They say that you know when it’s summer in England because the rain is warm. This pretty much sums up our summer break in Dorset, at least from a meteorological point of view. The evenings, however, were cold enough to merit a fire in the stove and the purchase of second-hand pullovers since none had been packed. However, such mild creature discomforts pale into insignificance beside the occasional highlights of our sojourn, one of which was the discovery of Swanage.
I had always assumed Swanage was in Wales, confusing it with Swansea, so the signposts to Swanage around Corfe Castle came as something of a surprise. We dropped in on this charming Victorian seaside resort after a brief “Rip-Off Britain” stopover at Studland Beach – £3.75 for a tiny bottle of weak beer in the café and colossal parking fees that made us feel, on returning to the car before the ticket had expired, like sitting in the car to enjoy the rest of our temporary lease on this five-star carpark.
What was remarkable in Swanage was that nothing was spoilt. The English are so good at spoiling things architecturally, that it is a small miracle that this place has been overlooked. Once a fishing port, then an export port for Purbeck marble, Swanage has been a seaside resort since the mid-19th century and has the usual avenues of stately B&Bs and Guest Houses, and a long frontage with clock-towered wooden bench-shelters, deckchair rentals and cafés. The narrow beach was well-frequented when we were there, though with only the most intrepid dipping their toes into the water, and the two amusement arcades were doing a roaring trade. We played the coin cascade machines – machines which, by some obscure law of quantum physics, never deliver the teetering cliff-edge of coins and interspersed five-pound notes that appear to be perpetually on the point of cascading.
One of our reasons for coming here had been to enjoy some fresh seafood – oysters, mussels, winkles, whelks and shrimp. Despite a sign strapped to a lamppost announcing a “Shellfish Festival” at a place called the New Inn, there was no address on the flyer and the pub in question proved impossible to find, as did another pub that was recommended for its fruits of the deep. There was one café on the front that served seafood but the prices suggested that the clientele was composed entirely of Russian billionaires.
We wandered past a cocktail bar that seemed to accommodate the entire population of 30-somethings in Swanage, and an old pub that literally had no customers whatsoever on a Sunday afternoon – despite the doors being wide open – perhaps something to do with the “bar staff wanted” sign in the window. We ended up in a little pub off the beaten track called the Red Lion which was remarkable for the cheapness of a round. In Rip-Off Britain where two pints and a half, with a couple of bags of cheese and onion crisps, can set you back nearly 20 quid, the Red Lion managed to charge half that – while also offering a folksinger of doubtful merit who had been consigned to a courtyard shelter in the rain. The pub had little signs where now-dead customers had once sat, one of which, after naming the deceased and providing his dates – one Lenny Deamer, who joined the celestial congregation in 2005 – read “Elvis Has Left the Building”. Was he an Elvis impersonator? Was his dog perhaps called Elvis?
The quest for shellfish was abandoned, as it nearly always is on the English coast these days. I can remember seafood stalls along English seafronts stocked with everything, or the days when seafood sellers would come to London riverside pubs with baskets of cockles and shrimp. In central France, where one couldn’t be further from the coast, seafood galore is available for the asking. So what happened in England? We nevertheless enjoyed splendid fresh fish n chips on the front – washed down with Piddle Premium Ale (its name, a self-fulfilling prophecy) – served by an incredibly emaciated young Bulgarian immigrant who bowed down and wrung his hands as he spoke, exactly like Uriah Heep in Dickens, perhaps in a fit of post-Brexit grovelling for extended residence rights.
A little research into Swanage didn’t teach me much, other than that there’s a crater on Mars named after it, Basil Fawlty was supposedly born there, it is called Knollsea in Thomas Hardy’s novels, and Paul Nash, the painter, enjoyed a spell here, composing an essay called “Swanage or Seaside Surrealism” in which he describes the town as having something “of a dream image where things are so often incongruous and slightly frightening in their relation to time or place.” One such incongruity is a monument on the seafront to King Alfred’s naval victory over the Danes in 877 AD. It consists of a stone column topped by three stone cannonballs, looking more like a pawnbroker’s sign. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but there weren’t any cannonballs – or cannons, or gunpowder – around in those distant days. However, for the sake of surrealism, let’s just say there were…
Swanage also has a little steam railway that actually runs, with one stationery carriage at the station where cream teas are served, coin-op telescopes and a touching sign over the Tourist Office that reads “Please Bring Lost Children Here”, which seems to me a splendid idea. We definitely loved Swanage!