by Laura Chapman, Oxfordshire Mum of 2
My memories of Swanage as a child were fish and chip shops, trampolines on the beach and seaside arcades. I always knew the beach was good so thought we would give it a go. I was extremely pleasantly surprised by how much it has changed. It is certainly one of the smartest seaside towns I’ve visited. It is 130 miles from where we are in Oxfordshire and took 3 hours with a coffee and potty stop along the way. I know in peak season some of the roads around the area get very busy so it may take longer. We booked a holiday cottage in a small village (5 miles from Swanage) called Worth Matravers, which was on a cliff top and had a stunning view of the sea from the back of the house. There are numerous campsites and caravan options in the area too.
The town is really quaint and lovely, there is a good mix of shops including clothes, toys, nic nacs, a hardware store, a health food shop, a shop selling refillable goods. Behind the high street is a small row of shop tucked away and include a chocolate café. We didn’t visit, but it looked amazing!
Things to do in Swanage
This part of the country is a favourite of mine because there are so many things to do for adults and children of all ages. I actually visited the areas a few years ago on a scout camp, so experienced some activities for older children.
The beach is perfect for small children. There are lifeguards on duty and we managed to park on the road right next to the beach so we only had a short distance to carry the mountain of stuff you need with 2 small children. We went with my parents and they had booked a beach hut (also right on the beach) for £14 per day. It was really useful to leave all the beach stuff there, rather than packing it up every day, but more of a luxury than a necessity.
You can hire deck chairs for £3.50 a day or a sun lounger for £7.50. I hired a lounger on the last day and sat on it for approximately 3 minutes! We took blankets and a beach tent for the baby. We also bought our 3-year-old a wetsuit for £12 in one of the local shops as it was quite breezy and she was getting cold. This just stopped the wind chill and her grumbling. We’ve also got it packed for a trip to a splash park this week too.
Monkey World is about a 20-minute drive from Swanage. This is the sanctuary that has been made famous by the TV programme, Monkey Life (there were actually filming whilst we were there). All the Apes and Monkeys have been rescued from various dire situations from around the world and are rehabilitated then looked after in the park. It is set amongst trees and natural vegetation and has grown hugely since I first visited 12 years ago. The whole site has paths suitable for buggies and wheelchairs. Picnic benches are scattered across the park and there are also several play areas for a range of ages. One was perfect for my 3-year-old and another was being used by a group of 15-year-olds on a school trip.
A large café sells coffee, cakes, sandwiches and a small range of hot food. The children are also kept entertained whilst you ‘relax’ with a small soft play area with the added delight of a window into one of the enclosures. In peak season, small shacks are open around the site selling tea and coffee and ice cream. The shop is full of tempting cute cuddly toys, bright t-shirts and all the bits kids love in a gift shop.
The keepers give talks throughout the day and are extremely knowledgeable and entertaining, the monkeys perform to the visitors. My personal favourite are the Orangutans in the nursery. I have been to Monkey World three times before and there was still new things to see, it’s a fantastic day out for all generations!
Putlake Adventure Farm
Putlake Adventure Farm is perfect for the little ones and we were lucky that it was only 2 miles from our cottage. It’s a small and rustic working farm with a good sized soft play. We arrived at 10am and were the only people there, it was a Sunday! We wondered around the small site and saw birds, small pets, a talking parrot, ducks on a pond, a majestic shire horse a Shetland pony, some pigs and some goats. The goats were fairly young and had recently arrived from another farm. There are activities on throughout the day; a tractor trailer rides, pony grooming and bottle feeding the lambs. On site, there is also the cleanest outdoor sandpit I’ve ever visited with a gorgeous beach hut, a trampoline, and some very greedy chickens, who ate all the food my baby dropped when we picnicked on one of the many benches.
Just outside the farm is a tearoom, you can order food from the soft play area is and they deliver it to you. It was very busy serving breakfast when we visited so we waited a while for food, but the cakes were yummy once we got them. As we were leaving, a birthday party were arriving into the soft play part, and we were advised by a member of staff that Sunday afternoons can be particularly busy. Again, you probably couldn’t spend more than a couple of hours here (unless your children are happy to hit the soft play for days) but it was fantastic value and felt like a lovely local business. An adult is £8.25 as are children over 2.
This a traditional pier that has been restored. Along the slats are small brass plaques with special messages. Our lovely friend bought one of these as a wedding present, so we thoroughly enjoyed trying to find it. There appeared to be more spaces available. Lots of people were fishing off the end of the pier and a boat ride was just leaving for Bournemouth, the children were fascinated.
Within the pier complex was a diving school. We purchased a crabbing line (£5) and attempted to catch one from high up, not very successfully. We headed a bit closer to the beach and found some small rock pools, then managed to catch three! My daughter was very excited.
Swanage Steam Railway
If you love a nostalgic trip back in time, then a trip on the Swanage Steam Railway is for you. We had never taken the children on a train, so when the weather was a bit ropey, we decided to jump on board. Although, this is not a cheap option, an adult is £15 and children over 5 are £8. The station has been restored to its former glory, even down to a traditional luggage trolley on the platform. The times of the trains are a bit random, so I advise checking the timetable before you arrive.
We did a return trip to Norden and stayed on to return. You can also stop at Corfe Castle, where there are the ruins and a small model village. Both children fell asleep on the way back, so I suggest taking a flask of tea! The journey took about 50 minutes both ways. Just be warned, the toilets at Norden were locked and no one seemed to have a key. Queue a toddle wee in the wild! This may have just been because it was early in the season. Overall this was an enjoyable and relaxing trip.
Sealife Centre, Weymouth
When the forecast is not so great, this is a good day out. Weymouth is about a 40 minute drive from Swanage and is a typical seaside town. It’s full of arcades, Punch and Judy and (my absolute favourite) seaside tat shops. The Sealife Centre is about a 30 minute walk from the town. Don’t make the same mistake we did and park in the centre. The men had to move the cars, whilst we enjoyed a walk along the promenade, with the children.
If you’ve been to a Sealife Centre before then you know exactly what to expect. Penguins, Seals seahorses, a wetland zone, rock pools, where you can touch the star fish, and my favourite part, the underwater tunnel. The tunnel is smaller than others that I have visited, but is full of the crowd pleasing sharks, turtles and sting rays. I did learn from the keeper that the only reason the sharks don’t eat the other fish is because they are fed well. Even then, occasionally they still do. They have several trails for older children to follow. We tried a free one, but my oldest was still a bit young at 3.
There was a large café, although we didn’t eat there as we visited after lunch, and a smaller café next to a fantastic playground. We stopped here for a drink (Costa) and ice cream. The shop is also full of tempting treats for children on the way out.
We all enjoyed our visit and my 10 month old absolutely loved it, he spent the entire day watching all the fish and sea creatures. It can be expensive though if you leave it until the last minute, the online booking saves you 40%, but you have to book 5 days in advance. We also found 50% off vouchers on the checkout at Sainsbury (Wareham) the following day. We spent around 3 hours inside altogether, so I would suggest planning an afternoon or morning on the beach too.
Swanage Folk Festival
The Swanage Folk Festival takes place in early September each year. A family friendly event with traditional Morris dancing, lots of folk music and childrens’ activities.
Eating Out in Swanage
There are lots of pubs and restaurants in the town and the surrounding villages, although we didn’t sample many. We had a lovely Italian meal in La Trattoria on the High Street.
We also bought some delicious sandwiches from a bakery just off the beach. We had a Chinese from Wok Chef Chinese Takeaway which was good and we also went to the Salt Pig for tea and Croissants when we met a local family friend. They sell meat and fish in a shop too. There is a very well stocked Co-Op and a Budgens in the town centre for those of you doing self-catering. My tip is to do an online shop and get it delivered to your accommodation. Some places will even unpack it for you!
We had a fantastic trip to Swanage, it was a perfect mix of sandcastles, cream teas and activities. The children had a blast and so did we!