Books with settings in the south west of England

Classic books set in the south west

15 February 2021

Coronavirus meant that more and more of us were spending even more time at home – which meant less time to get out and about exploring the beauty of our region. Avoiding travelling between tiers, new strains, and social distancing all meant that the idea of not going out at all seemed more and more appealing. Luckily for all of us, there was an at-home activity that took us into the outside world from the comfort of our favourite chair – reading!

There are loads of books based on locations around our network – from kids’ favourites like Watership Down (based around the hill of the same name) to classics like Far from the Madding Crowd (based in the area around Dorchester). Better still, most of them have locations that we know – or were inspired by ones recognisable today, which means that a book-lover’s day out is just a train-ride away now that we can visit the outside world again.

Children’s books based in the South West

Five on a Treasure Island and Five Have a Mystery to Solve (The Famous Five series, by Enid Blyton)

Considered Blyton’s magnum opus, the Famous Five series has captured imaginations for more than 75 years. Based in Blyton’s favourite holiday destination, Purbeck in Dorset, Five on a Treasure Island and Five Have a Mystery to Solve are both great for young readers – or for grownups reading to little ones.

Travelling to see the locations is easy too – Wareham station is a great central point to start exploring. Kirrin Island and the ruins of Kirrin Castle, the scene of the first Famous Five book, is based on Corfe Castle – a battle-scarred survivor of conflicts through the ages which dates back to the Norman conquest. A stroll to the charming village of the same name – unsurprisingly the inspiration for Kirrin Village – makes a great stopping point for lunch or afternoon tea. On a longer trip, you might like to catch a steam train south to Swanage and its bay, a favourite of Enid and her husband Kenneth.

Corfe Castle
Corfe Castle - the inspiration for Kirrin Castle - towers over the landscape

Fans of the penultimate Famous Five book Five Have a Mystery to Solve will certainly recognise “Whispering Island” once you step off the ferry to Brownsea Island. Christened by Blyton as “Keep Away Island” thanks to its reclusive owner Mary Bonham-Christie who wanted the island to return to nature, it’s one of the last remaining places in the UK to see our native red squirrels in their natural habitat.

Mary Anning (History VIPs series, by Kay Barnham) and A Girl Called Mary (by G. D. Waters)

These fun and engaging books suit younger readers and focus on the stunning Jurassic Coast – and particularly on the incredible number of fossils to find that give the coast its name. Centred around Mary Anning, a Lyme Regis resident and supposed-subject of the age-old tongue twister “she sells sea shells on the sea shore”, these books are perfect for younger readers to discover Victorian history through the eyes of someone who’s profession was almost unknown at the time – a female palaeontologist!

The Jurassic Coast
The Jurassic Coast offers highly-Instagrammable incredible views as well as plentiful fossil-hunting!

Going fossil-hunting on the Jurassic Coast is easy too – we’ve even put together a guide to fossil-hunting to help – with numerous stations across the south coast between Bournemouth and Weymouth. Visitors to Anning’s Lyme Regis can travel with tickets that include your bus travel from Axminster – just ask for a ticket to Lyme Regis.

Watership Down (by Richard Adams)

Centred in the triangle of North Hampshire created by Basingstoke, Winchester and Newbury, Watership Down was the setting for the classic (if rather brutal) children’s book. The struggle of the brave group of rabbits leads them from Sandleford in Berkshire to Watership Down, and surviving against the cunning General Woundwart is well known to most adults who read the book or watched the 1999-2001 television series.

View from Watership Down
Watership Down offers spectacular views across the north of Hampshire

Watership Down itself lies southwest of the village of Kingsclere – about half-way between Basingstoke and Newbury, offering fantastic views across North Hampshire and into Berkshire. Popular year-round with walkers and cyclists, there’s also lots of opportunities for rabbit-spotting too! Nearby you’ll find Highclere Castle (perfect for Downton Abbey fans, and film-watchers will enjoy our Movie Trail blog about locations on our network used in major motion pictures) – and if you’re staying, it’s perfect for a day trip to London or the beach.

Books for adults set in the south west

War of the Worlds (by H. G. Wells)

Having never been out of print, it’s a surprise that more people haven’t read this renowned novel by the “father of science fiction”. Starting in Surrey, the story begins in Woking and on Horsell Common, before moving onto London via Kew and Sheen and finally into Essex – finally returning to Woking, the home of the narrator, all under the shadow of extra-terrestrial invasion.

Of course, Woking doesn’t look much like it did in 1897 when the novel was written, but the town has whole-heartedly embraced their status as the centre for alien incursion, and you’ll find a homage to the story in the middle of town in the form of a seven-metre high sculpture of a tripod based on the descriptions in the novel.

Horsell Common (Credit: Victor Ochieng)
Horsell Common offers pleasant and refreshing walks year-round. | Credit: Victor Ochieng

Horsell Common, fortunately, hasn’t changed entirely, and you’ll still find the Sandpit in the heart of the Common – written as the landing site of the Martian space craft, it’s now a point of pilgrimage for sci-fi fans from all over the world. While you’re there, we recommend walking the Bedser Trail for a view of the rest of the Common, and a visit to the Islamic Peace Garden – originally a military cemetery for Muslim soldiers from then-Undivided India, it’s now a site of tranquillity and remembrance.

The Children of the New Forest (by Captain Frederyk Marriat)

The story of the Beverley children is set in the time of the English Civil War. When Parliamentary soldiers decide to burn Arnwood, the home of Cavalier officer Colonel Beverley, his four children are believed to have died. Saved by a local verderer, they’re disguised as rural grandchildren and have to adapt from their aristocratic lifestyle to that of simple foresters – growing up in the forest itself.

New Forest
A view that Captain Marryat would recognise - in the heart of the New Forest.

Of course, the New Forest remains much as it did when the story was set – as does the town of Lymington, which features. Head to Brockenhurst to access the best of the New Forest – the bike hire next to the station means you’ll have plenty of range to explore. The real-life Arnewood Manor now serves as a care home, but the village of Sway nearby is well worth visiting, as is Lymington – an idyllic town that’s perfect for watching the boats of an afternoon.

H4: Far From the Madding Crowd (by Thomas Hardy)

Likely one of the most famous names associated with our region, Thomas Hardy lived in Dorchester for most of his life. The rural southwest of England became Wessex – in his words “partly real, partly dream-country” – and was first mentioned in Far From the Madding Crowd. Set in the fictional village of Weatherby (in real life the wonderfully named Puddletown), the story follows the life of Bathsheba Everdene against the backdrop of a typical farming community in Victorian England. In 2007 this classic ranked tenth place on the Guardian’s list of the Greatest Love Stories of all Time.

Dorchester itself is a delightful town, with history dating back to prehistoric times, and a perfect base for exploring the region. Once you’ve seen everything you want to in town, head out to Bockhampton to visit the cob and thatch cottage that was the birthplace of Thomas Hardy himself, and nearby Max Gate, his home from 1885 until his death in 1928. Both now National Trust properties, they’re open regularly throughout the year.

Puddletown is less than five miles from Dorchester, and you’ll find Waterston Manor, the basis for Weatherbury Farm, as well as more than 50 buildings listed for historic or architectural interest – ideal for devotees of traditional English history.

Max Gate (Credit Glen Bowman)
Max Gate, Thomas Hardy's adult home. | Credit: Glen Bowman

So once you’ve read the books, why not plan your next day out to discover the setting? Booking in advance means that a day out can cost less than you think – with Advance tickets you can make great savings against the price of walk-up tickets, and you can save again with a railcard. Taking family or friends? Get a third off your tickets with Groupsave.

Remember to make sure you brush up on how to keep safe with our Coronavirus travel information – face coverings are compulsory from when you enter the station unless you’re exempt from wearing one.

We love seeing pictures from your travels! Tag us on Instagram @sw_railway.