Although the Dorset countryside needs no romanticisation, it seems to have crept into Blyton’s imagination and come out through her pen even more enchanting. Who would have thought that a landscape filled with castles, caves, lighthouses, sailing ships, and a history of smugglers could be improved upon?
Upon visiting Corfe Castle, it is immediately apparent that Corfe and Blyton’s Kirrin Castle are not one and the same. While Blyton had taken in castle ruins perched on a hill with jackdaws circling overhead, the castle of the Famous Five series sits alone on an island, accessible only by boat. And what’s more, the fictional castle ruins contain dark underground dungeons where the Five search for long-lost treasure. The real castle most decidedly does not have dungeons, at least not any visibly remaining, and only looks like an island from far away during very low cloud cover.
As much of Corfe Castle’s tourism numbers come from fans of Enid Blyton, it is well-known that the features of Dorset, at least as far as the castle is concerned, merely inspired the setting The Famous Five rather than act as the setting. After further exploration of the area while reading Andrew Norman’s biography of Blyton, I learned that so much more of the countryside appears in her books than I had anticipated! All you have to do is walk the Swanage portion of Dorset’s Coastal Path to see just a few of more features that inspired her imagination.
Anvil Point Lighthouse
Uphill from the Swanage residential neighborhoods is a tree-lined dirt path that ends at a kissing gate. Through the kissing gate we found ourselves on a landscape of rolling green grass hills. (In Britain, public hiking trails run through private cow pastures, so it’s not uncommon to just proceed through someone’s gate. Just make sure you lock it behind you!) Choosing what looked like a hint of a trial, or at least looked a little more trodden than elsewhere, we hoped we would connect with the Dorset Coastal Path. Soon we had a magnificent view of the Anvil Point lighthouse below us and the blue waters of the English Channel beyond. From our vantage point we could see the famous Dorset Coastal Path that runs along the cliff tops and made our way towards it.
I can’t think of a good mystery series that doesn’t have at least one story that features a lighthouse, and The Famous Five is no exception. In Five Go to Demon’s Rocks the children intend to spend part of their school vacation staying in a lighthouse. Walking by the closed gate of the Anvil Point Lighthouse, I found a sign explaining that the lighthouse cottages are available to let for holidays. Perhaps it was this lighthouse that inspired Blyton to put pen to page? At the very least, her writing inspired my long-held desire to stay in a lighthouse someday. If only I’d known about this before we made our travel arrangements! I put it in my notes for next time…
The Caves of Tilly Whim
Continuing along the cliff edge we soon came upon the next landmark our Airbnb host had insisted we not miss. This part of Dorset is full of old stone quarry caves, though most are unsafe to enter these days. The closest to the lighthouse are the caves of Tilly Whim (don’t you just love the name?!). The locked heavy iron gate and a sign warned us that these are no longer open to tourists, as they are very unsafe. When these quarries were in operation, stone would be hoisted down over the cliff sides to waiting ships below. Peering over the side, it was surprising any ships would attempt to come in so close because it looked as though they’d soon be dashed on the rocks. It wasn’t then a surprise to learn that these same cliffs and caves later, after the quarries shut down, provided perfect cover for smugglers because maneuvering a ship among these rocks is dangerous work.
When Blyton visited Dorset, the abandoned quarry caves here were still open for hikers to explore inside. And it’s no wonder that these caves with their history of smugglers found their way to her pages. In Five Go to Smuggler’s Top the children stop kidnappers and smugglers and of course find a secret underground passage.
A Pirate Ship?
After the lighthouse and the caves, it somehow didn’t even surprise me to see in the channel what appeared to be a sailing ship that looked very much like it might just be flying the Jolly Roger. Unfortunately it was too far away to tell for sure.
Finally, our last stop on the Coastal Path for the day was Durlston Castle -which is no castle at all, it just looks like one! This house, commissioned by a man who wished he lived in a castle, is today open to the public as a free art gallery and cafe. I highly encourage visiting this just because it’s so strange. Although it probably wasn’t around when Blyton visited the area, I feel certain it would have made it into her books if she’d seen it.
Walking through Durlston castle felt like being dropped into a real life version of the old computer game MYST. There was a bizarre skinny circular staircase that led to a second floor through a hole in the ceiling, and out back there was a walkway that led to a doorway in a square shaped stone structure and inside we found another circular staircase leading downward. However, instead of finding a dungeon at the bottom with a strange man writing in tomes, we found the art gallery. The photograph exhibition, by Purbeck Footprints, were all images of the Swanage area. I saw a large print of the colorful beach storage rentals we’d seen on Swanage beach, but my favorite was a photo of a pirate ship in front of Old Harry rocks. I wondered if it was the same boat I’d just seen.
And a dog…
As we’d been following the footsteps of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five all day, it just seems right that we ended the day with a dog by our dinner table. Although he’s no Timmy, Pickles the pub dog is just as excited to roll over for belly rubs.