PUBLISHED: 11:03 09 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013
James Kingston explores Old London Town in the South's sunniest seaside resort
Stylish Seaside Shopping
Packed with excellent restaurants, cafés and lively pubs, Swanage also has lots of shops specifically for visitors seeking gifts to take back home. Specialist shops have ever-changing displays of fine watercolour and oil paintings, exclusive sculptures and stunningly original works of art.
Swanage's sandy beach slopes gently into the bay, which is sheltered between Peveril Down and Ballard Down. Closed to traffic during the summer, the Promenade is a safe playground for children, and here you'll find cafés and ice-cream kiosks galore. Brightly painted pedaloes and inflatables are protected from powered craft by a float-marked prohibition zone. Swanage is regularly Britain's officially sunniest town.
Steam through History
Dr Beeching's 'improvement' programme closed Swanage Branch Line on 3 January 1972. Seven years later, the Swanage Railway Society was formed. Having overcome local authorities' initial reservations, they worked tirelessly to re-open the line and, on Good Friday 1984 the first steam train reached nearby Herston. Earlier this year, the first direct train from London to Swanage heralded a new era for the Swanage Branch Line.
George Burt, nephew of John Mowlem, founder of the famous London building contractors, bought the Durlston estate in 1863, intending to build an idyllic development with houses, shops, a church, tennis courts, a tea-room and paved walks. However, his development plans stalled and it wasn't until he retired to Swanage in 1886 that he built Durlston Castle. This was finished in 1891, with a pair of educational stone plaques on the outside wall. One lists facts and figures about the British Empire, the other shows a map of Dorset. Below the Castle, Burt added the 40-ton Great Globe, where you'll find long-forgotten British Empire African states. The Grade II Listed Castle is currently anticipating a complete regeneration.
Durlston Country Park
Burt's Swanage estate was opened in 1975 by Dorset County Council and the Countryside Commission as Durlston Country Park. The Visitor Centre has exhibitions of Durlston's natural history, geology and 'Dolphin Watch'. Various themed guided and self-guided walks start from here. Anvil Point Lighthouse, opened in 1881, stands above the cliff-edge quarries known as Tilly Whim Caves
A bit of history
From the 17th century, Swanage was the major port for shipping Purbeck and Portland stone from privately owned local quarries. Later discoveries of dinosaur footprints elevated the area into a globally important geological site and, following Princess Victoria's overnight stay in 1833, Swanage suddenly became 'fashionable', with fun-seeking holidaymakers who arrived by steam-train in droves.
In the 1800s, lines of quarried stone, called 'bankers', filled the quayside by the Stone Pier waiting to be loaded onto sailing barges. The present Stone Pier was built as a promenade for Victoria Hotel by Morton Pitt MP, who first conceived the idea of turning Swanage into a 'watering-place'. It is now a popular crab-baiting spot and embarkation point for 'trips around the bay'.
At the end of Peveril Down, on Swanage's other flank, is Peveril Point. The jagged limestone ledges head straight out to sea in W-formation for 1.5 kilometres, causing a turbulent race where Swanage Bay and Durlston Bay meet. Above Peveril Ledges is a concrete Second World War 'bunker' and the site of the 1774 Peveril Point Battery, which held six huge cannons during the Napoleonic Wars.
Coastguard and Coast Watch
When national Coastguards Visual Stations were closed in 1979, Britain's fishermen and recreational sailors were left without shore watch until many closed stations were taken over by the entirely voluntary and self-supporting National Coastwatch Institution. Fully trained by the Marine and Coastguard Agency, volunteers at Peveril Point Coastwatch Station maintain daylight watches every day of the year, working closely with the MCA.
Wellington Clock Tower
A memorial to the Duke of Wellington, the ornate stone 'Wellington' Clock Tower was erected in 1854 at one end of London Bridge, but the clock itself was unsuccessful and the structure was demolished in 1866 by Mowlem's. George Burt shipped the whole edifice, except the clock face and mechanism, to Swanage and re-erected it at Rockleigh, between the pier and Peveril Point.
London in Swanage
Unique to Swanage are its architectural 'mementoes' of Old London Town. John Mowlem, founder of the London building contractors, was born in Swanage. When he retired, Swanage quarry owner George Burt took over Mowlem's and started bringing London contracts' leftovers to Swanage. Cast-iron bollards appeared everywhere, but most imposing are the 17th-century Mercers' Hall façade on Swanage Town Hall and the 'Wellington' clock tower.
Overlooking Swanage Bay is Ballard Down with a landslip shaped like Mister Tickle showing the chalk structure of this attractive headland. Popular for nature walks and mountain biking, there are superb views over Studland to Poole Harbour and Bournemouth on the other side. At its farthest Swanage end, the chalk stacks called Old Harry Rocks, after Poole pirate Harry Paye, are a photographer's delight.Things to do and see
Swanage Railway: 11-13 September. Grand Steam Gala and Vintage Transport Rally, a glorious celebration of steam with all engines in action, plus the Vintage Transport Rally at Harman's Cross. 01929 425800, www.swanagerailway.co.uk
Swanage Folk Festival: 11-13 September. Morris teams and Dance Sides around the town. The main festival venue and office is at Sandpit Field, on the seafront, opposite the clock tower. The Demon Barber Roadshow, winner of Best Live Act at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, are headlining the main concert on the Saturday at Swanage Middle School. www.swanagefolkfestival.co.uk
Paddle Steamer 'Waverley' returns to Swanage this September. Excursions include evening 'Show Boat' cruises from The Pier, long trips to the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, and shorter cruises to Lulworth Cove and Weymouth. www.waverleyexcursions.co.uk (see page 77 for more details)
Swanage Market, with farmers' stalls and bric-a-brac, is held every Tuesday 8am to 3pm in the Main Beach Car Park.
More details from Tourist Information Centre: 01929 422885 firstname.lastname@example.org
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