Beer Background
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Rail Ale

Dorset delight as steam train links pubs with fine beer and new craft brewery

Added: Saturday, August 3rd 2013

Greyhound pub Corfe

Never will you find a more perfect example of the passion of railway enthusiasts than the Swanage Railway in Dorset – an area rich in good pubs and fine ale, too. Originally a branch off the London and South Western Railway, leaving the Waterloo to Weymouth mainline at Wareham, it opened in 1885, ferrying locals and holiday makers alike through the Purbeck hills down to the seaside town of Swanage until its closure in 1972. The track was lifted but only three years later the newly- formed Swanage Railway Society was given a licence to occupy the former station at Swanage and by the 1990s a large part of the line was operational again.

For many years the line ran between the seaside terminus and Norden, but in 2002 the track was connected between Norden and Worgret Junction on the mainline just west of Wareham, allowing a through train for the first time in three decades. Occasional specials followed, but the limited infrastructure of this part of the line prevented a regular service. Earlier this year 40 years of a dream were all but fulfilled when the railway was given a £1.47 million grant to allow for a regular steam and heritage diesel service between Wareham and Swanage to boost the local economy via improved transport, tourism and jobs.

2015 will see 50 days of this service with another 90 planned for the following year with the hope for a permanent service to be in full operation by 2017. But for now let’s take a trip along line currently available to visitors starting at Norden. The park and ride facility here doesn’t serve a town but sits just north of the medieval village of Corfe Castle, allowing easy parking and preventing congestion along the narrow streets of the charming village, lined with cottages forged from Purbeck stone.

The village is dominated by the castle from which it takes its name. It  was strategically built atop a large hill by William the Conqueror, towering over everything in sight, once giving it views of invaders, now of the Purbeck hills and Poole harbour. It was bombarded by Cromwell’s forces during the Civil War and has remained a ruin ever since. It’s run by the National Trust and is open to visitors.

As we leave the station and look to satisfy our thirst we are spoilt for choice with pubs serving a wide selection of real ales. The Fox Inn dates back to 1568 and is understandably popular with civil war re-enactment participants. The street it sits on is lined by stone cottages and is matched by the stone interior where ales are tapped straight from casks behind the bar. The garden has fine views of the castle. Ales include Old Speckled Hen, Abbot Ale, 6x, Tribute, London Pride and occasional appearances from Dorset Piddle beers.

Fox Corfe

More ancient than the Fox is the Bankes Armes, taking its name from a local aristocratic family which had the misfortune of supporting the royalist occupants of the castle in the Civil War. It dates from 1549. Sitting in the garden you can enjoy a fine ale, watch steam locomotives carrying 1950s British Railways liveries travel just a few metres away all while being watched over by one of the country’s oldest stone castles; nowhere could the heritage, culture and history be more exemplified than here. The bar serves Ringwood Best Bitter and has two different guest ales every week.

It isn’t surprising the Greyhound (ain image above) claims to be the most photographed pub in the country, given its proximity to the foot of the castle. The pub was built in the 17th century as a coaching inn halfway between Wareham and Swanage and still offers accommodation as well as excellent food, sourcing fresh fish and crab from Swanage and other local harbours. There are regular beers festivals, including a major beer and cider event over the August bank holiday: go to

www.greyhoundcorfe.co.uk.  The bar serves Palmer’s Dorset Gold and Otter beers plus regular guest ales.

Corfe Brewery

To add to drinking pleasure in the village, there’s now a Corfe Castle brewery based on Bucknowle Farm and run by Steve and Christine Millar and their family. The Millars are passionate about using local ingredients and source local water from the Purbeck hills and malted barley from Warminster Maltings in Wiltshire. Hops are supplied by Charles Faram in Worcester and are added three times: twice during the copper boil and then in the hop back where the liquid is clarified before fermentation. The Millars used Irish Moss seaweed as a natural clarifying agent. Their four cask beers are Castle Ale (4.2%), Gloriette (4.5%), named after the banqueting hall in the castle, Raven (4.2%), a porter, and Sovereign (4.5%).  01929 480730; www.corfecastlebrewery.co.uk.

As we climb back aboard the train, perhaps West Country Class Eddystone with green livery from Southern coaches, we head towards Harman’s Cross. In the early days of the preserved line we’d begin our journey here, but these days it has its use as a half-way point where two trains cross. We continue down the line towards Swanage via Hertson Halt. Ballard Down comes more into view, where we see it dramatically fall into sea in the form of a jagged cliff edge.

Red Lion Swanage

Swanage is a charming Victorian seaside town built from Purbeck limestone and situated along the Jurassic coast. Not far from the station on the High Street the Red Lion is a 17th century pub with two bars and a beer garden. Regular ales include Timothy Taylor Landlord, Sharps Doombar, Palmer’s Copper Ale and Ringwood Best with the addition of several guest ales.

square & compass

As well as the steam train at Swanage the summer season sees a regular open top bus service (number 50) to Bournemouth that begins directly outside the station. The bus makes use of the car-ferry that crosses Poole harbour, just after it passes Ballard Down and traverses the stunning Studland heathland. At Studland we find another Bankes Arms, also named after the family with Corfe Castle connections. The 200 year-old inn, a former smuggler’s haunt, is the home of the Purbeck Brewery, serving the ales Solar Power, Studland Bay Wrecked, Isle of Purbeck Ale and Fossil Fuel. Across the road a lawn serves as a beer garden giving customers beautiful views of Studland Bay, Old Harry Rocks and Bournemouth. Accommodation is available.

If alternatively we took the 44 bus from Swanage we’d find ourselves at Worth Matravers, a picturesque village with a tea shop and post office sitting beside a pond frequented by ducks. A stone’s throw from here is the Square & Compass, an ancient ale house that’s been in the Newman family’s hands for more than 100 years. Attached is a small museum housing locally collected fossils and artefacts, making it one of the most whimsical pubs in the area. Ales on offer include Palmer’s Copper, RCH Steam and Zig Zag Stout from Milk Street Brewery. Owner Charlie Newman makes his own cider, using apples from Wareham forest.

For more details about the Swanage Railway visit www.swanagerailway.co.uk.