🗓️ Saturday 27th July – Saturday 3rd August 2024
Swanage Carnival is one of the main highlights of the year in Swanage and across the Isle of Purbeck, with eight days of entertainment taking over the town’s streets in one of Dorset’s most popular family-friendly festivals.
For a whole week in the summer, Swanage’s streets, beach, hills and parks come alive with live music, a colourful parade, barn dances, beer tents and even a wheelbarrow race encompassing every pub in the town. Its bars, cafés and restaurants all enter into the party spirit, and the carnival’s hub at Sandpit Field is a-buzz with stalls, street food, fun games and performances day and night.
The carnival has grown year-on-year since its inception over two hundred years ago. Now, you can expect an array of over a hundred different events, ranging from fun dog shows to family-friendly competitions, and from live bands and a DJ, to the simple pleasures of sand sculpture competitions and go-kart racing.
Some of the best-loved annual events during Carnival Week include the incredible Red Arrows air show, the three spectacular fireworks displays, and of course the Swanage Carnival procession – these events in particular draw many hundreds of visitors each year, so come early to get parked up, make the most of the day, and find a good spot to watch. (Check our car parks page for handy tips on where to park for both short and long-stay parking in town.)
Throughout the week you’ll also be treated to street performers, children’s fairground rides, craft competitions, races, discos, a classic car show, and much more.
At the Carnival’s heart is Sandpit Field, which will have you returning day after day to sample the excellent range of street food, local specialties and sweet treats, as well as exploring the various craft stalls and traditional fairground games. Sandpit Field is also the venue for events throughout the week such as the dog show and dog agility display, as well as being home to the main performance marquee and beer tent with its excellent range of locally-brewed, craft and familiar favourite ales, ciders and IPAs.
The ever-popular Masquerade Night (typically the Thursday evening) sees people spilling out of the bars and restaurants of High Street – fancy dress is encouraged! And Prince Albert Gardens is transformed into an open-air club, complete with DJ and a dance floor area to continue the celebrations into the night.
With over 100 events making up the Swanage Carnival programme every year, there’ll be something for the whole family to enjoy each day.
The best way to plan your time is by buying a Carnival programme, which will have all the event days and timings, along with other handy information, such as a map of where and when everything is happening.
It’s also a great way to support the carnival as proceeds go directly to carnival charities – pick up a copy in many of the local shops in Swanage.
You can also check out general Carnival information on the organiser’s website: swanagecarnival.com
The top attractions of the week are the Carnival procession, where the streets around town are closed off to allow an array of marching bands, colourful floats, vintage cars and local groups in fancy dress to parade along the shore road and around town, and the Swanage Fireworks, held over three nights at sundown and with a grand finale on the final night.
Both spectacles are best-enjoyed by grabbing a spot on the hill above the beach and watching the action unfold.
The carnival parade is a real feast for the eyes and ears, with marching bands and steel drummers joining the procession of floats from near and far, and is typically held on the first Sunday of Carnival week.
Look out for all the local Swanage organisations that take part, such as schools and Brownies & Scout groups – and give them a cheer as they pass. Representatives from the local coastguard and RNLI always take an active part, as well as a range of other community groups all celebrating the best of Swanage.
Be treated to displays from belly-dance troupes, majorettes and marching bands, along with an array of brightly-decorated floats and fancy-dress.
Every year there are also Carnival Ambassadors – a popular competition for young local people to get involved in.
Running on three nights during the week (Saturday; Wednesday; Saturday) the Carnival Fireworks are not to be missed.
With Swanage Bay serving as the perfect backdrop framing the spectacular illuminations of the sky above Swanage, these summer firework displays are a great way to end your day of festivities.
Why not make a plan to see all three from different places so you get a unique aspect of the town each time? The most popular spots to view the fireworks are on the hilly banks above Shore Road and from The Downs, which look across the sea to the beach. Or, if you have a boat, do as many visitors do, and watch from the water.
Timings & useful info
The fireworks tend to kick off at around 9.45pm, although it’s best to arrive early to get a good viewing spot and to ensure you get parked up in time.
Leaving the area immediately after the fireworks can get you caught in slight traffic – we’d recommend staying a little longer for an evening beach stroll or perhaps a nightcap in one of the pubs before heading home.
Parking can be incredibly busy during Carnival week, especially for popular events such as the fireworks, so it’s best to make a day of it and arrive early in the day, or to come by bus or train.
Traditional carnival events
There’s nothing quite like a traditional celebration at the seaside and Carnival is just one of many annual events that families have been enjoying in Swanage for generations.
For the whole family
The carnival’s organisers work throughout the year to bring fun activities, games, competitions and events to everyone from tiny tots through to their great grandparents – and many of these can be enjoyed by the whole family together.
Have a go at building a giant sand sculpture together, go on a treasure hunt through town, or throw on your dancing shoes for a good, old-fashioned barn dance.
Some favourite returning Carnival events:
- Dog show
- Barn dance
- Air displays
- Fun run
- Bowls tournament
- Sailing regatta
- Swanage Bay Swim
- Treasure hunts
- Wacky Races
- Live music
Dedicated children’s stalls, fairground games and activity tents take over Sandpit Field during Carnival week.
There’s Arts & Crafts areas, traditional games like Hook-a-Duck, and lots of yummy food stalls including old-fashioned favourites such as hot dogs, candy floss and toffee apples.
Some of the fun activities held each year for kids at Sandpit field include:
- Party time – Children’s party and fancy dress disco
- Fun races
- Painting competition
- Circus skills
- Arts and Crafts
- Sand sculpture competition
For grown ups
There’s load to do and see at Swanage Carnival for big kids too – from the beer tent and great live music in the carnival marquee to events both sensible, such the classic car show, and the downright silly, like Dorset’s whackiest race – the Swanage Carnival wheelbarrow race.
Get your fancy-dress on and join the fun that starts each year at Shore Road and goes around the streets of town, or cheer them on as they go by.
For one of Dorset’s biggest street parties, get dressed up and come with a carnival-style mask or headdress to Masquerade Night.
The fancy dress shop in town, Fifis, will equip you with everything you need and more for your night. Fifis can be very busy in the lead-up to Masquerade Night as choosing your outfit in preparation is part of the fun of Carnival week – it’s also the go-to place to get kitted out for Swanage’s famous New Year’s Eve fancy dress night.
Whilst Masquerade is suitable for accompanied children and teens in the early part of the evening, with street performers taking to the southern end of High Street, it’s a more grown-up affair in the latter part of the evening.
Arguably the most celebratory atmosphere is outside Snack Bar, with people spilling out onto the street with a skilfully-made cocktail in hand, and of course the DJ stage in Prince Albert Gardens, with its natural dance floor. This beach-side open-air club is brought to the carnival by EHM (Electro House Masquerade) Events.
Grown-up Carnival events:
- Masquerade night
- Beer tent
- Classic car show
- Wheelbarrow race
- Pool competition and darts tournament
- Yard of Ale
Accommodation – where to stay for Carnival week
The best way to enjoy Swanage Carnival is to stay near the action. Whether you want to camp, self-cater or treat yourself to a luxury B&B or a hotel with sea views, there are plenty of options within walking distance of the hub of the carnival.
Book in advance – Be aware that Carnival week is extremely popular and places do get booked up quickly, with many carnival-goers being returning visitors who like to stay in their usual accommodation year-on-year. If there is less availability in Swanage itself, there are plenty of campsites and self-catering options in neighbouring villages such as Langton Matravers, Worth Matravers, Corfe Castle, Harman’s Cross and Studland, as well as a range of camping options within the nearby Purbeck countryside.
Get set up with a hearty breakfast for a fun-filled day at the carnival – just leave enough room for all the delicious food tents in Sandpit Field that you’ll want to try – before returning to a cosy bed in one of Swanage’s many bed & breakfasts.
Airbnb and sites such as booking.com will have a range of places to stay. Some of the most popular B&Bs in Swanage include:
- Arbour House
- Bella Vista
- Caythorpe House
- The Limes
- Millbrook Guest House
- Robertsbrook Guest House
- The Rookery
- Swanage Haven Boutique
- Town Hall Lodge
From lodges in Swanage Coastal Park overlooking the sea, to entire homes to rent offering enough room for the extended family, there are plenty of ways to stay your own way for Carnival week.
The Swanage Bay View Holiday Park is another great option for staying for the events. You can see the sea from its indoor swimming pool and there’s a gym, bar and lounge area to chill out in after a day’s excitement down at the carnival.
Within Swanage itself you’ll find Ulwell HolidayPark, nestled beneath the Purbeck Hills and a short walk from town. Ulwell has great facilities for children, such as a playground and indoor swimming pool.
Nearby is Herston Caravan & Campsite, which is good if you’re on a budget, but it’s a slightly longer walk into town (around 20 minutes).
Just outside Swanage you have popular campsites in and around Harman’s Cross and Corfe Castle – get to the carnival by hopping on the Swanage Railway steam train so you can avoid having to park, which may be extremely busy.
The centre of Carnival week action is just a stone’s throw from the Purbeck House Hotel, which is located in the centre of town – perfect for Masquerade Night and all the beach-side and street activities and events.
The Grand Hotel and the Pines Hotel toward the northern end of Swanage bay, are both handy for taking a stroll down to see what’s going on at Sandpit Field and for grabbing a good spot on the hill to watch the Carnival Parade or the fireworks.
If the hotels in Swanage are full, or you fancy staying a little out of town, try Mortons Manor in Corfe Castle, or in Studland there is The Pig on the Beach and Knoll House Hotel.
History of the Carnival
From a simple sailing regatta back in the 1800s to the week-long extravaganza with over a hundred events throughout the week as it is today, Swanage Carnival has become a key event for the town’s tourism and a special place in the hearts of the people who live here and those who return year-on-year to enjoy the festivities once more.
As the original, historic regatta held in Swanage Bay gained in popularity it soon became a regular feature of the new seaside town, and a carnival to mark its finale was introduced in the 1900s.
Word soon spread of Swanage’s fun-filled Regatta & Carnival and soon a new element was added – the road race. This began to draw even more visitors, and by the mid-1900s festivities had grown into a week-long celebration similar to the carnival we know and love today.
In the 1950s the Swanage Carnival gained further renown when the children’s author of the moment, Enid Blyton, took up the position of Carnival President. Blyton was heavily involved in various aspects of Purbeck life – with her husband, Kenneth Darrell Waters, she owned the Isle of Purbeck Golf Club in Studland and many of her books are heavily influenced by the landscape of this, her favourite holiday destination. It’s recorded that Blyton also helped to organise the famous fireworks display that continues to be one the main attractions of the event to this day.
“I hope the Carnival and Regatta will be as successful as ever, with real summer come at last. But my main thoughts are, of course, with the children, whether resident or visitors. This year they have a very full and exciting programme, and will enjoy every minute. Happy days to you, children, and a great welcome to Swanage, if you are our visitors.”Enid Blyton, in her Carnival Presidential foreword
In the following years, Swanage Carnival became a vital opportunity to raise money for local charitable organisations in Swanage and continues to contribute hugely to good causes, so if you see a donation point or friendly volunteer with a bucket, pop what you can in and know that it’s going to a good cause.
One of the best ways to get involved with the local community in Swanage is through volunteering – and what better way to start sharing your time and skills than Carnival.
It’s a great way to meet new people and see different aspects of the town, whether that’s helping out with the preparations in the months leading up to Carnival as a committee member, or simply becoming a Friend of Swanage Carnival and helping out during the fun-filled but busy week – either way the amount of time you give is flexible.
To enquire about becoming a Friend or committee member, send an email to the Swanage Carnival team here: swanagecarnival.com/volunteer/
More festivals in Purbeck
Whilst Swanage Carnival may be the largest and most well-known annual event here, there are plenty of other festivals to check out both in Swanage and the surrounding Purbeck area.
From family fun to music & dance, and from arts & crafts to sports festivals, there’s a busy calendar of events throughout the year here.