Visit The Famous Five's Treasure Island
Corfe Castle and the Isle of Purbeck are settings for much of the author’s work
Corfe Castle, Dorset, England. Photograph: Mark Bauer/Getty Images
In the summer of 1941 Enid Blyton alighted from a steam locomotive at Corfe Castle station in the Isle of Purbeck.
She took a short walk through the village, turned right at the war memorial and then she saw Corfe Castle for the very first time.
As she wandered its jagged ruins she would have been as giddy as her hyperventilating heroes, the Famous Five, for she had discovered the setting for their very first adventure.
In Five on a Treasure Island, Blyton set Corfe Castle on the imaginary Kirrin Island but changed nothing of the edifice itself, reproducing it faithfully on the page: “It had been built of big white stones. Broken archways, tumbledown towers, ruined walls – that was all that was left of a once beautiful castle, proud and strong. Now the jackdaws nested in it and the gulls sat on the topmost stones. ‘It looks awfully mysterious,’ said Julian.”
Even the “little stone room” where the children made their camp at Corfe Castle is there to see in real life: “They trooped through a doorway and found themselves in a dark, stone-walled, stone-roofed room with a space at one end where a fireplace must have been. Two slit-like windows lit the room. It felt very strange and mysterious.”
It is safe to assume that Blyton was a) enchanted by the mystery of the place, and b) did not own a thesaurus.
Five on a Treasure Island was published just a year after Blyton’s visit to Corfe, and the phenomenally successful series ran for 20 more books, ending with Five Are Together Again in 1963.
To mark the Five’s 75th anniversary, the whole series is being published this month with new covers and illustrations by Laura Ellen Anderson.
Dressing them in skinny jeans and high-top trainers is a brave attempt to contemporise the Five, but the visuals are at odds with the quaint, original text.
Today’s discerning audience, no doubt, will be asking their parents tricky questions such as, “Mummy, what’s tinned fruit?”, “How come they’re allowed to play with axes?” and “Why do they keep calling Dick a brick?”
I do wonder what the Five would make of today’s nudist beach at Studland
Blyton grew up in south London then Kent but fell in love with the Isle of Purbeck, taking holidays there as an adult sometimes two or three times a year.
She would take up residence in the jaunty little seaside town of Swanage, staying at The Ship, the Grosvenor Hotel and latterly the Grand Hotel; and she would take a customary swim around both piers before dinner, with her second husband, Kenneth Darrell Waters, in tow. Today, there is only one pier and the Grosvenor is gone but Swanage retains its old-fashioned charm.
Blyton was such a frequent visitor that she was elected president of the annual Swanage Carnival and Regatta, while her husband bought the Isle of Purbeck Golf Club. He had to find something to do while she scribbled in her notebooks, I suppose.
The clubhouse is well worth a visit for the most spectacular views of Brownsea Island in the middle of Poole Harbour, and you do not need to be a member to have a drink or a meal here. If you check the list of ladies’ captains on the wall you will see “Mrs E Darrell Waters, 1951”.
And if you ask the club’s new owners nicely, that’s Dave and Kathy, they might let you wield Blyton’s actual putter, which they keep for honoured guests and special occasions.
Brownsea Island, the birthplace of Lord Robert Baden-Powell’s scouting movement and home to a beleaguered red squirrel colony, would be a pretty Blyton-esque place even without her intervention, but she appropriated it, renaming it Whispering Island for Five Have a Mystery to Solve.
Meanwhile, the Lucas character in this book was the real-life groundsman at the Isle of Purbeck Golf Club. As Blyton explained to her young readers in the prelude: “Lucas can be found on the golf course, nut-brown and bright-eyed, telling stories of the animals and birds he loves so much.”
And Lucas was not the only local character abducted by Blyton. Apparently, the original PC Plod, of Noddy fame, was a dead ringer for PC Christopher Rhone in the parish of Studland, though police constable Rhone probably played down this association.
Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall are openly discussed by literary types; Blyton’s Dorset, not so much. Maybe this is because Blyton is not considered much of a literary type herself. How could any writer who knocked out nearly 800 books at the rate of 10,000 words a day be taken seriously?
And yet, if the Isle of Purbeck was a stick of seaside rock, Blyton’s name would run all the way through it. The place evokes eternal childhood holidays as effortlessly as the Arizona desert conjures up westerns.
For the Famous Five, the sand is soft, the sea sparkles and the sun is warm and golden in a bright blue sky. Gulls, kestrels and cormorants glide on the breeze and rabbits dig burrows in the sandy soil. There are white cliffs, white clouds and lighthouses.
It’s too easy to overlook Blyton's delightful descriptions of landscape and the natural world
What’s more, very little has changed in the intervening 75 years, though I do wonder what the Five would make of today’s nudist beach at Studland. Best not think about it.
It is true that Blyton prized quantity over quality in her writing but she has shifted 500 million books, had her work translated into 40 languages, and she still sells one book every minute in the UK. Harry Potter, meanwhile, has sold about 450 million books.
While it’s fashionable to sneer at Blyton’s political incorrectness, it’s too easy to overlook her delightful descriptions of landscape and the natural world.
In the opening to Five on Finniston Farm she wrote: “Below them spread the Dorset countryside, shimmering in the heat of day, the distance almost lost in a blue haze.”
And in Five on a Treasure Island, as the children approach their holiday destination: “The car suddenly topped a hill – and there was the shining blue sea, calm and smooth in the evening sun.”
Of course, in 1942, much of Dorset’s coastline would have been cordoned off with barbed wire and tank traps, but Blyton was creating a soothing fantasy for children who might have been evacuated from the cities or separated from their families.
In 1944, when the Famous Five were still finding their feet, she published Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book, a collection of stories, poems and nature facts, about three children and their uncle who takes them on nature walks.
Her own love of nature shines through, for example, in her description of the overgrown courtyard of Corfe/Kirrin Castle: “Big blackberry bushes grew here and there, and a few gorse bushes forced their way into gaps and corners. The coarse green grass sprang everywhere, and pink thrift grew its cushions in holes and crannies.”
Blyton’s genius was to take Corfe Castle, including the improbably steep mound on which it sits, and plop it in the sea, possibly in Poole Harbour. And as any child will tell you, islands are the perfect places for adventure, especially when reduced to their own scale.
According to Anne in Five on a Treasure Island: “Britain is an island, but nobody living on it could possibly know it unless they were told. Now this island really feels like one because wherever you are you can see to the other side of it. I love it.”
Blyton loved the Isle of Purbeck but, being firmly attached to the rest of Dorset, it is an island in name only. It is no more real than Kirrin Island or Whispering Island. Thus, whether she intended to or not, Blyton wrapped her mysteries within an enigma.
WHERE TO STAY, EAT AND DRINK
The Pig on the Beach, Studland
Like visiting a well-heeled friend with a 23-bedroom Gothic pile in the country. Friendly staff work hard keeping things homely and comfortable, yet quietly luxurious. The kitchen turns out beautifully prepared classics, with most of the salads and vegetables grown in the walled kitchen garden.
Starters include Portland crab bake with garden pickles (£8.50); mains include venison “stalker’s pie” with roast parsnips and garden greens (£16). Rooms from £155-£285. Magnificent coastal views of Old Harry Rocks and the Isle of Wight. No dogs. www.thepighotel.com
Isle of Purbeck Golf Club, Studland
New owners, David Suruki and Kathey Tatar from Los Angeles, have opened up Blyton’s old golf club to the public. The fabulous clubhouse, built in 1966, with giant ammonites built into the walls, is reminiscent of a 1960s Bond movie. Views from the putting greens of Brownsea Island and Poole Harbour are “hole-in-one” spectacular. Crispy bacon and Dorset Blue Vinny salad (£4.75); steak, ale and mushroom pie with chunky chips (£11.95) No dogs. www.purbeckgolf.co.uk
The Square and Compass, Worth Matravers
This 17th-century pub, is perfectly situated for soaking up beer, cider and Dorset’s dramatic Jurassic Coast. Snug-as-a-bug inside with low ceilings and stone fireplaces.
Has its own mini-fossil museum with fragments of plesiosaurs and other local artefacts. On the food front, it’s just pies and pasties; that’s it. Very popular with walkers and cyclists. www.squareandcompasspub.co.uk
The Greyhound Inn, Corfe
So close to the ruins of Corfe Castle that it would lie within the shadow of its battlements, if it still had any. It’s a charming 16th-century coaching inn with a large beer garden overlooking both the castle and the Swanage railway. Saddleback pork crackling with apple sauce (£3.50); game casserole with truffle-drizzled mash and parsnip crisps (£14.50). They also sell take-away fish and chips and stone-baked pizzas. www.greyhoundcorfe.co.uk
The Scott Arms, Kingston
The view of Corfe Castle from this hilltop hostelry is so sensational they have installed a mounted telescope in the garden. Summertime visitors might experience mild culture-shock on seeing the Caribbean Jerk Shak [sic] serving spicy jerk chicken with rice and peas.
Otherwise, there’s starters such as mackerel Caesar salad with Serrano ham (£6.95); mains include top-notch burgers with all the stuff (£13.95). www.thescottarms.com
Worth Matravers Tea and Supper Room
This charming tearoom could feed the Famous Five, no small feat. “The Glorious Afternoon Tea” (£14.50 per person) includes muffins with smoked salmon, homemade scones with jam and clotted cream, biscotti, homemade petit fours and a brownie to finish. Lashings of ginger beer, optional, though a glass of Kir Royale is recommended. www.worthmatraverstearoom.co.uk