeated, Cromwell’s army slighted the castle to demonstrate their power and diffuse any further uprising. Today it is owned by the National Trust after the entire Bankes estate was bequeathed to the charity in 1981 by the final member of the family, Henry John ‘Ralph’ Bankes (1902-1981). It was the most generous gift in the National Trust’s history.
Leave the path at the entrance to the castle and turn left. Walk over the high bridge that crosses the old moat to enter the village square. The castle was one of King John’s favourites, spending more time here than anywhere else and often improving and enlarging it. The village grew around the square providing the labour and materials for King John’s building work. In the centre of the square stands the medieval cross and village pump all placed above a deep well. It was here, at the entrance to the castle, where King Edward was killed in 978AD, under mysterious circumstances (most probably by his stepmother who wanted her son to be king). After the dastardly deed was complete it is rumoured that the body was hidden in this well. He was later taken to Wareham before a procession took the body to Shaftesbury Abbey, where he was considered a saint. Today the route they travelled across Dorset is a long distance footpath called St Edwards Way (map in progress!).
The landscape around the castle became valuable once again during the 18th century thanks to its clay and stone. The clay was used for Josiah Wedgewood’s famous delicate pottery and the stone was used for fonts in cathedrals all over the country including Westminster and Salisbury.
The village is almost entirely constructed from local Purbeck limestone and disappears down two streets simply named East and West Street. Where they meet sits the church and the square. To the east is the old railway and station now operated as a steam heritage railway and terminates by the sea in Swanage.
Turn left to the 17th century Greyhound pub that started life as two 17th century cottages. It recently appeared on the BBC television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘ when researching the Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan family’s history. It was revealed that her ancestors were once landlords of the pub. Its entrance way protrudes onto the pavement with the date 1733 engraved into the stone.
Opposite stands the church, raised slightly above the rest of the village. Follow the path that takes you between the shops and into the churchyard. The church of St Edward King & Martyr dates back to the 13th century but was renovated in 1860. The tower is the oldest surviving part of the church having been built in the 14th century and in the east window is a stained glass window erected in memory of Lady Charlotte Bankes. In the corner of the churchyard are two doorways, one that led to the mayors robing room the other to the council chambers.
Facing the church take the path to the left to join onto East Street. Turn right, keeping to the footpath and minding out for both traffic and people as it can get busy. Shortly, on the opposite side of the road, Morton’s House comes into view, slightly set back from the road. Other than the castle it is one of the most notable buildings in the village. It was built in 1590 to an E shaped plan to honour the recently crowned Queen Elizabeth I. The name Morton came from John Morton who bought the house in 1723. In the 19th century it was split into three separate dwellings but in the early 21st century it was converted back into a single dwelling with the interior entirely remodelled. Today it is a 5 star hotel.
Continue down the road for a further 20 metres or so then turn right down a footpath signposted for West Street. The 16th century cottage on the corner was converted into a blacksmiths during the 19th century and today is back to being a little cottage, but with a slightly altered exterior thanks to being adapted to cater for horses and fire. As you walk down the path, on the left is the old congregational chapel which was built much later then the surrounding buildings in 1835.
Once out in the field, turn left making your way through the bare centre of the village. During the Medieval period the land here was split into a number of different plots providing each home with their own section of land to tend. The old boundaries are still marked in places with stones, some engraved with the owner’s initials. Today the area is known as The Middle Hawes, with the West Hawes sitting on the other side of the village next to the River Wicken.
Keep following the path, slightly veering to the left, to the corner and through a gate in a wooded boundary. Cut alongside a narrow field and then through a kissing gate made of stone. Head straight across the green field, still behind the houses, each with their own access to the green, and up to a stile in the hedge. Turn left and follow the narrow path out onto Halves Cottages. Cross straight over the road and take the footpath that disappears off to the right. Follow the fenced route out onto Corfe Common and straight up the hill.
Corfe Common is Dorset’s largest area of common land, criss-crossed by a number of rights of way including some ancient Holloways. Along its ridge sit eight Bronze Age Round barrows, preserved thanks to the lack of agricultural activity in the area. It’s an important place for acid-loving flowers and grasses and the gorse was once used as a fuel for bread ovens.
Continue to climb up the hill to the Barrow at the peak. If not bathed in cloud, Kingston sits on the hilltop ahead with the tower of St James peaking above the tree tops. Behind the views look back over the village of Corfe while the Castle fills the gap between the hills. Head back down the other side, following any route you feel comfortable with, aiming for just above the bottom left hand corner to meet the B3069.
Turn right to climb up the hill, being wary of traffic. After about 500 metres, turn right through a farm gate and bear left to the corner. To the right the broken towers of Corfe slowly rise from behind the Common. Climb the stile, cross a track and climb a second stile to be facing West Lynch Farm. Turn left to head up the hill to the next stile in the wooded boundary. Continue the final bit of the climb straight over the field, with Lynch Lodge hiding in the trees to the left.
Between the years 1740 to 1770, Encombe was rebuilt, redesigned and landscaped by John Pitt (cousin of the Prime Minister William Pitt). The house is set deep in a natural bowl complete with a lake and water works. This led to it gaining the nickname of the Golden Bowl due to its fertility aided by the sheltered and protected location. Pitt developed a number of circuit carriage rides to take advantage of his designs that included the lake, a grotto and a cascade on the coast as well as the views, both out to sea and inland to the castle. Despite his son, William Morton Pitt maintaining his design and after a few exchanged in hands, it was in 1854, when the third Lord Eldon (John Scott) made the next major alterations. Scott moved the main entrance from the south to the north which in turn changed the pattern of the carriage drives, sinking the majority of routes back into the surrounding woodland. In 1864 Scott built Lynch Lodge at the main entrance to Encombe, its stone gate pillars added in the 19th century. The entrance drive, flanked by spindly trees, cuts through a plantation before curving to the right and crossing the Kingston Road before dropping down into the Golden Bowl and reaching Encombe House.
Join onto this drive and turn right then take the next left onto The Lane at the back of Kingston. Follow it past the Post Office and around to the right to reach West Street, The Scott Arms sitting on the corner. The pub dates from 1787 and was originally known as the ‘New Inn’. Its name was changed to the Eldon Arms in the early 19th century and after the Second World War the name was changed to The Scott Arms. Within the pub garden is the gravestone of Michael Henchard, it had been used as a prop during the filming of the 1978 TV series of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ and has remained here since.
Kingston, sitting on the high chalk ridge, was a wealthy little village in the 12th and 13th centuries thanks to the extraction of Purbeck marble. It was an incredibly important resource being strong, durable and decorative. It is thought that some of the quarries date back to the Roman period but by the early medieval period it was in demand all over the country and was used in all but three English Cathedrals.
Turn right on the road, past the village pump to the church of St James, built out of the same stone that made the village rich. The building replaced a small, private chapel that was used by the First Earl of Eldon (also John Scott), who is now buried in the churchyard. It was completed in 1880, as part of the many other alterations the third Earl was making, and it remained private. The church was extravagantly designed in a Gothic style with the church tower built wide enough to fit 8 bells, way more than necessary for the small village. Two more bells were added in the year 2000. Its presence, towering over the two valleys either side of the ridge, led it to become known as Purbeck’s Cathedral. The official reason for the church’s elaborate and expensive design was as a memorial to the first Lord Eldon. However, a village rumour was that Lord Eldon had been caught with the vicar’s wife, naked but for a hat, by the vicar himself. So, Lord Eldon built himself a bigger and better church almost as a penance and a way to avoid the village vicar. When the Earl died in 1926, Encombe passed to his younger son, Sir Ernest Scott, who in turn left it to his nephew, Col Harold Scott, in 1953. The estate was sold in 2002, and remains in private ownership.
The village church of St James was just to the east and continued to be used until the new St James church was given to the village in 1921. The old church became the village hall for many years until it was sold and is now a private residence.
From the church take the little path that runs along its northern side and down to the road. Cross straight over the dead end lane that leads nowhere but Swyre, and into the trees. Turn right after the little car park and down the muddy path to meet back up with Encombe’s drive. Turn right then left, through the trees and out into an open field, with Corfe Castle dominating the scene ahead. Walk straight down the hill aiming for the left hand side of the trees to a stile. Keep following the edge of the trees to join a track and bend around to the left into Blashenwell Farm.
Blashenwell Farm was built late in the 18th century with the nearby barn containing a date stone inscribed 1760. Next to the barn is a 19th century iron water wheel in a brick pit which was fed by a small leat running under the farm yard from the pond above. To the west are a number of earthworks suggesting the settlement was much larger. The name might be derived from a word meaning blessing or the Norse ‘Blasvin’ meaning withered meadow. A blessed well seems more appealing.
Turn right in the farm yard following the small lane back to Corfe, aiming straight for the castle. In the large field to the left, remains of Mesolithic Midden (rubbish dump) have been found suggesting this landscape was being utilised long before the Romans arrived. The site, believed to be a Mesolithic settlement, is the largest in southern England to date. Analysis revealed a marshy ground where the vegetation had been cleared, this activity caused by humans. Nearby are a number of other prehistoric sites including late Neolithic Rempstone stone circle. The stone house on the slopes above is Bucknowle Farm where, in its surrounding gardens, a Roman villa was discovered. Two others have been found in nearby East Creech and Brenscombe.
Turn right when the lane splits and follow the old part of West Street deep into Corfe Common. This old road would have once been much more active, linking Corfe to the settlements of East and West Orchard. Weave with it for just under half a mile over the peak and into a little Holloway before entering back into Corfe.
Make your way along West Street, between 18th century slate roofed and thatched stone cottages with some more modern developments squeezed in-between. When the road bends past a little well, built into the wall on the right and renovated to commemorate the wedding of the now King Charles to his first wife, Lady Diana. There are a number of wells in the village and within the castle’s outer baileys. Legend claims that Lady Bankes hid the jewels of King John down one of them to prevent them getting into the hands of Cromwell’s army. They have never been found!
Follow the road around the bend and just after passing the church sits the old Town Hall. The building dates to 1774 and housed the council chambers on the first floor (level with the churchyard) and the lock ups below (now the town museum). It claims to be the smallest Town Hall in England. It neighbours the old Town House, which housed the Mayors robing room, the room’s only access was through the churchyard, having no other connection through the building. Its unique bay window gazes down upon all the activity of the square.
Once back in the square, cross straight over aiming for the castle gates but turn left just before the bridge. Follow the path to meet the River Wicken and the medieval fishpond earthworks on the other side of the valley. Further up the hill are the earthworks known as the Rings. These 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 he 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. 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 position. On the right the slopes rise steeply to the famous castle, its chunky towers, turrets and walls scatter the hill, magically defying gravity.
Cross over the road and river to pass the site of the old West Mill, now just crumbling walls and a single arch. Climb up the path and turn right, following the river downstream all the way to the main road. On meeting the road cross straight over to return to the National Trust car park and your vehicle.