A party of schoolchildren shrieked with excitement, clambering up the grassy slope to Corfe Castle, whereupon they were led towards a darkened doorway in the old gatehouse and into a tower shrouded from light.
“Imagine you are a seven year old archer five hundred years ago,” yelled the teacher, “What would it have been like?”
The very essence of storytelling, mystery and intrigue is in the walls and ramparts of this ruined hilltop fortress and is what brings history to life and lets the imagination run riot.
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Corfe Castle today is as it has been for centuries, ruined and brooding on a hilltop, dating from the Norman Conquest in 1066, marking the way for smugglers working their way across the Purbeck Hills in the eighteenth century and later for thousands of holiday makers on their way to the seaside just a few miles away.
In the 1940s Enid Blyton visited the area with her children and was so inspired by the idyllic scenery and dark majestic towers of Corfe that the castle took on a new identity as Kirrin Castle in the Famous Five series of books.
Several other places on Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck found their way into the novels which became bestsellers among children for many years. This is South West England at its very best with some of the finest beaches, countryside and historic landmarks in Europe.
The Famous Five Locations
Five on a Treasure Island was published in 1942 and was the first novel in the Famous Five Series. It introduces the four children, Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog, who spend school holidays together and get involved in several mysteries and solve crimes.
Julian, Dick and Anne stay at the home of their Uncle Quentin, a scientist, Aunt Fanny and their daughter George, a tomboy. Five on a Treasure Island refers to a dark fortress on a rocky hill and it is believed Enid Blyton used Corfe as her inspiration for Kirrin Island and Kirrin Castle.
The train journey from Wareham to Swanage is alluded to in Five Go Adventuring Again as the castle sweeps into view on the journey to the coast and at the time the train would have been powered by steam. Today, thanks to a restoration project visitors can relive the steam railway experience and what it must have been like for the Blyton family arriving at Corfe, or Kirrin Station.
For Enid Blyton the seaside town of Swanage was where she liked to visit and write, and take picnics on the sandy beach with her family.
She is known to have stayed at the Grosvenor Hotel and took delight in wandering the narrow streets of the town. Some of the people in the town even ended up as Blyton characters including the local policeman who was cheekily transformed into PC Plod in the Noddy books, another of her creations.
The area around Purbeck is peppered with tunnels and caves, many linking to cottages which again fuelled Blyton’s imagination as she wrote her story Five Go to Smuggler’s Top. During the eighteenth century smuggling was rife in the area and kegs of brandy and bales of lace found their way through the dark nights into tunnels and hills via a network of local people connected to the trade.
Characters of local legend found themselves portrayed in the Famous Five novels as part of the mystery and intrigue created to delight and enthral hundreds of avid young readers.
Just two miles west of Corfe Castle is the Blue Pool at Furzebrook which featured in Five Go Off in a Caravan. The pool is described as “a wonderful dark blue,” which is due to the old clay deposits in the area and in fact transforms from greens to turquoise depending on the light.
This nature reserve and “the enormous blue lake that glittered in the August sunshine,” remains popular with visitors to the area even today. The area around the Blue Pool was also referred to in Five go to Mystery Moor as having travellers living nearby and this was the case at that time.
Whispering Island and Rubadub Cove
Brownsea Island at the entrance to Poole Harbour in Dorset was originally built by Henry VIII as a coastal defence but is now a delightful nature reserve where many families come to visit and explore. It is also associated with Lord Baden Powell who founded the scouting movement and a center for youthful exploration.
For Enid Blyton it became Whispering Island and a place with many secrets and was immortalized in Five Have a Mystery to Solve. It is, however, unlikely that Enid Blyton ever visited the island because during the 1940s it had been commandeered by the military for wartime purposes and did indeed give an air of secrecy.
The Rubadub Mystery is set in a secret cove involving smugglers and a blow hole in the cliffs. This is beautiful Lulworth Cove, as unchanged today as it would have been then and set in idyllic coastal surroundings. The blow hole where the children were taken by a boatman is Stair hole and a well known landmark on the world famous Jurassic Coastline.
When the children ask about the secret submarine work in the Rubadub Mystery, this is likely to have referred to work that was going on during wartime at Portland Harbour and can be seen on a clear day from Lulworth.
“You know what goes on there I don’t doubt,” said the boatman. “Secret submarine work. No one’s allowed there, not even us fishermen, though as a boy, I knew every corner. A stone enclosure guarded the whole of the bay. No ships could get in or out without the secret openings being unlocked. Men kept guard in little stone shelters on the top.” Taken from The Rubadub Mystery, Enid Blyton.
Blyton’s books are full of picnics with lashings of ginger beer and the locations are ideal for al fresco eating, even today. During the Second World War, however many of the beaches were covered in barbed wire and off limits as troops prepared secretly for the D Day Landings.
Even visiting Swanage and travelling by train to this area was fraught with danger, as there were frequent air raids. Another famous location used in Five Fall into Adventure is delightful Kimmeridge Bay on the Dorset coast. The children are described as going down to swim at a place, “where rocks jutted up from the beach, surrounded by limpet rock pools.”
When the children rowed around the coastline here they spotted, ”a high cliff on top of which was a dour grey stone building….. a little like a castle. It brooded over the sea with one square tower overlooking the waves.” This is thought to have been the Clavell Tower, a folly built in 1831 and with wonderful views across the English Channel.
Inspiration for writers
Enid Blyton loved Dorset and even bought a farm in the north of the county at Stourton Caundle which became the location for Five on Finniston Farm. Although she never actually lived there the area appealed to her a great deal and was one she drew upon in creating her stories.
Dorset has inspired many writers such as Thomas Hardy and John Fowles, and clearly seduced Blyton with its breathtaking beauty and natural ways of life into creating some of the best loved childrens books which remained popular right up to the 1970’s and are widely read today.
While some of the writing has been questioned over political correctness as the times have changed, the simple delight of a mystery involving a beach and a ruined castle are the very essence of storytelling that thrill children and adults and bring scenery and characters to life.
Enid Blyton once said, “My imagination contains all the things I have ever seen or heard, things my conscious mind has long forgotten……. I don’t think that I use anything I have not seen or experienced — I don’t think I could.”
Enid Blyton died in 1968 having written more than 700 books and sold more than 400 million copies worldwide which were translated into more than 50 languages. Her admiration for Dorset and the Isle of Purbeck lives on in the characters and the scenes created in her work. Dorset and the surrounding countryside is as popular with families on holiday today as it was when Enid Blyton visited.
Rachel Rowe is a freelance writer in Dorset, England.
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