Author Footsteps: Bill Bryson was Right about Dorset

This entry is part 13 of 25 in the series Literary London & Enid Blyton's Dorset

The Book

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Genre: Non-Fiction, Travelogue, Memoirs

Summary: Bill Bryson retraces a trip he took around England twenty years before when he first arrived in the country as a young man. After marrying a British girl and spending the next twenty years calling Britain home, Bryson takes one more loop around the island before returning to America with his family. Throughout his journey, his disapproval at the changes Britain has undergone in the intervening years is evident. Only Dorset seems to escape his criticism. The seaside and rolling hills in the Dorset region are still as captivating as ever.

Location: Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, England

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The Experience

We packed up, said goodby to our London flat and host, and caught our train from Waterloo station to Poole, in Dorset. During the two hour train ride, I had just enough time to catch up on two days worth of journaling, eat my sandwich, and occasionally look out the window. The view as we left London was much the same as any big city, the closer to the train tracks, the more run down the buildings appear. Eventually the scenery began to change to cow pastures and we all began to relax, noticing yet again how the crowds of London had kept us tense, moving quickly, and ever on our toes. As the train sped by fields and cows, I was happy to see the countryside looked as I had imagined. As we pulled into stations, however, the surrounding buildings looked decidedly corporate. Sadly, Bill Bryson was right when he noted in his travelogue, Notes from a Small Island, that even in the smaller cities corporate architecture was slowly replacing the beautiful stone buildings that give much of Britain the quaint, historic look it’s known for.

British Countryside
Rolling hills seen from train window.

When we arrived at Poole station I was a bit disappointed that it in no way looked as quaint as I had imagined. I was surprised to find that it is rather a big city, though by no means compared with London. I had envisioned a week in the countryside to include stone houses with thatched roofs and rolling hills. I hoped I hadn’t got this all wrong!

Our new Airbnb host, Angela, kindly offered to pick us up at the station and drive us the 45 minutes to her house in Swanage where we would stay for the week. On the way we drove through the towns of Wareham and Corfe. Leaving Poole behind, the car bumped along skinny, winding roads. As we passed  through Wareham the quintessentially European stone buildings I had been hoping for began to appear, but as we rounded a corner and entered Corfe, I fell in love! Up on the hill above us the Castle ruins stood grandly in the mid-day sun. The narrow, curving road took us through the stone building village at the foot of the castle. I could NOT wait to visit Corfe the next day!

Corfe Castle View
My first view of Corfe Castle!

Finally we reached Swanage, which although a bit larger than Corfe, still had a similar country-side feel with the added benefit of  of also being a seaside town. Arriving at #9 Russel Street (see the listing here), Angela offered us cups of tea and brochures of things to do in the area.

Swanage Airbnb
Our Swanage Airbnb – 2 bedrooms, a kitchenette, and a big back yard

It seemed there was so much to do that the three of us could have vastly different vacations! My mom wanted to attend all the organized hikes and evening nature lectures. Micah would have been perfectly happy spending his week exploring the town’s antique shops. Meanwhile, I wanted to spend my time exploring Corfe Castle, strolling along the path atop the white chalk cliffs, and finding out if Swanage was still just as Bryson had described.

Bryson dorset quote

After tea we were all able to agree we should spend the last two hours before the shops closed, getting to know Swanage. We hiked down the hill until we found shops and then casually strolled the street looking at all the sea side accoutrements in many of the shop windows. I was drawn into a small clothing boutique called Ocean Blue by a beautiful blue and white number in the window. I had to try it on! The dress had a liner and tulle at the bottom so it puffed out just right! It was a perfect party dress! Unfortunately, I had nothing I could wear it for so I couldn’t justify buying it.

Still drooling over the dress, we moved on to find dinner. We stopped at the Black Swan Inn, which claimed to be the oldest pub in Swanage. The chef was French and the owner’s dog, Pickles, seemed to run the place. Pickles, a small wiry-haired terrier, ran around the pub carrying a ball in his mouth and demanding pets from everyone. If pets were offered, he would immediately roll onto his back. As for the food, it was the best we had the entire trip (and it was my 3rd fish and chips of the trip too)! Our host, Angela, told us that some of her guests enjoy the Black Swan so much that they end up having dinner there 3 nights in a row. We didn’t hit that record, but we did eat there twice during the week.

Swanage Black Swan Inn
Swanage Black Swan Inn, our favorite restaurant

Swanage’s Victorian Pier

Being a sunny Sunday, Swanage was full of vacationing seaside goers. We first walked to the famous Victorian Pier. The area was busy with all sorts of watercrafts, jet skis, and divers preparing to head out. We discovered that the cost of strolling on the Pier itself was 80 pence. The fee pays for the upkeep of this piece of Victorian history. While I would not have minded paying, as we were only here this once, instead we more interested in finding brunch and personally, I wanted to visit the clothing boutiques in town – a girl’s got to have her priorities! …though exploration of anything historical usually outranks clothes in my book. I blame the hunger driving us back towards town.

Swanage Victorian Pier
Swanage’s Victorian Pier

Swanage Seaside

Walking along the beach in the opposite direction from the Pier we found Swanage to be exactly what you’d expect a seaside getaway to be like. There were shops filled with beach toys and accessories, numerous ice cream and fish and chip vendors, a carnival with rides for small children and a mini golf, paddle boats to rent, and vacationers all over! Interestingly, the beach didn’t look that clean and we felt it was a bit too windy and cold for a day at the beach, but that didn’t seem to be stopping these Brits! We found that half the shops in the downtown are not open on Sunday, so there wasn’t much else to do besides enjoy the beach. I decided I like Swanage best on the weekday evenings when the shops are open and the streets are quiet.

Swanage Beach
Swanage Beach with cliff walk to Old Harry rocks in the background.
Swanage Beach Sheds
Swanage beach storage rentals for vacationers.

Swanage has beach storage sheds to rent for summer vacationers. We saw a few families seated in lawn chairs in front of their open sheds, and inside was just a shelf with teas and a kettle. Tea time must not be forgotten, even at the beach! And isn’t is so much easier when your tea and chairs are already at the beach?

Dorset Coastal Path

After brunch we headed back uphill, leaving the beach and residential neighborhoods behind. Following the directions we’d been given we went in search of the section of Dorset’s coastal path that passes by Swanage. Soon we found ourselves on rolling green hills overlooking the English Channel and it was exactly as Bryson had described it. In fact, I couldn’t describe it better, so I’ll end here.

Swanage Hills
Panorama of Dorset rolling hills

Let’s Talk!

Have you visited the Dorset region of England? Have you visited a location described by an author to find it similar or vastly changed? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

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