I stood on the water’s edge rocking urgently on my tiptoe. Before me stretched the blue waters of Poole Bay and all around lay the countryside of county Dorset. Brownsea Island was a whispering distance away, near enough to make me believe I could swim there faster than any boat, yet far enough to retain all its magic. Beyond lay the ‘great tree-clad mass’ around which little boats gathered and yachts sailed in the wind, ‘enjoying themselves in the great harbour which stretched far beyond the island.’
I was in Enid Blyton country, a corner of England she never really lived but returned every year on holiday in spring, summer and autumn throughout the 1950s and ’60s. She brought with her daughters Gillian and Imogen, her second husband Kenneth and, as her stardom swelled with every book, generations of young fans from across the globe. This is where Julian, Dick and Anne visited from boarding schools on holiday, and were swept into adventure along with their cousin George and her dog Timmy in Famous Five. And this is where I waited for the boat to take me to ‘Whispering Island.’
In Blyton’s time, Brownsea was owned by Mary Bonham-Christie, whose rather eccentric idea of conservation was non-interference. She evicted the island’s 200 strong residents, allowed nature to take over and kept armed guards who circled the coastline to keep visitors at bay. Soon Bonham-Christie and her island gained notoriety. Nobody quite knew what went on there. It was the perfect setting for an adventure. Blyton’s imagination ran wild. Brownsea already had a castle. She added to it a ‘great bed of pure gold set with precious stones, a necklace of rubies as big as pigeons’ eyes, a wonderful sword with a jewelled handle worth a king’s fortune’ and called it Keep-Away Island. And it was here one hot summer’s day fresh from their swim, the Famous Five were carried to its shores by strong undercurrents in a boat called Adventure.
Today Brownsea is a walker’s delight. No cars or cycles are allowed here, but you can pack a picnic, pick up a map and set off in search of the elusive red squirrel. There are three designated walks. I picked the woodland walk past a motley group of sunbathing peahens, cockerels and a solitary sika deer by the church, and along the edge of the unprotected clifftop. Here I stopped. The bay stretched as far as the eye could see, to Studland and beyond, to Old Harry and his Wife. Old Harry is a chalk rock outcrop that rises from the seabed and is one of the finest landmarks of Dorset. Legend goes Harry Paye, an infamous Poole pirate who raided French and Spanish ships for gold and wine in late 14th century, anchored his boat behind the rocks to evade the taxmen. Until 1896, Old Harry had a Wife, standing alongside. But the wind and the ocean conspired and now all that remains of her is a chalky stump.
I pulled back from the view and continued along the cliff face. Bonham Christie’s wild woods have been cleared in places and some overhanging branches cut to allow the sun to pour in through the trees. The soft red earth beneath was strewn with fallen pinecones. The wind swooped in and the trees whispered loudly. Brownsea is full of stories. In 1907, Lord Baden-Powell, a house guest with the Van Raalte family, the then owners of Brownsea, asked if he could borrow the south shore of the island to try out an idea of his. On August 1 the same year, a group of 20 boys pitched on the island, camping, training, fire lighting, cooking for a week. The Boy Scout Movement was born. More than a 100 years on, it returns every year to its birthplace. On special summer weekends you can sleep under the stars, play hopscotch with sandwich terns or red-billed oystercatchers, or watch Shakespeare in the woods.
I lingered as long as I could, stopping and staring at reed hides, past the lily pond and the remains of a vinery and returned to port for the last boat out at five. By the shore stand two cottages that the National Trust rent out for guests. Weekly tariffs are not cheap, but it’s a storybook stay on an island crackling with adventure and untold mysteries.
The next morning I woke up in the Isle of Purbeck, a 20-minute boat ride from Brownsea. Purbeck is strictly not an isle, it is a peninsula that fans out into the English Channel along England’s ancient Jurassic Coast. In between lie prime Blyton pastures—coastlines, coves, heaths and castles she picked on time and again for locations for her adventures in many of the Famous Fives and The Rhubadub Mysteries. Blyton often borrowed from real places and people, she changed their names of course but stuck to facts. And that is one of the beguiling charms of Dorset. If you’ve been a Blyton fan since the age of five, you wouldn’t need a map in Dorset, for you would know every village green and every friendly bobby that stopped you on the street. Surely.
After breakfast we stopped for a paddle and ice cream on Knoll Beach, one of Studland’s four famous and long stretches of honey-gold sand popular with both families and naturists. It was a favourite of Enid and Kenneth too. The couple returned up to four times a year to Knoll House Hotel overlooking breathtaking views of Studland Bay. Blyton was a creature of habit, she always took Room 40 and Table Three at dinner. Kenneth owned Isle of Purbeck Golf Club nearby, and both the club and the caddy made it to her stories.
That afternoon we left giggling children with muddy feet rock pooling around Dancing Ledge further west towards Kimmeridge and pushed inland into the countryside. We left the car at the coastal town of Swanage and took the train, a steam train. You can cycle too, but arriving at Corfe village on a steam train is half the story—the better half. And like almost all of Dorset which seems to have grown out of her books and not the other way round, the steam train to Corfe Castle has survived too. But it nearly never did.
In 1972, 85 years after Swanage Railway made its maiden journey, the track was closed, stripped and sold. Four years later fighting a vote in the local council the residents won back the right to rebuild their old Victorian railway. Every little detail was reconstructed from scratch—track, locomotives, carriages. It took 30 years. We arrived at Corfe Castle but lingered at the platform. The station, yellow and green, retreats into the pages of a Blyton adventure. Tall aluminium milk churns line up against the wall as if in an assembly queue. Next to them stacked high on a railway trolley are smart vintage leather suitcases, the likes you take to boarding school. The walls are covered in Victorian posters announcing the arrival of the Purbeck Breezer. The summer holidays had begun.
Corfe—the inspiration for Kirrin village in Famous Five—rises above the surrounding green and huddles around a square, thick with pubs and shops selling everything from books, ice creams and cream-tea. I spotted Noddy peering out of a window and go in. The shop was so busy, there was barely room to move. I turned a corner and there it was, a wall packed full of Blytons: Mallory Towers both old and new, Noddy and the Famous Five. Outside Kirrin village buzzes on. I had a castle to climb.
Corfe Castle had stood for a 1,000 years before Blyton first arrived here in 1931. But it’s what happened after that made for a good story. As I wandered around the ‘broken archways, tumbledown towers and ruined walls,’ I realised that Blyton changed nothing of the details. She simply took the castle and pushed it out to sea. I kicked off my shoes and lay back on the grass. Above me hung the ‘biggest, highest, widest sky I’ve ever seen. It’s a happy place.’ I closed my eyes.
Poole is a convenient base to explore Dorset county, and lies 175 km/2.5 hr southwest of London. Most holiday spots in Dorset lie within an hour’s drive from Poole. National Express buses ply regularly between London airports and the Victoria Coach Station, and most large Dorset towns (www.nationalexpress.com). Trains too connect London Waterloo and Dorset stations (www.nationalrail.co.uk). Boats, cars, trains and buses are all hassle-free ways to travel within Dorset.
Swagata Ghosh works at Bath Spa University and has recently completed her first novella set in Georgian Bengal. A former journalist, she now writes for the print and web in Britain, India and the Middle East. She lives in Wiltshire, England, with her husband and twelve fish.