Whenever someone sets off on a magical journey they usually hail from a pretty, modest little village where everyone knows each other and nothing ever changes. So that, on their victorious return from slaying the dragon or saving the world, they find everything as it was and can go back to living their lives, ever richer and wiser for the experience but happy in the comfort of normality. The small town of Swanage is exactly like that.
In a previous post I mentioned that I didn’t go abroad until I was 21, so for at least 19 of those years Swanage was where my family went to relax, reminisce and ruminate. It sits unassumingly in a sheltered bay opposite the Isle of Wight, which often melts through the horizon on clear days, and is immediately identifiable by the green and grey loaf of cliff running along the edge of the bay and out into the water. The pier opposite is the typical dark wood on stilts affair, but by sponsoring a plank you can commemorate holidays or loved ones with a brass plaque, just as we did for my maternal grandfather and late uncle who had roots here.
For me, few scents evoke “holiday” more than the hot, sour but somehow furry smell of seaside chips and vinegar, which we would baby in thick newspaper while walking along the beach at night. While the sand spread between our toes we could hear the muffled jangling and bubbling of the seafront arcade over the sound of the hushing waves, its insistent zingy colours shattered in their reflection on the water. On cloudier nights, a pocket of sky would flicker from black to grey and then back again as the hidden lighthouse did its rounds, while the tiny but stern red eyes of the moored boats glared at you out of the dark.
Since we always visited out of season we tended to miss the crowds and catch more of the wildlife. Of course, if seeing wildlife was on the official agenda it never happened; a trip to Brownsea Island, famous for its last stand of red squirrels, yielded not one rusty critter, only endless parades of dozy peacocks. But one chilled and sunny morning before we left for home, my sister and I found tiny hermit crabs tumbling in the sands as the waves rushed backwards into the sea, and more than once we saw peregrine falcons, both fluffy youngsters and boomerang-shaped adults, up by the cliffs at Durlston.
Durlston Country Park is a heathy cliff trail of sheer drops, gorse, indifferent deer and precarious views, with a castle serving decadent cream teas overlooking the sea. I was privileged enough to watch the sunrise bloom between an alcove of trees halfway up the cliffside, and to find an unusually tame rabbit grazing beside the concrete globe one morning.
Unfortunately, I never quite managed to glimpse the marine life on offer, and spent many a day yearning after bubble trails only to discover they were made by boats.
Over towards Poole you found Shell Bay, a bright and duney beach with green whiskers of plasticky grass and purple heathlands. Two memories stand out from here, perhaps my favourite place in the area; splashing in sunny shallows while a cool rain pelted down on me, and meeting my first flasher in the form of an old man wearing orange shorts. At least momentarily.
Another unexpected sight was the Blue Pool, a small copper-infused lake of turquoise green surrounded by sound-swallowing pine forest. The sandstone, evergreens and blue water brought to mind staged postcards of the Canadian wilderness, only this one could be traversed in an hour with more cream teas on tap.
Once or twice you would hear or see deer fading through the trees, but if left wanting for wildlife we would pay a visit to Putlake Adventure Farm, which soon became a mainstay of our trip. Here I discovered the awesome animal that is the pygmy goat and was often buried under a goat pile-up, especially before feeding time.
My family weren’t quite as eager for medieval history, but nonetheless we would drop by Corfe Castle, sometimes via the steam railway, to visit the exploded ruins teetering on the hill.
It looked like it was still falling apart in slow motion, but at the same time didn’t want to make too much of itself, as evidenced by the nonchalant shops and cafés bustling about in its shadow.
This is only a sample of the Swanage area, but for a young girl with an active imagination, these sights were more than enough for a holiday, even twenty years’ worth. Since this place seems impervious to change and time, I hope it continues to provide a refuge from doomsday and dragons for years to come.