Swanage

Street Map

Swanage is a coastal town and civil parish in the south east of Dorset, England. It is situated at the eastern end of the Isle of Purbeck, approximately 10 km south of Poole and 40 km east of Dorchester.

The town is located at the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site.

The parish has a population of 10,124 (2001).Nearby are Ballard Down and Old Harry Rocks, with Studland Bay and Poole Harbour to the north. Within the parish are Durlston Bay and Durlston Country Park to the south of the town. The parish also includes the areas of Herston, just to the west of the town, and Durlston, just to the south.

The town, originally a small port and fishing village flourished in the Victorian era, when it first became a significant quarrying port and later a seaside resort for the rich of the day. Today the town remains a popular tourist resort, this being the town’s primary industry, with many thousands of visitors coming to the town during the peak summer season, drawn by the bay’s sandy beaches and other attractions.

During its history the bay was listed variously as Swanawic, Swanwich, Sandwich, and only in more recent history as Swanage.

While fishing is likely the town’s oldest industry, quarrying has been important to the town and the local area since at least the 1st century AD. During the time of the Roman occupation this industry grew, with the distinctive Purbeck marble being used for decorative purposes in buildings as far away as London. When the Romans left Britain, quarrying largely ceased until the 12th century.

The town is first mentioned in historical texts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 877AD. It is stated as being the scene of a great naval victory by King Alfred over the Danes: “This year came the Danish army into Exeter from Wareham; whilst the navy sailed west about, until they met with a great mist at sea, and there perished one hundred and twenty ships at Swanwich.” A hundred Danish ships which had survived the battle were driven by a storm onto Peveril Point, a shallow rocky reef outcropping from the southern end of Swanage bay. A monument topped (historically incorrectly) by cannon balls was built in 1882 by John Mowlem to celebrate this event and is situated at the southern end of the seafront promenade.

In the 12th century demand for Purbeck Marble grew once again. While Purbeck marble is not suited to external use, as it does not weather well, it is however strong and suitably decorative for use as internal columns. As such the stone was used in the construction of many large churches and cathedrals being built as the time.

In contrast to the decorative Purbeck marble, Purbeck limestone, has been used in construction locally since the early days of quarrying in Purbeck. Its use is less well documented as it was taken for granted as the default construction materials in the area. However, the arrival of more modern quarrying techniques in the 17th century resulted in an increase in production. The Great Fire of London in 1666 led to a period of large scale reconstruction in the city, and Purbeck stone was extensively used for paving. It was in this time that stone first started being loaded upon ships directly from the Swanage seafront; before this time quarried stone had been first transported to Poole for shipping.

The idea that Swanage could become a tourist destination was first encouraged by a local MP William Morton Pitt in the early 19th century, who converted a mansion in the town into a luxury hotel. The hotel is noted for having been visited in 1833 by the (then) Princess Victoria, later to become queen. The building was later renamed the Royal Victoria Hotel, now the building has been converted into flats and a bar and nightclub in the left and right wings respectively.

The town’s greatest prominence came during the Victorian period. John Mowlem (1788–1868), a Swanage resident, became a successful builder in London, creating the Mowlem construction company, which still existed as recently as 2006, when it was acquired by another company.

John Mowlem made his business in London by importing stone into the city from around the country, including Purbeck limestone. Through this process, many relics and monuments were brought from London to Swanage in the nineteenth century by Mowlem and his nephew George Burt (1816–1894) who took over the business when Mowlem retired. It is said that these items brought from London were used as ballast for the empty vessels which transported the Purbeck stone to London.

These include the big clock tower near Peveril Point. The clock tower, commemorating the Duke of Wellington, designed by Arthur Ashpital, was built in 1854 at the southern approach to the old London Bridge. Within 10 years it became an obstruction to traffic on the busy bridge and had to be removed. It was re-erected 1867-68 on its present site at the southern end of the bay on the sea front. A further item transported from London to Swanage is the 1860 facade of the Mercers’ Hall, that was used as the facade of the Swanage Town Hall, which was designed by G.R. Crickmay (1830–1907)of Weymouth, and built during the early 1880s.

Both John Mowlem and George Burt were highly influential in the development of the town, taking an active interest in their town of birth into retirement. Between them they were responsible for the building of much of the town’s infrastructure, including the town’s first pier, the Mowlem Institute (a reading room), the first gas and water works, and the development of the Durlston estate and Country Park, at the southern end of the town. The Great Globe which can be found slightly south of Durlston Castle in the Durlston Country Park was completed by George Burt in 1887. It is made up of 15 sections of stone and joined together with granite dowels. The Great Globe weighs 40 tons and is 10 feet in diameter.

Swanage Lighthouse was built in 1880, on the clifftop at Anvil Point, not far away from Durlston Castle.

Railway was introduced to the town in 1885 with the encouragement of George Burt by the London and South Western Railway Company. By this time the town was becoming a popular resort destination for the wealthy, noted for its fine weather and clean air. The town previously had been fairly cut off due to its valley location, but the introduction of the railway made the town much more accessible to visitors, with direct services running from London. However the greatest increase in visitors came with the building of the second ‘new’ pier in 1895, built primarily for use by pleasure steamers.

The town enjoyed several decades quietly being successful as a seaside resort. The First World War left few physical marks on the town, however during the Second World War gun emplacements and pillboxes were built at spots along the shoreline at the southern end of the bay. The town also received bomb damage during the Second World War, with 20 people killed. The town and other nearby villages are noted for playing a part in the development of radar.

After the Second World War the town, like many other seaside resorts and indeed the country at large, suffered a recession with few people able to spare the money for holidaying. In 1972 the Swanage branch line of the railway was closed by British Rail as part of larger network-wide cutbacks. Fortunately a group of local enthusiasts formed a charitable organisation with the purpose of restoring and preserving the branch line and steam and diesel locomotives to run along it, forming the Swanage Railway.

Through the years Swanage has suffered from flooding, with severe flooding occurring as recently as 1990. In 1993 a large-scale flood alleviation scheme was completed, ending in the banjo-shaped ‘new jetty’ outletting rainwater. This in itself created a new problem, disturbing the natural northward drift of sand up the bay, with a buildup on the southern side and reduction of sand on the northern. This reduction of sand levels exposed the foundations of parts of the seawall threatening to damage it. As a result the beach was improved in 2005–06 by construction of new greenheart timber groynes and the placement of 90,000 m³ of sand as beach nourishment.

Local governance and service provision is provided by, in order of directness: Swanage Town Council – the Parish Authority based in the historic town hall in the high street, Purbeck District Council, and Dorset County Council. In the National Parliament, Swanage falls within the constituency of South Dorset.

Swanage is located in Swanage Bay in Dorset on the south coast of England. The bay is east facing and is situated at the eastern end of the Isle of Purbeck, approximately 10 km south of Poole and 40 km east of Dorchester. The northern headland of the bay is formed of chalk, the southern of Purbeck Limestone, with softer primarily Wealden clays forming the bay and valley in which the town is sited. The Purbeck limestone was extensively quarried with several sites to the south west showing evidence of former quarries, particularly Tilly Whim Caves and Dancing Ledge, a man made rock shelf used for loading ships. Natural erosion has formed stacks along and at the end of the northern headland, in particular the notable Old Harry Rocks. In part through the process of quarrying, fossils from the dinosaur age have been discovered in the local rock, and the coastline up to and including Swanage Bay has been included in the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.

Swanage’s primary industry is tourism, employing a large number of the working population, However, as with most tourism, the demand level is highly seasonal, and as such people looking for permanent work may have to commute to nearby towns such as Poole and Bournemouth.

The town centre has a small number of medium sized outlets for major retailers, a collection of local retailers, a number of cafes, bars, restaurants and pubs. The seafront has two amusement arcades, several ice cream outlets, fish restaurants and cafes. The town also has a number of successful small-scale cottage industries.

There is a brickworks on the outskirts of the town that uses the Wealden Clay found in the valley, and quarrying still continues to the south.

During the peak summer season many people are drawn by the town’s beautiful setting, the beach and other attractions. The town has a large number of hotels and guest rooms though the number (particularly of hotels) has reduced slightly in recent years. Swanage has a gently sloping white sand beach which is sheltered and generally calm. The beach is well served by local businesses providing refreshments and services. For hire are deck chairs, boats, pedalos and general watersports equipment. There are amusement arcades and parks.

Besides the beach, there are other local attractions including the restored Swanage steam railway and the Victorian pier. The town may also be used a base from which to visit other nearby areas of interest, such as Corfe Castle.

As a small town there are no large cultural institutions based in the town, though there are a number of small clubs and groups, including the Swanage Town Band formed in the late 19th century. The largest facility in the town is the Mowlem Theatre, on the site of the former Mowlem Institute, opened in 1967. Performing a dual role as a 400-seat theatre and cinema, the complex also hosts a bar and restaurant and a small collection of shops. Typically there are around 200 film showings and 60-100 nights of live theatre.

The town hosts a number of annual festivals and events. In the summer months there is a carnival week which includes a procession of floats and dancers and several firework displays, and many other attractions and small events including live music from various bands from all over Southern England, races and a regatta.

The railway used to have special Thomas The Tank Engine themed events, until the cost of running these became prohibitive, and other special services.

The town also hosts successful festivals, which attract more than a purely local audience. These include a Jazz Festival, a Folk Festival, a Blues Festival, and there are plans for a Food Festival in the future.

New Year’s Eve has traditionally been a big event for Swanage, with the town drawing more people from surrounding areas, and people travelling considerable distances to attend. In part this has been due to attendance by employees of the nearby Wytch Farm oil processing facility. While the popularity of the event has waned somewhat from its peak in the early 1990s, with fewer oil employees in the area, there is still a large gathering each year, spilling out into the square and High Street at midnight. It is a long standing tradition in Swanage for people to dress up for New Year’s Eve to add to the atmosphere. There is no specific fancy dress “theme”, but costumes tend to be humorous.

Swanage is accessible from the M27 motorway and the A31 and A35 roads.

Swanage has a heritage restored steam railway which operates for most of the year, though at the moment this only goes as far as Norden. Recent developments on the railway have seen the physical connection between the Swanage Railway and the mainline restored. The first passenger service in more than 40 years from London Victoria and returning to London Waterloo took place on 1 April 2009. It is hoped that regular passenger services connecting to the mainline will commence in the future. Limited ferry services also run between Poole Quay and Swanage Pier. These are used by Swanage residents for shopping trips to Poole’s large shopping centre, and also by tourists in Poole for day trips into Swanage.

The nearest mainline railway station to Swanage is Wareham, where connections can be made for South West Trains services westward to Dorchester South and Weymouth. Services also travel eastwards towards Poole, Bournemouth, Southampton Central and London Waterloo. Services to and from Weymouth and London Waterloo can be either fast or stopping services.

The town has a library in the town centre which is housed in a distinctive 1960’s octagonal glass and Purbeck Stone building.

At the square on the seafront there is a small town museum with artifacts and displays recounting the town and surrounding area’s history. There was until a recently a second museum housed in the historical Tithe Barn building, however the roof of the building was becoming unsafe, and the artefacts were moved out into safe storage. These may or may not be redisplayed in the future, but for the time being a small number are on display in the museum at the square.

Swanage bay provides a well sheltered environment for a range of watersports, from swimming to sailing, windsurfing and jetskiing.

Much of the beach and foreshore is owned by Swanage Council who purchased it in 1930 from the Crown Estate however they have since sold much of the north part of the beach, which is now privately owned. The first section of private beach is called Oceanbay. There is a slipway here and watersports people are welcome to enjoy the sand and launch boats and personal watercraft at this location for a small fee.

Scuba diving takes place under the piers and at nearby coastal wrecks. Swanage is considered by many to be the home of British Scuba diving as not only is it one of the most popular sea water training sites for dive schools and clubs to take trainee divers due to the sheltered conditions within the bay, but the dive school still situated on the pier was the first dive school ever to open in Great Britain.

Swanage acts is a destination for PS Waverley, the last sea going paddle steamer in the world, at the end of the summer season. Typically the route runs from the Isle of Wight, Bournemouth, Swanage and Weymouth and the return journey back.

There is a sailing club, established in 1935 to the immediate south of the pier.

Swanage has a King George’s Field in memorial to King George V, which recently became home to a new skate park (which continues to expand though fund raising by locals) and a new hi-tech play area, funded in a similar way to the skate park. Planning applications have been submitted by the Trust for a sports pavilion.

The sea cliffs and quarries to the west of Swanage provide excellent venues for rock climbing. The surrounding areas make for excellent walking and as such the town is a popular destination for hikers who use the town as base. Many beauty spots are in walkable distance, while never being too far from refreshment. Each year the town boasts a fireworks festival each Saturday during August and an annual Carnival procession. The R.N.L.I have a lifeboat stationed in Swanage, close to Peveril Point and have a week of celebrations during the summer to raise extra funds.

Swanage is twinned with Rüdesheim am Rhein in Germany.

Swanage is called Knollsea in Thomas Hardy’s novels. In The Hand of Ethelberta it is described as “…a seaside village lying snug within two headlands as between a finger and thumb”.In E.M. Forster’s Howards End, Margaret and Mr. Wilcox first kiss there at the end of an evening’s stroll, and the town is mentioned frequently throughout the book.

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