Animal kingdom

Caroline Baum encounters refugee apes, literary history and a dash of eccentricity in Dorset.

Dorset is not just where Tess of the D'Urbervilles meets her tragic destiny. Even though the county's rolling pasture and dramatic coastline are the backdrop to Thomas Hardy's broodingly intense tales, you don't have to be on a literary pilgrimage to appreciate its attractions.

The amazing thing about Dorset is that it caters to such a diversity of interests, many of them concentrated in a relatively small area along the coast known as the Purbeck Peninsula.

For animal lovers, Purbeck's main attraction is Monkey World, a sanctuary for abused and orphaned apes. Established in 1987, the wildlife centre gained a huge worldwide following and profile from two television shows (Monkey Business and Monkey Life) documenting how traumatised monkeys were cared for by the centre's founders, Jim and Alison Cronin. Jim died of cancer in 2007, but Alison and a dedicated team have carried on his mission to rescue primates around the world from exploitation and cruelty: primarily from laboratory experiments for drug testing and as captive circus and seaside attractions.

An education officer and keeper explains on a privately guided tour of the 26-hectare property that mature chimps have their sizeable teeth knocked out to prevent them biting people posing for photographs with them on Spanish beaches. Monkey World is a welfare centre, not a zoo, and refers to its residents as refugees; among them five species of gibbon, the largest group of chimpanzees living outside Africa, orang-utans from Borneo and Sumatra, capuchins, marmosets, tamarins, lemurs and macaques.

None is expected to perform for visitors, though feeding times provide a natural focus and spectacle. There is no attempt to hide the awful circumstances that have brought the animals here, and the centre doesn't pretend to be able to fully rehabilitate the monkeys. Some adjust better than others. A visit can be confronting; expect to see real aggression among the primates, as well as irrepressibly playful behaviour as they swing from scarlet hoses, donated by local firefighters.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Monkey World's duty-of-care routine is that the female primates are given a cup of orange juice containing a contraceptive pill each morning, because it's not a breeding facility (except among the endangered orang-utans).

Giving intelligent creatures the chance to live a better life is a noble mission, and a visit here is moving. When an orang-utan presses its palm against the glass, following your finger with its own, the connection between us and them goes straight to the heart.

It's hard to reconcile this intimate moment with a keeper's unsentimental assessment of orang-utans: "They have long memories and will wait years to get their revenge on you."

If human revenge is more your thing, there's no better place to reflect on it than among the spectacular ruins of a 1000-year-old Norman castle, perched on what must surely be one of the most picturesque hilltops in all of Britain.

Not much is left of Corfe Castle, but its dramatic setting eclipses the castle's dilapidated state. One of the first fortifications built of stone in Britain during the 11th century by William the Conqueror, it bears the scars of later Civil War sieges. The castle was demolished by order of parliament during the 17th century but the site has been much restored in the past couple of years, in recognition of the increasing number of visitors it attracts.

The best way to approach it is via the charming steam railway that departs from the nearby seaside town of Swanage. Locals have restored the line, sleeper by sleeper, after it was closed and the track torn up 40 years ago.

The stations at either end of the line are decorated with vintage advertising signage and everyone joins in the nostalgic spirit; the ticket collector passes through each carriage in retro uniform and there's an old-fashioned buffet in a restored dining coach at the Swanage platform.

It's a steep walk up a chalk hill from the village of Corfe to the castle but the view from the top is glorious, scoping the undulating pasture of the county all the way to the so-called Jurassic Coast. Beaches and cliffs here have revealed the presence of dinosaurs and continue to yield a treasure of fossils and footprints, earning the area World Heritage status and making it a popular destination for walkers along the South West Coast Path (marked by an acorn symbol).

Swanage is a good base for exploration. Situated on an enormous bay, it's a sleepy, unfashionable town that seems to be just waiting to be woken up by a prince/entrepreneur - a bit like Padstow in Cornwall before Rick Stein helped transform it into what cynics now call Padstein. Just because Swanage isn't a "dining destination" doesn't mean you'll starve here. The Purbeck Deli showcases the small producers of the region and the unassuming Tawny's bistro serves a generous pasta with local crab that is hard to beat.

Because it has not been "discovered", Swanage's charms still seem genuine. A row of restored wooden bathing boxes overlooking the beach are a reminder of '50s colour schemes and an era when beach etiquette was about discretion. The place has a gentle, unhurried rhythm, underscored by low-key B&Bs rather than boutique hotels.

With its distinctive pointy-hat turreted roof, the redbrick Victorian-era Castleton, just metres from the beach, is one of the best lodgings. Hosts Julian and Maggie Maughan serve home-baked sponge after check-in, and outstanding porridge and eggs for breakfast - just the thing before setting out on a coastal exploration, inspired perhaps by one of Britain's most celebrated adventurers, the larger-than-life T. E. Lawrence.

Better known as Lawrence of Arabia, the handsome archaeologist-turned-army officer and political strategist escaped his own fame by retreating to a tiny cottage in Dorset at Clouds Hill, between Swanage and Wareham and not far from the Bovington army camp, where tank-exercise manoeuvres still take place.

Lawrence lived frugally, in spartan conditions without electricity, eating out of tins as if still camping in the desert and using the bushes in the absence of a toilet.

Unlike many more sanitised National Trust properties, Clouds Hill speaks volumes about its owner, perhaps because he designed and made the few pieces of furniture, including the strange, square leather bed base on which he slept in a swag. Lawrence insulated the modest upstairs guest room with silver foil.

The knowledgeable guide on duty has a wealth of anecdotes and a scholarly understanding of Lawrence's role in what Britain called the Great Game. Among the visitors who accepted his limited and eccentric hospitality were E. M. Forster and yes, Thomas Hardy. There's no escaping him in this part of the world.

Caroline Baum travelled courtesy of Visit Britain and Visit Dorset.


Getting there

Swanage is 148 kilometres from London via the M27 motorway, with more scenic routes via the A31 and A35. There's a train from London's Waterloo station to Swanage via Weymouth, or a bus (035) from Victoria bus station.

Staying there

The Castleton has nine rooms, which cost between £55 ($88) and £100 a night, including breakfast. At 1 Highcliffe Road, Swanage, see

Touring there

Monkey World, near Wareham, Dorset, is open daily 10am-5pm. Entry costs £11 adults, £34 for a family of four, see

On the Swanage Railway, the trip from Swanage to Corfe takes 20 minutes, see

The historic house Clouds Hill is open 11am-5pm Wed-Sun, entry £5. At Wareham, near Bovington, see

The Purbeck Deli has a good selection of local produce and picnic supplies. At 26 Institute Road, Swanage, see

More information