What happened in Swanage this year? Review of 2023

In many people’s eyes, 2023 will go down as a washout year, with seemingly endless rain and storms disrupting normal life – yet the national picture of Swanage is likely to be of glorious sunshine.

For the sun truly shone when two BBC programmes, watched by millions – Antiques Roadshow and Springwatch – were filmed in Purbeck. As always, Swanage.News has aimed to keep you informed throughout the year of the good, the wet and the newsworthy!

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The Sandy Salt Pig will take over the cafe provision at Middle Beach Studland with an exciting new mission

James Warren, founder of The Salt Pig, opened the replacement eatery at Middle Beach, Studland

Here’s a selection of the stories that made the headlines in 2023…

January

The new year began with a sea change at Middle Beach, Studland, where a favourite family cafe was closed by the National Trust after 70 years. A replacement eatery, the Sandy Salt Pig, was opened in a spot further from the crumbling cliffs, amid warnings that the Middle Beach Cafe was in danger of falling into the sea.

Long awaited plans for a Lidl food store at Wareham took a combative turn at the start of 2023 as the Co-op submitted a 16 page report to planners insisting there was no need for an additional food store in Purbeck. Lidl hit back by claiming that the Co-op was running scared of a cheaper competitor, and thousands of locals have since weighed in with their own views. Round one of the planning battle is due early in 2024.

A scheme to create a new tourist attraction on the Arne Moors was granted planning permission and work on a 500 acre playground for wading birds began. Up to 22,000 visitors a year are expected to enjoy the new landscape created by flooding fields to attract rare visitors including avocets, spoonbills and storks. Opponents claimed the scheme was more about flood prevention for high value property in Poole.

As the cost of living crisis began to bite, Swanage’s first mobile larder scheme was launched at St Mark’s School providing fresh fruit and vegetables at savings of up to 70 percent. The scheme, run by FareShare, operated by Swanage volunteers and backed by supermarkets, aims to reduce food waste, and proved so popular that a second community larder was set up at the Children’s Centre in Chapel Lane within months.

President Zelensky and Rishi Sunak visit Lulworth Camp

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met the troops at Lulworth Camp

February

Purbeck was thrust onto the world stage in early February, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky flew into Lulworth Camp to meet soldiers from his country who were being trained to fight in the war against Russia. President Zelensky and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watched a training exercise before signing a declaration promising more cooperation between the two countries.

Hopes that wild beavers could be released into Little Sea at Studland were raised after MPs at the Palace of Westminster heard of the huge benefits it could bring for the environment. Once a strategy to allow and manage species like beavers back into England is formulated, the National Trust in Purbeck is ready to go ahead with plans to reintroduce the animals.

Dorset Council pressed ahead with plans to introduce a double council tax charge on second home owners. With 5,722 second homes in Dorset, more than 1,000 in Swanage alone, officers estimated that £9.5 million could be generated, to help fund affordable homes and to save villages from decay. The scheme was later postponed after delays to the government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Act, however it will be back on the council’s agenda for 2024.

By the end of February, there was a long overdue return to action for the Sandbanks Ferry, which had been suspended in October 2022 for a six week maintenance service. Unfortunately, it was severely damaged as it was being towed to Falmouth for a refit and spare parts had to be ordered from Poland. After some 17 weeks out of action, which cost Swanage businesses dearly, the Bramble Bush Bay ferry – with a newly painted red hull – resumed service.

Edgar Wright returned to the Mowlem for the first time in 41 years before becoming its patron
Edgar Wright / instagram

Film director Edgar Wright became first patron of The Mowlem, where he used to watch movies as a child

March

One of the UK’s leading film directors, Edgar Wright, became the first ever patron of The Mowlem, after a chance meeting with its operations manager, Thomas Curtis. Edgar, who has directed cult movies including Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver, lived in Swanage until the age of seven and was back in town for his brother’s 50th birthday. Walking back into The Mowlem, where he watched movies as a boy, he was shown around and then agreed to become patron of the seafront arts hub.

Purbeck tourist attraction Farmer Palmer’s was voted winner of the best large attraction in the South West Tourism Awards during a glittering ceremony at the Eden Project in Cornwall. The family run farm park near Wareham, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2023, got an automatic place in the national Visit England awards. It was ultimately beaten by the Harry Potter Studio tours run by Warner Bros near London.

Swanage residents were shocked when Dorset Council announced new car parking changes for the summer, pushing up the cost of on-street parking along Shore Road by a massive 72 percent. Swanage Town Council was not consulted about the rises, which led to the cost of a day’s parking on Shore Road being set at £20.60, one of the most expensive places to park a car in the county. Dorset Council insisted it would have little impact on local residents and workers, while raising extra income to maintain car parks.

A major environmental incident was declared in Poole Harbour at the end of March after 200 barrels of reservoir fluid – a mix of water and 15 percent oil – leaked from a pipeline owned by oil company Perenco UK into Ower Bay near RSPB Arne. Booms were thrown up around the source of the leak, but not before oily deposits were washed up in Poole Harbour and on Studland beaches leading to fears for seabirds and an Easter ban on sea bathing. Fortunately, large scale damage was avoided.

Helicopter rescue at Durdle Door
Kimmeridge Coastguard

The Coastguard helicopter was scrambled to rescue four teenage girls from the sea beyond Durdle Door

April

Four teenage girls were rescued by helicopter from the sea at Durdle Door as the Easter holidays began, after visitors heard screams and called 999. The girls were clinging to rocks, which prevented the Weymouth lifeboat from reaching them, so a decision was made for the coastguard helicopter to winch them, one by one, out of the sea to safety. The girls had been swept out of their depth, and fortunately escaped their ordeal with nothing worse than minor leg injuries.

Excitement for the arrival of Disney crews to film part of a new Star Wars spin-off in Purbeck turned to disappointment when the location was condemned on safety grounds. Disney had shot scenes for the first series of Andor at Winspit Quarry near Worth Matravers in 2021 and was keen to return. However, a safety report concluded the caves were in danger of collapsing, the National Trust closed the disused quarry on safety grounds and the film crew packed up and went home after just two days.

An unusual delivery was received at Swanage Railway, from the Southern Co-op supermarket which sent six tonnes of charcoal briquettes after it stopped selling single use barbecues. The huge skip of charcoal was shovelled into bags to be used to help light the steam locomotives, while further bags were sent over to the Veteran’s Forge blacksmith at Harman’s Cross. Southern Co-op permanently banned the sale of single use barbecues over wildfire worries and was left with 8,000 of the items to dispose of.

Thousands of pounds worth of silver, including candlesticks, plates and an Elizabethan chalice were stolen in a burglary at the historic Lady St Mary Church in Wareham. The stolen items were taken from the Grade I listed building in the dead of night by a professional team using explosives to open a safe which few people knew contained such treasures. The Lady St Mary Church dates back to the 8th Century and was rebuilt by the daughter of Alfred the Great around 900.

Corfe Castle coronation celebrations
Catherine Candler

Corfe Castle hosted one of the UK’s most scenic Big Lunches for the Coronation of King Charles III

May

The Coronation of a new King of England took place in May for the first time in more than 85 years and despite unseasonably poor weather – which seemed to be a feature of 2023 – Purbeck families still made the most of the royal occasion. Three days of celebrations, including an extra bank holiday on Monday 8th May, gave folk plenty of chances to get out their picnic rugs and dress up in red, white and blue at garden parties, street parties and one huge gathering in the grounds of Corfe Castle.

Purbeck and its wildlife took centre stage on the BBC in May and June as the popular Springwatch show was presented over three weeks by Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan from RSPB Arne. The programme showcased the rare and special wildlife including smooth snakes and sand lizards, nightjars and Dartford warblers, while the Purbeck ospreys became the standout stars after their chicks hatched during the programme’s run.

The Tank Museum at Bovington became an unlikely trend setter on YouTube as it racked up half a million subscribers and became the first museum in the world to hit 100 million views for its uploaded content. Tank fans around the world have sent the Purbeck charity to the top of YouTube’s charts as the most watched museum channel in the world, ahead of the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, New York’s Guggenheim Museum and even the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Another Bank Holiday at the end of the month brought a less welcome celebration to Purbeck, when 1,500 people, along with an estimated 500 vehicles, set up an illegal rave in a field at Wytch Farm near Corfe Castle. Many residents as far away as Wareham were woken up in the early hours to the sound of loud music. Multiple complaints were made to police, who eventually closed off country lanes leading to the site, took control of the rave and shut off the music.

Car in water at Sandbanks Ferry
Swanage Coastguard

The ferry to Studland was suspended for a while when a car waiting to board was left unattended and rolled into the water

June

The Sandbanks ferry was once again forced to suspend sailings – but only for an afternoon this time – after a car waiting to board rolled off the slipway on the Sandbanks side of Poole Harbour and floated out into the water. Witnesses recalled how a driver had got out of her car to buy an ice cream and had left it in the queue for the ferry. The unoccupied car then rolled down the slope and floated off into the harbour, requiring a tugboat to recover it and causing long traffic queues.

Swanage came to a standstill in late June as the BBC brought the Antiques Roadshow to Prince Albert Gardens and Swanage Pier to film three programmes in glorious sunshine. Presenter Fiona Bruce was eclipsed by the weather and the location, as Swanage became the real star of the show, which has since been watched by seven million viewers. Some 5,000 tickets were issued for the event with 1,500 people invited to bring along items to be valued – including a life sized Royal Doulton pelican, jewellery from the Russian royal family and dinosaur footprints.

With the Dorset Steam Fair cancelled for 2023 due to significant and spiralling costs, Swanage Railway staged its own steam rally combining heritage locomotives with traction and miniature engines, steam rollers and showman’s engines. Roads to Rail, which also featured fairground rides, trade stalls and live music at the showground next to Norden station, drew thousands to the three day event and already has dates confirmed for the last weekend of June in 2024.

Visitors to Durdle Door in Dorset were turned away for two days as Netflix took over the beach to film scenes for the second season of top rated fantasy show, The Sandman. Secrecy was so high surrounding the project that it was only given a codename, and 50 security guards were hired to keep sightseers away. Leading man Tom Sturridge who plays the Sandman, Lord Morpheus, was spotted on the sands in his all black costume – although the new series is unlikely to screen before early 2025.

Ice cream kiosk

Two ice cream kiosks on Swanage Main Beach were closed in a dispute between Swanage Town Council and the tenants

July

Two ice cream kiosks on Swanage’s Main Beach were closed after contracts were terminated when the tenants broke terms of the agreement with Swanage Town Council. In a long running dispute, the council and a Bournemouth-based family run business ended up in court over renewal of the lease, after the ice cream kiosk operators failed to pay thousands of pounds. Although the case did not eventually go to trial and no judgement was formally made, two court orders were served and the lease ended.

Fears were raised that Swanage and Purbeck are becoming dental deserts as the state of NHS services was put under the microscope. With local dentists reducing their NHS commitments, it was revealed that the closest dental practice to Swanage still taking new adult NHS patients was Portsmouth, involving a three hour, 140 mile round trip. Local residents admitted joining practices in Surrey because they couldn’t afford the cost of private treatment for major dental work, but could not find any NHS practices closer to Purbeck.

A father and his 16 year old son had a lucky escape after being swept miles out to sea on their paddle boards from Studland Bay. After being reported missing by another family member, the teenager was finally found nine hours later having been blown ten miles to Hengistbury Head across shipping lanes. A search, led by HM Coastguard, involved lifeboats from five stations including Swanage and father, Tomasz Oleksik, later praised the huge operation and said they both owed their lives to the local heroes.

As the wet summer continued, Swanage Carnival redoubled its mission to bring brightness to the town. Although wave after wave of heavy showers and strong winds swept over the town, only four events of the 108 planned fell victim to the weather and carnival organisers still raised an impressive £27,650 to give away to charities and good causes. Highlights included a comeback for the traditional fire engine pull, as well as gig running, the bay swim and the wheelbarrow event which had 86 teams take part.

Swanage police front desk reopened following a public meeting called over concern about a lack of police presence in the town

August

Swanage’s police front desk reopened in August for the first time since shutting its doors during the Covid pandemic of 2020. The High Street office operates for two days a week, between 9.30 am and 3.30 pm on Mondays and Fridays, and aims to improve face to face communication with local residents. Dorset police and crime commissioner David Sidwick said he was intent on making the police more visible and connected to the local community.

More unseasonable weather – in fact, the worst summer storm in years – forced the cancellation of a centenary concert for Swanage Bandstand in early August. A combination of high winds, driving rain, a threat of hail and random lightning strikes forced the bandstand’s 100th birthday bash to be abandoned – just as the original opening was in 1923.

There were celebrations at Beach Gardens in Swanage after it received a national Green Flag award from environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy to reward excellence in the UK’s top parks. Swanage town mayor Tina Foster ran the award up a new flagpole after Beach Gardens was singled out as an ‘exceptional’ example of a vital green space for the community.

A 20 metre long sand lizard which was installed as pop up art at East Creech in August was so popular that it stayed around for two months – even wandering off to Corfe Castle at one stage. It was placed by local artist Eilidh Middleton from Church Knowle, who creates hard to ignore and inspiring art installations and pointed out that while the sand lizard does exist in Purbeck, it’s becoming an increasingly endangered reptile in the UK.

Waverly and RNLI Poole
RNLI Poole

There was high drama aboard the paddle steamer Waverley as it visited Swanage in September

September

PS Waverley – the last seagoing passenger-carrying paddle steamer in the world – made a return visit to Swanage in September after a national fundraising plea had secured £180,000 to keep her running, but the trip was not without drama. After a female passenger sustained a head injury while on a trip from Swanage Pier to watch the Bournemouth Airshow, a RNLI volunteer had to board the paddlesteamer, administer first aid and get back to the lifeboat while the Waverley was moving.

The Swanage School marked its 10th anniversary in early September celebrating the extraordinary vision of those who were determined to provide children in Swanage with the opportunity of a local education up to the age of 16. All the hard work and persistence of the Education Swanage team – the group formed to build the new school – was praised in a series of speeches and recollections of the early days, more than a decade earlier.

One of Britain’s best loved TV series, Time Team, celebrated its 30th anniversary in Purbeck, taking up a three day challenge near Corfe Castle to discover whether Dorset’s Iron Age settlers might have welcomed Roman invaders with open arms. Sir Tony Robinson, who is still involved with the programme, reminisced how his love for history began with childhood trips to Corfe Castle. The programme will be broadcast on YouTube in 2024.

Swanage Railway hosted the Inter City 125 on its farewell tour after being withdrawn from service by rail operator CrossCountry following 40 years of operation. The journey also raised money for the Brain Tumour Charity, and gave fans of the HST the chance to take one last trip on the distinctive looking train. Ironically, the 1970s diesel High Speed Train, with a top speed of 125 miles an hour, was restricted to just 25 mph on the Swanage Railway branch line.

A new monument has been put up in Langton Matravers to mark a map reading world first

One village, three norths – Langton Matravers celebrated making map-reading history by unveiling a special plaque

October

A Purbeck stone plaque was unveiled in Langton Matravers to mark the exact place where the village made map-reading history as the first place ever recorded where true north, magnetic north and grid north all met at a single point. In a ceremony attended by dozens of villagers, the mini monument was unveiled in a front garden on the corner of the High Street and The Hyde. A special, limited edition Ordnance Survey map was released at the same time.

Hundreds of kilos of high quality cocaine was recovered by police and brought ashore in Swanage, one of three similar finds off Purbeck shores in a week. The initial find was made by a local fisherman who alerted Dorset Police, and later a team of litter pickers in the Isle of Wight found more packages washed up on a beach. It’s believed that the South American cocaine was dropped at sea in the expectation that drug runners would later pick it up under the cover of darkness.

A new delicatessen, The Green Goat, opened its doors in West Street, Corfe Castle, bucking the trend of shop closures witnessed in many other rural villages. The luxury redevelopment of the old Coopers grocery stores, which had been empty for more than 20 years, was packed for its official launch party. It offers local produce from Dorset and South West England, along with some high quality produce from France and Italy and more affordable options like crisps, jams and chocolates.

Emergency work to repair multiple gas leaks along the main road in and out of Swanage started in mid October, causing traffic jams of up to half an hour at peak times. The unscheduled work by gas distribution company SGN started on Friday 20th October 2023 and had hoped for completion by early November. But the temporary traffic lights were still in place more than a month later after gas was detected from old leaky cast iron pipes that were buried deeper down.

Lower High Street after Storm Ciaran
Andy Knill

Lower High Street in Swanage was strewn with debris after Storm Ciarán tossed aside concrete flood defence barriers

November

November stormed in with an unwelcome visit from Storm Ciarán, hot on the heels of Storm Babet which had covered Swanage High Street in debris and caused localised flooding in parts of Purbeck. But Ciarán was even more ferocious, hurling the temporary flood defences across the road as though they were Lego bricks rather than concrete blocks. Damage to the recently installed street art was left unrepaired as a reminder of the raw power of the sea.

Even as storm damage from Ciarán was being cleared up along the coastline, public meetings were called in Studland by the Marine Management Organisation to talk about future conservation projects in Swanage Bay. Although the remit was primarily to discuss shore and sea activities like boating, sailing and anchoring, the organisation was left in no doubt by the huge response of public concern over the future of Purbeck beaches as weather patterns become more extreme.

It was a busy month at Swanage Railway, as the heritage line launched a survival fund appeal for £450,000, revealing that midwinter had never been so bleak before. Passenger numbers still haven’t recovered from the Covid years, while operating costs have soared and a second annual loss for the company is on the books. But in mid November, its major Christmas event arrived, as the Polar Express began running trips to the Norden Pole bringing with it, music, fantasy, laughter and a festive feelgood factor.

News of a major £150,000 scheme to replace a failing water pipe in Langton Matravers was released – which will force the closure of the main village road for two months at the start of 2024. It will mean an official seven and a half mile diversion from Langton to Swanage while Wessex Water digs up a 275 metre stretch of the high street, starting on Wednesday 3rd January and causing traffic disruption for nine weeks.

The Famous Five set sail for adventure - but in Cornwall, not Purbeck
BBC/MOONAGE PICTURES

The Famous Five set sail for Kirrin Island in a new BBC production – but the filming took place in Cornwall, not Purbeck

December

After a year in which Swanage featured heavily on TV, there was news of a snub for Purbeck after a new BBC series of Famous Five stories was filmed hundreds of miles away from the countryside which inspired the author. Enid Blyton, who spent months every year in her beloved Purbeck, described Corfe Castle and Lulworth Cove in her Kirrin Island adventures for the Famous Five. However, the latest series used locations in Cornwall, Wales and Gloucester to film its scenes.

Swanage Town Council was left with a difficult decision to make after the results of a public consultation on controversial multi million pound plans to stabilise the eroding cliff along the seafront revealed a fairly even split in opinion. Passionate views were expressed for and against both proposed designs, with 51 percent backing the £11 million enhanced scheme and 44 percent favouring the £4 million essential scheme, with the remainder selecting ‘don’t know’.

Looking to the future, a wind and solar farm which was 20 years in the making was finally completed at East Stoke, near Wareham, and will generate enough power to run the equivalent of every home in Purbeck for at least the next 25 years. It will also fund a conservation project which will see 13 hectares of grassland being turned back into traditional Purbeck heathland as a home to rare mammals, reptiles, birds and plants.

Swanage town centre closed the year on a high note as a slew of new businesses either launched or announced opening plans, providing evidence of a post pandemic revitalisation. A new florist, a sweet shop, The Corner restaurant, the gift shop Old Harry is a Rock and a smoke house eatery, Smoke on the Water, are all bringing a new buzz to the town – here’s to a successful 2024 for all!

Can you remember what happened the year before?

  • Here’s the review of 2022!

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