Updated: Sep 25, 2022
Iconic, Perhaps the best way to describe one of Dorsets most loved and photographed places, Corfe Castle.
Few will have never heard of this mystical castle, and even fewer will have never seen a photo of this magnificent castle floating in seas of mist.
This atmospheric location is really special mainly down to the fact that its in a small valley which acts as a mist trap and is capable of giving you dream conditions for landscape photography and guaranteed to give you a picture with a real wow factor.
If you live in Dorset you will be under no illusions just how popular Corfe Castle is and how it acts like a magnet to the thousands of landscape photographers who visit each year.
If you like solitude then this venue is possibly not for you, but I have to say you will miss out if you choose to avoid it, it really is one of the most breathtaking sights you can see in the UK
Corfe Castle History
So a little bit of history about the castle to give you a flavour of its heritage.
Corfe Castle was built by William the conqueror in the 11th century and sits on top of a chalk hill which had been cut away by the path of two rivers which flowed around the outside of it leaving a perfect cone shaped hill for the castle to nestle on.
Around the edge of the castle were a further two large hills which gave good defensive positions for the castle unless of course they were breached then it was a sitting duck, These are known as East hill & West hill.
Corfe Castle is of particular significance as it was built from Purbeck stone from the area which was unusual for this time period, most being made of wood & mud etc...
The stature of Corfe Castle was therefore deemed to be very high and desirable and it is thought that it is even mentioned in the Doomsday book.
Corfe castles ownership changed hands many times over the years and it was the scene of many epic battles but eventually it ended up in the hands of the National Trust in 1981 when it was left to them by Henry John Ralph Bankes along with the entire Bankes estate including Kingston Lacy.
The National Trust did some extensive renovations on the castle between 2006-2009 in order to make it safe and open it to the public where it quickly became one of the most popular landmarks to visit in Dorset.
Now this is a VERY brief history of the Castle but I don't want to go into too much detail as you can all use google I'm sure and we're here to concentrate on the landscape photography aspect rather than the full history of Corfe castle.
Pretty much all of the pictures you will see of Corfe castle are taken from West Hill from near the top but Corfe has 4 faces and each of them offers something completely different and are all well worth exploring as they are great shots in their own right.
The other element you will see 95% of the time with photos of Corfe castle are the traditional misty ones with the castle rising out of a sea of tranquility.
This shot is super popular for a good reason, it looks amazing and there are few landscape photographers who don't want it in their portfolio, but Corfe castle doesn't have to be just about the endless cliche of mist, it looks fantastic in lots of other conditions, my personal favourite is it being bathed in golden light without the mist.
If everyone shoots it in mist then you all end up with the same shot so don't discount Corfe castle in anything other than mist cause you will miss out, not to mention you will have the place virtually to yourself when there is no mist forecast.
Weekend mornings rather unsurprisingly are the busiest time and in peak conditions I have seen over 40 photographers all lined up on the hill clashing tripods in the morning chasing the mist shot, this is my idea of hell so I do tend to avoid it for that reason (and the fact I've shot it to death)
That said you can have the place all to yourself in the evenings for sunset as people seem to avoid it in favour of sunrise and mist.
Corfe Castle Directions
To get to Corfe castle and the national trust car park set your sat nav to postcode BH20 5DR, As you come in on the A351 take the second exit on the roundabout and then the National Trust car park is on the left after a few hundred yards.
The National Trust car park is free to National trust members but is chargeable to non members and is often patrolled so don't think you will get away without a ticket just cause its early morning, however if you go past the National trust car park and take the right immediately after it there is a fairly good size lay by on the right which can be parked in for free and can accommodate around a dozen or so cars.
Once you are here you will see a small gate (See West Hill Footpath 1 marked on the above map) Go through the gate, and through the next one into the field which has a small barn on the right hand side of the field, walk past this heading to the gate on the opposite side of the field with Corfe Castle behind you.
The large gate is usually open but if its not there is a smaller walkers gate to the right of it you can go through.
Once through this gate you will see the footpath up West hill, now this climb is very steep and the rocks can move underfoot so care needs to be taken.
It does require quite a bit of effort to get up this hill due to its steep nature and slippery sides if you take the most direct route and it will certainly leave all but the fittest of photographers puffing a bit while carrying heavy go so going light is recommended.
The other option is the slightly easier path which splits off to the left and cuts across the hill diagonally at a much more manageable gradient, This is recommended for anyone who isn't as fit as they used to be !
I prefer the harder route as it gives a better vantage point in my opinion and is worth the extra effort but you can still reach this from the easier gradient when you get to the end of the path simply go up and double back on yourself to reach points 5,4,3,2 &1.
The walk up the hill isn't long, in fact its pretty short and should only take you a couple of minutes, its just the gradient that makes it tough for us unfit people !
Best Places to Photograph Corfe Castle From
I have shown pictures with their corresponding numbers on the map of West Hill above so you will have an idea of which area will suit you best.
The route on the map goes from bottom to top and back down again so you can infact go from either direction if you wish, point 8 on the map is a slightly easier walk in my opinion but both are pretty similar gradients.
West Hill is traditionally a sunrise location as the sun comes right up behind Corfe Castle from this vantage point BUT don't discount it for sunsets too as the sun sets behind you and if you catch it right with dramatic storm clouds and light cascading over the castle it can look spectacular.
When the mist hits you will ideally need to be high above it which will mean points 7 & 8 are going to be in the thick of the mist and should be avoided (unless that's exactly what you're after)
Unsurprisingly the top of the hill is usually the busiest part during misty mornings or weekends as it offers the highest vantage point and enables you to get Corfe Castle itself lower in the frame rather than poking out over the hill which will mean the use of ND grad filters is much easier as you don't get the extra dark tips of the castle where the filter goes over it, something that will happen the lower down the hill you are.
The best time of year to shoot from West Hill is from October to March for sunrise where you stand a good chance of mist and the sun is in a very pleasing position behind the castle.
Sunsets from West Hill where you are more reliant on light can be done at anytime of the year as Corfe castle is right in the path of the light, obviously remembering that the sun is setting behind you so less colour in the sky but more light on your subject.
It is pretty hard to get an original composition from West hill as its been shot so extensively by the many landscape photographers who visit it, but I would say in misty conditions the pattern of the mist always varies so it is possible to get something special still.
Now one of the biggest issues with misty mornings at Corfe castle is the the fact that the mist can completely cover the castle on some occasions but don't panic, just hold on as it comes in in waves from the flat nature reserves and can rise and fall at quite a dramatic rate so just hold on rather than dismissing it as not going to happen.
Patience is the key at Corfe Castle, you will generally be stuck with the first composition you have set up for as the other spots fill up very quickly and you won't have the chance to take many varying angles so its better to wait for that one perfect moment when the mist is being kind and the sky is working in your favour.
Lots of landscape photographers seem to pack up the second the sun has come up and rush off, maybe to work ? or maybe they have what they want but its well worth waiting as when the sun rises it throws massive shadows off the back of the castle which can look very dramatic although they can be hard to expose for.
I tend to arrive at least one hour before sunrise when I am expecting mist at Corfe castle, partly to secure a good position and partly because I actually prefer to photograph it before the sun has risen as it makes the exposure easier, the mist is generally flatter and the colours in the sky reflects nicely off the mist without too much contrast, It's just a personal opinion but I do feel it makes for a better, more balanced photograph.
The other reason is Corfe Castle can be annoyingly temperamental with mist, the forecast can look perfect, low wind, high humidity, low temperature, dew point etc only to get there and find there's none ! Arriving early will give you enough time to divert to another venue and still catch a decent sunrise hopefully.
But i'm feeling generous and I will share a little edge with you, the live stream webcam for Corfe station can be viewed HERE (scroll down the page and hit the play button) and it is right at the base of the castle so it will give you a good idea of what is going on before you decide to leave.
When the sun rises the mist usually does the same and it goes a little crazy before slowly being burnt off by the sun, This can be an absolutely fantastic time to photograph Corfe castle as its full of dramatic light and swirling mist ! Heaven.
Best Lens Choice
Lens choice for West Hill is a very personal thing, I shoot it with a 16-35, 24-105,70-200 and 100-400 for real close up work but each lens has its limitations.
For me personally the best all round lens is the 24-105 as you can cover most situations with it.
When shooting with the wide angle lens the castle can be a bit lost but it does enable to you get some foreground in the shot, but its my least favourite lens for West Hill.
The 70-200 is a good focal length if you want to shoot panoramas of the castle and East hill in the background plus it will enable you to pick up details in the town of Corfe as the mist is clearing where they have a particularly nice looking old church.
If you're looking to travel light, the 24-105 or similar focal length will be the best choice to cover the widest range of situations here in my opinion, if you can manage the weight though, take all three as it will score you some bonus pictures for sure.
There is a fence at the top of West hill which is where the famous gate shot comes from, this gate is often open and cows can be in the field and sometimes wander into the photo area, please treat them and the field with respect and don't interfere with either, the field is private land but its also a footpath so access is allowed.
Once you have come down the footpath to point 8 on the map you can go to the road, turn right and there is a gate a short way up on the left which leads to "The Rings" area of Corfe Castle which has its own charm and is actually a really nice face of the castle but in truth it only really works well with light on the castle rather than sunrise as you will be right in the mist by shooting there but its worth checking out as it can provide some interesting views and its an area that receives very little attention, keep an eye out for certain trees here which can frame Corfe castle nicely and footpaths which add a good lead line too.
Moving on from West hill side of Corfe castle in a clockwise direction we come to East hill which features in so many of the photographs taken from the more popular West hill but is often considered the poor brother as to be perfectly honest the view of the castle from here isn't as good as from West Hill.
It is also prone to having the mist roll over it so you would need to be fairly high up it to still be able to get a picture if you choose to do so, but it is generally used as a sunset shot by most but personally I do really like it for a morning shot when the light is pouring all over the castle and surrounding hills, it might not look as dramatic as the view from West hill but its still well worth consideration.
In order to get to East hill you drive past the National Trust car park and past the next left with the multi arched bridge on it then the road bends round sharply to the right you will see a small road on the left leading up a hill with a railway bridge going over it, This road is called Sandy Hill Lane, turn into it as as soon as you go under the bridge you will see a style on your left hand side, this is the access to the East hill footpath.
You can park on the right hand side of the road for free in a handful of spaces but watch out for the double yellow lines further up, You don't need to drive here as you can park in the free lay by and walk up as its barely a 2 minute walk just for reference.
Once you have gone over the style you will go up some very steep steps between the trees and eventually come to a clearing where the path clearly goes up the hill.
You can walk to the top or go diagonally left and shoot anywhere along the route here.
Be aware this field is a cow field and they are often out so please don't take dogs up here unless they are under close control.
The cows are pretty docile and are used to seeing people on the hill but they can be curious so be prepared for a visit from them but as always please treat them with respect as you are in their home.
Again there really isn't too many views of Corfe Castle from this hill but it works well for panoramas and sunsets of the castle but as stated before, its by far the least popular of the two high vantage hills.
Wide angle or focal lengths of up to 100 mm will be best for this area as you can cover most areas with them and there really isn't that much foreground to shoot there anyway as its just a grassy hill but it can catch nice light in the morning as the blades of grass sway around on the breeze.
Moving on from here you can take a drive through Corfe village which in itself is a beautiful place full of stone cottages and thatched roofs and full of character, not to mention some great coffee houses and pubs, well worth an explore !
As you drive through Corfe village (East Street) for around 3/4 of a mile you will come to a right hand turn, the B3069 which is sign posted "Langton Matravers/Kingston/Worth Matravers" take this road for about 1/3rd of a mile just as you are driving up the hill and on your right hand side you will see a very small gravel lay by suitable for three cars maximum.
Pull into this lay bay and right next to it is a gate for Corfe Common, Walk through this and head for higher ground, or frankly anywhere on the common as they all face Corfe castle and this is in my opinion the best face of the castle.
This view gets good light throughout the day but isn't really a sunrise or sunset location except possibly for sunrise in the depths of winter where the light strikes the castle.
It is quite a heavy area for mist and you will only be able to shoot through it on the very highest ground.
Corfe common is home to many rare species and as with everywhere should be treated with the utmost respect and areas that aren't footpaths should not be trampled, the common is also home to wild ponies & cows which are often intrigued by the rather odd looking landscape photographers that pop up around it and will quite often come close to investigate.
The horses are especially friendly so please treat them with respect and remember you are in their garden, not the other way round.
Misty mornings can be hit or miss from this spot, if its heavy then avoid it but if its light then it will hold it well for you and you can get above it, where this area comes into its own is during stormy weather when you get those blissful moments of intense heavy light working its way across the flanks of East & West hill onto the castle.
When these beams of intense light strike the castle it isolates it from the background with stunning effect and can almost make it glow, its also an especially good spot in Autumn as the trees below Corfe castle can become very colourful and it has the added bonus of Corfe church being visible in the shot too, without doubt this is my favourite area and also one of the quietest in regards to other landscape photographers.
It's pretty popular with dog walkers and hikers but all of whom will generally take a different path to where you will be photographing from and cause no problems to any shots.
This area lends itself very well to wide panoramic photography as it's the broadest view of Corfe castle and the best area to get light throughout the day.
From here you can continue driving to the top of the hill till you reach a pub on the right hand side called the "Scott Arms" which indecently is fantastic for food and well worth a visit for the all important thirst quenching pint too !
Turn right at the Scott arms and follow the narrow road down to "Houns Tout" car park which is on the left in between a tree lined gravel path.
Proceed on foot back out the way you drove in to the road and turn left until you come to a clearing on your right hand side by a field, only 1 minutes walk.
Please note that the forest here is private land and has residents living there so respect their boundaries and don't go in.
From here you will be treated to an epic view of the castle and hardly ever bothered by anyone too but you will absolutely need a long lens for this shot in the region of 400 mm.
If there is any signs of wind then avoid this shot as it can be very frustrating trying to get sharp images.
This location works very well in winter as you can get high enough above the mist to have a great view of Corfe castle with the added bonus of it being side lit by the morning sunrise.
The location also works well during daylight hours as this side of the castle is lit all day, again its best suited too stormy weather with intense light bursts, but don't even attempt it with shorter focal lengths as its just a nothing shot without the telephoto lens.
From here you can go back the way you came until you get to the Scott Arms pub where instead of turning right you can go straight across and down the road for about a mile (Signposted Swanage) until you get to a lay by on the right hand side, pull in here.
Now this shot isn't for everyone as you are stood on a fairly busy road on the verge which isn't very wide at all, in fact its quite dangerous so only go for this if you are very sure of yourself in such a small work space.
Again you will need a telephoto lens of around 400 mm and absolutely a wind free day as it can get really choppy up there due to the wind coming directly in from the coast just behind you.
This shot doesn't tend to work very well for the misty mornings, its better for light traveling across in my opinion, but can be good if you catch it just right so don't rule it out, again the added bonus you will probably have it to yourself as not many landscape photographers take such a long focal length lens with them and the shot is simply nothing with a wide angle lens.
There are a couple of other areas around here that allow you to get a little closer to the castle and can produce a great picture but out of respect for the land owners I won't list them as express permission was sought from them before venturing onto their land.
There are several other areas that I haven't covered in this blog as its getting quite long and frankly I'm enjoying having them to myself for exploring for a while ! can't give up everything !
I hope this blog will encourage you to have a look at Corfe castle in a different light and that it doesn't just have to be the iconic misty morning shot that you go for, There are many possibilities for different style shots and also many more locations and indeed faces of this most magical landmark.
Other Landscape Photography Locations Nearby
Close by locations that are also well worth a visit if you are doing a long journey down are.....
1. Kimmeridge Bay POSTCODE BH20 5PE read my guide to Kimmeridge Bay
2. River Frome, Wareham POSTCODE BH20 4LP
3. Swanage Seafront POSTCODE BH19 1NS
4. Lulworth Cove POSTCODE BH20 5RQ read my guide to Lulworth Cove
5. Wareham Forest - Pictures
6. Old Harry Rocks Read My Guide
I hope this will help a few of you out who are not from the area and let me know if you get any good shots.
As always, Happy shooting. Daniel Wretham