This is the day I had been waiting for the whole trip. My favorite childhood book series is Enid Blyton’s Famous Five mysteries. The Five include two brothers, Julian and Dick, their sister Anne, their cousin Georgina (though she only answers to George), and Timmy, George’s dog. George lives with her parents in Kirrin Cottage and they own a small island off the mainland on which stand the ruins of Kirrin Castle. In each book the Five have a new mystery to solve, and generally at some point in the story they go to the Ginger Pop Shop to pick up picnic lunch food and ginger beers. Ever since I learned that Enid Blyton’s inspiration for Kirrin Castle is actually Corfe Castle, and in homage to the books, you can visit the real life Ginger Pop Shop in Corfe, I determined that one day I would go there. I could barely contain my excitement that this dream was finally becoming reality! I was also excited that we would be riding a refurbished steam engine train from Swanage to Corfe, arriving at the Castle in much the same way as did Enid Blyton.
Arriving in Swanage, we had discovered that the seaside was quite a bit cooler than London. In trying to decide what to wear for this outing it occurred to me that Enid Blyton not only used the local area as inspiration in her books, but she got the weather right too. The Famous Five often wore their anoraks, or jackets, so wearing a jacket to Corfe Castle seemed appropriate. It then occurred to me that the Gryffindor house uniform sweater I had purchased at the studio gift shop would be ideal. The tag said that the lambs wool sweater was made at the same Scottish mill that had made the actors and extras sweaters, so this was no cheap knock off. It is just as warm as the uniform sweaters British students wear. I figured, since the Famous Five kids were boarding school students, it’s likely they would have worn similar uniform sweaters (as the actors did in the TV shows based on the books). [Side note: I actually recommend the 1995 TV shows, the earlier ones not so much.] So, dressed like my favorite fictional characters, I was ready.
By the time we walked down to the train station, we had just enough time before the next train to Corfe to run to a nearby bakery for breakfast sandwiches and a delicious apple crumble pastry (which we all enjoyed so much we went back for more at least two more times during the week!). Back at the station, we then had some time to browse the art prints and second hand goods being sold on the railway platform. I found a print of the steam engine in front of Corfe Castle that I adored.
When the train pulled into the station we were delighted to find that the train cars had seats grouped around tables so we were easily able to eat our sandwiches during the 20 minute ride to Corfe.
The Ginger Pop Shop
I was brimming with excitement upon stepping onto the train platform at Corfe. I was finally here! We followed the crowd of tourists away from the railway station and just at the end of the block found ourselves at the town center, marked by a stone monument topped by a cross. I stopped to take in the view of streets lined with low stone buildings and then I spotted the Post Office sign. I had read that the Ginger Pop Shop shared the same entrance as the Post Office, and that the building was made of stones originally part of the Castle walls. Letting out an excited, “Oh, there it is!” I made a bee line for the shop! Expecting a shop with ginger beer, picnic fixings, and Enid Blyton books, I was a little taken aback by how tiny the shop was. One wall had Enid Blyton books. (I actually had no idea she wrote so many!) The rest of the shop had trinkets and memorabilia for World War II. I consulted my list of Famous Five titles that I already own and I picked two I did not have yet. I would have liked to get one copy of each of her books, but my suitcase wasn’t that big! Outside the store was a chair inscribed with the words “The Wishing Chair.” I saw the book inside the shop. Glancing through, it appears the Wishing Chair is a series of adventures. I added it to my to-read list. The shop was staffed by one man sitting in the corner behind the desk and he seemed pretty bored. I had half expected a matronly woman in homage to Enid Blyton.
Stepping out of the shop, I saw the entrance to Corfe Castle just across the street. I had been too distracted to notice before. Making our way toward the entrance, we poked around the other small shops on our way. At the National Trust gift shop I found a small book titled Enid Blyton and her Enchantment with Dorset, which I then read hurriedly before leaving Dorset so as not to miss anything interesting related to Blyton. I now have an even greater respect for this amazing author and the history of the Dorset area. We also couldn’t pass up a shop with local Dorset ice cream. (FYI, Dorset honey comb ice cream is amazing!) With this delicious treat in hand, we passed the castle guards, bought our tickets and walked through a stone archway.
Inside the castle’s outer wall, immediately to our right were historical re-enactors and their tents. Before us was a tiered green slope of lawn and at the top of the hill the castle ruins rose from the hilltop and stood like stone monuments to the past. I felt that the dark history these monuments represent contrasted with the beauty of the blue sky and hot summer sun, yet in the context of simple castle ruins that inspired Blyton’s books, I could not imagine a more perfect place! We followed a stone walkway that led up and through the castle ruins. It was hard to imagine this infamous prison castle as it was when the walls were complete. Since my aim was to visit the inspiration for the Famous Five’s Kirrin Castle, a castle already in ruins, I pushed visions of the dark, looming castle walls out of my head. This was one castle who’s history I was only too happy to leave in the past and not imagine in its heyday.
We made our way down to the front lawn to find a spot on one of the tiers to watch the historical re-enactors demonstrate medieval battle techniques. They were very funny and entertaining. The re-enactors are all volunteers that show up on the weekends to do demonstrations, so it’s worth visiting on a weekend because there’s more going on. I was glad we were able to be there on a Saturday. From my seat on the lawn I could see the steam engine puff by on the rail tracks and birds swooping down over the warrior demonstrations. With the sun warming me, I was enjoying every minute.
These days the castle is crawling with tourists. The book about Enid Blyton I found at the gift shop begins with a letter Blyton wrote in which she describes her first visit to Corfe Castle in 1931. She wrote that it seemed lonely and forgotten, but then she noticed Jackdaws (birds) living in every nook and rabbits popping out of holes. With so many tourists, my chance of seeing skittish wildlife was impossible, but perhaps the birds swooping over the grounds were Jackdaws, similar to those Blyton saw. How I wished I could sit quietly in the castle ruins and watch wildlife appear. I wished we could have had the place to ourselves like the kids in the Famous Five. Despite the crowd, however, the castle was wonderful! I wish I could spend all my free time at ruins like these! I would just sit in a nook of the rocks with a book and be completely happy!
After the demonstration we headed back up the hill to continue exploring the ruins. We walked up the stone path following a wedding party that had come from the church in the center of the town to take their photographs. The groom and his men wore Royal Navy uniforms, complete with swords. We heard the church bells ringing for a half hour at a time throughout the afternoon. It seemed they lined up weddings in Corfe on the weekends.
When we had our fill of the ruins, and we had watched the re-enactors a second time (this time fighting and losing against small children from the crowd) we walked back into the town. We strolled the sidewalk away from the center of town, stopping in cute shops and admiring all the “cottage” names on each of the doorways. Corfe looked like a movie set, where the building fronts are just facades and the doorways are fake. It seemed too cute of a place to be real. I made a mental note to give my own house a cottage name when I returned home. If I were to return to the area I think I’d look into renting one of these small stone cottages for a week.
We walked until we found the cemetery we’d seen from the highest point of the castle and then turned around and found an alley that took us to a playground with workout-like equipment. We continued our walk, and on the suggestion of a local walking her dog, ended up having a 3pm lunch at The Grayhound, a pub/cafe. Since the day was nice we decided to sit outside at a table in the shadow of the castle, or it would have been if the castle walls were complete.
“The old castle isn’t a bit lonely or forgotten! It likes to dream by itself in the sun, and know that the jackdaws and rabbits love to be around it…”
-Enid Blyton, Teacher’s World, 20 May, 1931.
After our late lunch, we felt like we’d exhausted all there was to explore in Corfe so we headed back to the train station. While waiting for the steam engine we chatted with a kindly Porter. We learned that all the Swanage Railway staff from the ticket takers to the station porters to the conductor were all volunteers. At home the locals all suffer through tourist season and out of town companies show up for the season and disappear during the winter. I was amazed at how welcoming the locals were to tourists in Dorset.
The steam engine had one Pullman Observation car at the end of the train and a sign on the door read “Not for Public Entrance” or something similar. The entire car was empty when the train pulled into the station, so we inquired of our new Porter friend how we could ride in the observation car for our return trip. To our surprise, the Pullman Observation car was considered 1st class, and it was no more than 1 pound extra than our ticket! So for an extra 3 pounds total, the three of us elected to ride 1st class for our return journey to Swanage. The Observation car had a bar at the back of the car, though this was sadly lacking in drinks and a barman. The rest of the car was made up of comfortable red couches and lounge seats. Amazingly, we had the entire car to ourselves for the whole ride! As the train pulled out of the Corfe railway station I took a last look up the hill at the castle. Thanks to Enid Blyton, I had had a fantastic day!