You Can't Judge a Town by its Railway Station - Wareham & Corfe Castle
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
By Joanne Paul
If it's true that you can't judge a book by its cover, it's equally true that you can't judge a town by its railway station. British Rail - or any other line - seldom pick their station sites because of their aesthetic appeal.
The planners are more concerned with utility and zoning laws. Somehow this practical reasoning seems to place most stations on the outskirts of towns near auto wrecking yards or some other equally unphotogenic enterprise. The trains seldom go through the nicer parts of towns so it's easy for travellers to get the wrong impression if they rely on what they see through their compartment window.
It was because of this deceptive relationship between railway stations and their towns that I formed the wrong opinion of Wareham on my first two visits to Dorset. My only thought when passing through on my way to Dorchester from Waterloo Station was?"Oh hum, another plain, little, uninteresting town. When do we get to Dorchester?"
It wasn't until the last week of my third visit that I discovered how interesting this charming old town really is. This time I was staying in Dorset for six weeks so there was plenty of time to explore. With a little planning and stacks of Dorset guides, bus timetables and train schedules, I find I can get around very well on my own without renting a car. It isn't because it's so much cheaper, although that part is lovely, it's because I'm still too chicken to drive in England.
The day I discovered Wareham I was headed from Dorchester to Corfe Castle. Every tourist brochure has a picture of this romantic ruin, and even though I hated to act like an ordinary tourist, I was intrigued. I couldn't find a bus that went directly from Dorchester to Corfe but my travelling library of Dorset literature told me I could catch the 10:45 train from Dorchester's South Station and arrive in Wareham at 11:15. There would be a forty-five-minute wait at the station, then I could catch Wilts & Dorset's No. 143 bus on it's way to Swanage. One of its stops was Corfe Castle Village.
It was my intention to find a quiet spot at the station and read until the bus arrived. I didn't think there was much else to do; but then I noticed several other passengers from the train hurriedly following the footpath that lead across the tracks, through a wooden gate and up a slight incline. I couldn't see where it was leading but since I had forty-five minutes to spare, I decided to follow along.
I was walking behind a young mother pushing her little boy in a push-chair as we went through an underpass tunnel and emerged to see the Piddle River and pretty water meadows. I thought "Hmmm, not bad; this view is really quite lovely. Out came my trusty Minolta and by carefully manipulating the viewfinder I managed to crop out the unattractive garage with several old wrecks standing in front of it. I continued up the incline and noticed I was now following a track that was about to make a sharp turn. I couldn't see around the corner but decided I might as well continue.
It was while in this semi-bored condition that I got my first glimpse of "Wareham Gateway to Purbeck." What a pleasant surprise! The long main street of this little Saxon Town made a lovely first impression. As I walked on I saw many fascinating 18th and early 19th Century buildings. There was a three-storey manor house faced with ashlar blocks of Purbeck stone, the Black Bear Hotel with its life-sized statue of a black bear perched on top of its porch, the horrid but somehow still attractive Town Hall and the Red Lion Coaching Inn were just a few of the structures contributing to my interest. I passed the square where North, South, East, and West Streets intersect and was walking toward the library when I noticed a sign that said "Trinity Art Gallery" on what looked to be a very old church building.
As I was crossing the street to investigate, I happened to look back over my shoulder to the left. I did a double take worthy of Benny Hill! The view that confronted me had been hidden by the closely spaced buildings. It was the one of the Wareham Quay that graces so many Dorset Travel brochures and postcards, the one of the Old Granary, the South Bridge, and the colourfully rigged sailboats gliding on the River Frome. Wow!? It's one thing to travel miles expecting to see a spectacular sight, but when one takes you by surprise it can be amazing.
I enjoyed the view for a while then crossed over the bridge to walk along the inviting footpath running along the South bank of the Frome. I didn't realize it at the time but I was actually walking on the Isle of Purbeck. It's not really an island but it is surrounded on three sides by the English Channel and the fourth by the Frome River. The cows grazing in fields of wildflowers, the Purbeck Hills in the distance, and the sound of reed warblers coming from the wild celery growing along the side of the river bank made me forget I had a bus to catch.
I retraced my steps and returned to the quay to have lunch on the terrace of the Old Granary Restaurant where I could watch the sailboats on their way to Poole Harbor. After lunch I wandered back up South Street to the square and turned on to West Street when I saw a bookstore that needed investigating. I bought several Wareham booklets to add to my growing Dorset collection, had a chat with friendly gentleman behind the counter, and was leaving the when I saw it! That practical establishment that travelers long to find but seldom do - Laundromat! That did it. I vowed to return to Wareham when I could spend an unhurried week in this agreeable town.
There wasn't time this year but there was always next year! Now it was time to carry out my original plan to see Corfe Castle. Of course, by this time what with my lounging around the quay and inspecting fascinating old buildings, I had used up my forty-five minutes and was well into my second hour. That's what I find most appealing about travelling on my own. I don't have to consult a bored companion when I change my plans. I just do it!
The delay was no problem?I had noticed two Wilts & Dorset bus tops along North Street and there was another right next to the quay. I checked the posted schedule and learned that the No. 143 ran every hour. I could catch the 1400 (I do wish timetables would say 2:00 PM when that's what they mean) and be in Corfe Village at 2:12 PM. To my delight, the bus that arrived right on schedule was a Double Decker, and better yet, no one was sitting in my favourite seat on the upper deck right in back of the front window.
We travelled through Stoborough Heath on the A351, passing lanes with intriguing names like "Nutcrack" and "Melancholy," then I caught sight of the castle. I admit that when travelling alone I miss the chance of nudging my companion in the ribs and saying "Wow!?Look at that! This sight would have rated a black and blue nudge, I was duly impressed. The bus let me off on Corfe's East Street and I walked back through Corfe Common firing my Minolta with almost every step.
All of the literature about Corfe Castle Village calls it one of the most beautiful villages in England. It is, there's no denying it. It's two streets, East and West Street are lined with charming stone cottages with names like Penny Cottage and Cotters Pound. Not only the walls but even the roofs are made of Purbeck stone. There are several first-rate hotels and restaurants. The whole village seems to be on show for the for the visiting tourist. I didn't get that feeling in Wareham. It was much more fun to wander among townspeople going about their daily business than in Corfe where I bumped into several groups of American tourists.
Not that I didn't enjoy Corfe - I did. Especially with my tea and scones with jam and clotted cream at the National Trust Tearooms. The view of the castle from the garden there is magnificent. But on my ride back to Wareham Station, the scenes of Wareham that I saw that I saw from my upper deck window as we passed through enforced my convection to return for a longer stay. Two white swans were mingling picturesquely among the sailboats at the quay and the reflection of the beautiful Priory Hotel cottages were making pretty patterns in the waters of the Frome. The pleasant unaffected faces that passed before my window remained in my memory when I returned home to California.
I couldn't return to Dorset in 1983; practical matters like having to install a new roof on our San Fernando Valley home and replacing an ageing automobile stood in my way, but early in 1984 I began consulting my Dorset Library. In my favourite guide, Staying Off the Beaten Track by Elizabeth Gundry, I found the ideal place for my first stop. It was listed as "Old Granary, the quay Wareham." Fantastic!?I hadn't realized the charming riverside restaurant where I had enjoyed such a nice lunch also provided overnight accommodation.
I wasted no time in booking for the first week in June. When I arrived in England it was a simple matter to walk across the street from Heathrow's terminal three and catch a National Express coach which in a little less than three hours, took me to the bus station in back of the Dolphin Shopping Center in Poole. My eyes stood out on stalks when I saw the long rows of local buses waiting to take passengers to so many of the towns and villages I had been reading about. I could have hopped on one going to Wareham except that I was not in condition to do any hopping. Even though this was my third visit to Dorset, I still hadn't learned to leave my monster suitcase at home. But no problem?there were several taxis waiting, and within fifteen minutes I was greeted by Derek Stourton at the Old Granary. He showed me to my pretty, beamed bedroom with a window overlooking the river, the swans, and the colourful sailboats I remembered so well.
I like to think that travelling on my own without a rigid itinerary is the best way to travel. There is one drawback. When I stumble on a remarkably interesting or lovely place by accident, I'm not likely to know what to look for. I might pass up some incredibly fascinating feature without even knowing it's there. However, I've found the remedy for this flaw in an otherwise perfect mode of travel - I do some homework and return. Most travellers would rather continue on to some new unexplored territory, but I'm sure Thomas Hardy was right; It is better to know a little bit of the world remarkably well that to know a great part of the world remarkably little.
The first time I came to Wareham I was unaware that the "slight incline" I encountered after leaving the rail station was really a part of a great earthen wall built by the Saxons to fortify their village against Viking raids. No wonder I couldn't see the town from the station. It's surrounded on all sides except the south by these ancient walls that are at least ten centuries old. The Frome River runs on the South side. Waking on these grassy ramparts became my favourite after-dinner pastime. Some stretches are straight and level, others wander to the left and right, or up and down like a roller coaster. Billowing white cow parsley, one of my favourite wildflowers, borders both sides of much of the footpath, and at the north-east corner there is a seat on a vantage point looking across the marches to the Piddle River. Part of the West wall just north of Dorchester Road is named Bloody Bank because five participants of the Monmouth Uprising were drawn and quartered there. Much earlier it was the site where the hermit Peter de Pomfret was hanged after being dragged through Wareham's streets tied to a horse's tail.
I learned that when the foundations for the 19th century police stations were being excavated, many human bones were found. In 1753 thirty sculls were discovered face down in this area. They were thought to be Viking as Christians often buried heathens this way so as to have them facing hell. Further reading revealed Wareham and the whole of Purbeck has been well populated since prehistoric times. It was fun to read about the history of the town at night in my cozy room at the Old Granary and then check out my research the next day.
I investigated St. Martin's Church after learning that it dates from the 11th century. The sweat little docent in the church told me that it is likely the church was rebuilt by King Cnut after he destroyed it in 1015 while still a heathen Viking. He gained the English crown by election in 1016 after his conversion to Christianity and rebuilt many of the churches he had despoiled just a few years earlier. He consolidated his position by marrying the widow of Ethelred the Unready - a lady who obviously was not quite as unready as her late husband!
I admired the effigy of Lawrence of Arabia by Eric Kennington that occupies the north aisle -- am I the only one who thinks it looks like Peter O'Toole? The docent told me that her father remembers seeing Lawrence many times when he came into town from Clouds Hill, his home just outside Wareham, to have his pint at the local pubs. She recommended the Lawrence pictorial exhibit in the town museum on East Street so I made that my next stop. I found the collected memorabilia fascinating. It revealed much about this exceptional man.
I asked museum's docent if she knew which bus went to Clouds Hill. She was most apologetic when she said she didn't think there was a convenient one. I must have looked disappointed because she hurriedly said she would be off duty at 2:00 and would be glad to drive me over if I was really interested.
There?it happened again! Dorset people are always going out of their way to be helpful. I call it Dorset Magic. I do hope it's not because I seem helpless. I told her if she really meant it I would be delighted. True to her word she picked me up in front of the Old Granary at 2:00 and we had a lovely afternoon visiting Clouds Hill first, and then Lulworth Cove.
As every Dorset citizen knows, Lawrence was living quietly at Clouds Hill, his tiny Spartan cottage just outside Wareham, when he was involved in a fatal motorcycle accident just a few hundred yards from his cottage. Even today there is much speculation about the true cause of his death. Visiting his cottage that is lacking in what would pass for normal facilities, even in 1935, left an indelible impression.
I enjoyed every day of my week in Wareham. Some days were spent exploring in the immediate area, other days I would hop on the No. 163 and ride to the bus station in Poole and take my pick from the large selection of waiting vehicles. At the end of the week, I felt there was still much more to investigate. I hadn't learned the story behind the long rows of German headstones dated 1944 that were so well cared for in St. Mary's graveyard. I hadn't followed Andrew Bibby's recommended walk from the South Bridge to Red Cliff or had coffee in the Anglebury Coffee House. Obviously, I would have to return.
And return I did - in 1985, 1986, and 1987. I've managed the walk from the South Bridge to Red Cliff and I've had coffee in the Anglebury Coffee House?but I haven't discovered the story behind the rows of German graves. Guess I'll have to return again!
All photos courtesy of Joanne Paul
Address: Wareham, Jurassic Coast, Dorset, England
Attraction Type: Town
OS: SY923 873
Photo Credit: Photo couresy Joanne Paul
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NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
Arne, St Nicholas Church - 3.1 miles (Historic Church)
Arne RSPB Nature Reserve - 3.1 miles (Countryside)
Corfe Castle - 4 miles (Castle)
Corfe Castle, St Edward the Martyr Church - 4 miles (Historic Church)
Lulworth Castle - 5.4 miles (Historic House)
East Lulworth, St Andrew's Church - 5.4 miles (Historic Church)
Lulworth Heritage Centre - 5.5 miles (Museum)
Tank Museum - 5.9 miles (Museum)
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