Looking across Swanage Bay to the town
from the South West Coast Path
Swanage is a coastal town in the south-east of Dorset, stranding at the eastern end of the Isle of Purbeck, approximately six miles south of Poole. Nearby are Ballard Down and Old Harry Rocks, with Studland Bay and Poole Harbour to the north.
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.
The town is located at the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site.
Geography and geology
Swanage is located in Swanage Bay in Dorset on the south coast. The bay is east facing and is situated at the eastern end of the Isle of Purbeck. 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.
There are several Churches in Swanage, many of which meet in sites of historic interest.
- Church of England:
- St Mary's
- St Mark's
- All Saints
- St Nicholas'
- Baptist: Emmanuel Baptist Church
- Methodist: Swanage Methodist Church
- Salvation Army
- Society of Friends (Quakers) meeting house
- United Reformed Church: Swanage URC
- Roman Catholic
All the above Churches are a part of the ecumenical group, known as "Churches Together in Swanage and District" which also extends to Churches within Langton Matravers, Kingston and Worth Matravers.
"The Old Stable" is a Christian led Community Centre in the Centre of Town.
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 877 AD. 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 cannonballs 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, or more commonly 'Purbeck stone', 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.
Mowlem and Burt - The Victorian era
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 façade of the Mercers' Hall, that was used as the façade 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 Great War - Present
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 three million cubic feet of sand as beach nourishment.
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 to Bournemouth across in Hampshire.
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.
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 Swanage 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.
Festivals and events
- Carnival week which includes a procession of floats and dancers and several firework displays, and many other attractions
- Various small events including live music, races and a regatta.
The railway used to have special Thomas The Tank Engine themed events.
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.
Sport and recreation
Swanage is represented in a number of sports including Football, Rugby, Cricket, Hockey, Sailing and Rowing.
- Football: Swanage Town and Herston FC
- Rugby: Swanage & Wareham Rugby Club
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.
Swanage has a King George's Field near the centre of town in memorial to King George V, which includes large playing fields, as well as skate park facilities and a hi-tech play area, both funded by community groups. There are plans also for the building of a new sports pavilion at the park, to replace the previous building which had been demolished due to safety concerns.
Towards the eastern end of town is Days Park, which includes a playing field, play area and gardens.
Swanage bay provides a well sheltered environment for a range of watersports, including swimming, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing and jetskiing.
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. It is 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. The dive school situated on the pier was the first dive school in Great Britain.
Swanage Sailing Club was established in 1935 and is located to the immediate south of the pier.
Swanage Sea Rowing Club, formed in 2001 has been highly successful and currently has over 100 members and four Cornish pilot gigs of its own , funded through donations. Competitions take place at regattas of which the club attends several per year, including the World Pilot Gig Championships held on the Isles of Scilly.
Swanage is stated as the hometown of John Cleese's character Basil Fawlty in the sitcom Fawlty Towers.
The first episode of the second series of British comedy, The Inbetweeners, is set mainly in Swanage. The episode is titled "The Field Trip", although this episode was filmed in Littlehampton, not actually Swanage.
In 1997, a 12-mile-diameter crater on Mars was named after Swanage.
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.
"The Lady Margaret", one of the linked short stories in Keith Roberts', Pavane has Swanage as the place where Jesse Strange meets an old school friend and fails to establish a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Margaret. International artist and writer, Philip Sugden was born and raised in Swanage. He is known for his drawings and paintings of India and Tibet, and his books entitled, Visions From The Fields of Merit (Floating Temple Press) and White Lotus (Snow Lion Publishers).
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