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A walk on the (mildly) wild side
The Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site (England)
Member Name: duncantorr
The Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site (England)
Date: 13/08/12, updated on 13/08/12 (217 review reads)
Advantages: Fascinating coastline with superb sea views
Disadvantages: Arduous walking in places
It is onto the beach we stride, passing the notice-board that marks the beginning of the South West Coast Path. Never fear, I'm not going to ask you to walk the full 630 miles, nor even the full length of the 'Jurassic Coast', which we shall soon reach, just the first 30 or so around the shores of the 'Isle' of Purbeck, which is an island in name and spirit only, not geography. On foot the hike might take us two or three days, and would be worth it, but here a few minutes will, I hope, suffice to give you an impression of what is to be seen on this most varied and scenic stretch of coastline.
* Sandbanks Ferry to Swanage *
For the first few miles we will be on the beaches of Shell Bay and Studland Bay. Those of you with long memories may recall the opening credit sequence of Monty Python, in which Michael Palin rises from the waves - this was filmed at Shell Bay, with Bournemouth in the background. Once we turn south onto Studland Beach, though, that backdrop is behind us. We are now also out of earshot of the road, which will not impinge again until we reach Swanage. On our shoreward side are the dunes and scrubland of a Nature Reserve. This bit of the beach is also something of a naturist reserve, although mostly they bask among the dunes rather than on the shore itself and are a nuisance to nobody. Here we are treading a long sweep of soft sand, oyster-catchers dodging our footsteps at the sea's edge, and gulls calling overhead. Towards the southern end, the National Trust, which owns Studland Beach, has built a visitor centre and car park discreetly set back from the shore, as are a number of adjacent beach-huts. In this area you find more families picnicking or playing in the sand, but even in high summer it is barely crowded by the standards of British beaches; moreover it is Blue Flag clean, and safe for swimming.
Where the beach ends, we ascend a rocky headland and continue past another, more secluded, beach, then turn east with the path towards the point known as Old Harry Rocks. Out to sea, on a clear day, you can see the sunlight glowing on the Needles of the Isle of Wight, as it does on the mirror-image chalk spike of Old Harry himself, who rises from the sea to stand sentinel at the tip of the foreland. Until a few years ago, Old Harry enjoyed the company of another chalk column known as Old Harry's Wife, but she has now been washed away and Harry is a widower. The chalk here erodes quickly, and it cannot be long before he joins his spouse. Only a few million years ago, Purbeck and Wight were one, sharing a continuous chalk ridge; now they are separated by twenty miles or more of open sea. Nevertheless, either Old Harry or his successors will last out our lifetimes, and while they last this is an exhilarating headland to walk around, despite the buffeting of the breeze as we breast the next rise in the cliff path and see Swanage nestling in its bay below.
* Swanage and round Durleston Head *
Swanage is the only town we will come to on the Purbeck coast, indeed the only human settlement of any substance. Originally a fishing village and port for the shipping of Purbeck Stone, Swanage became a seaside resort in Victorian times. A modest example of such places, its resorty attractions are on a muted scale. It offers a front to walk along behind a sandy beach, complete with deckchairs for hire and a Punch-and-Judy show in summer; a park with bandstand and crazy golf; a railway station now disconnected from the national network but home to the enthusiast-run Swanage Steam Railway; and a pier, its attractive ironwork also restored by local enthusiasts, who partly finance the maintenance by selling brass plaques bearing well-wishers' messages that are inset into the underfoot boards. When this practice started, perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago, only a few were taken, but the idea has caught on and now hundreds, perhaps even thousands, cram the space available; better hurry if you want your support commemorated in this way. A reminder of the fate this pier might have suffered may be seen in the rotting timbers of another, which jut up from the waves between it and the quay.
Already we are at the southern side of Swanage Bay and are leaving town uphill to a little park on Peveril Point. This is a fine place to catch our breath and survey the view back over Swanage from a different angle. Once around the Point, the path is eroded and we must divert inland for a quarter of a mile or so, before finding our way back to the clifftops within the grounds of Durlston Country Park, with only glimpses of the sea visible through its lush vegetation. Durlston 'Castle', at the peak of the park, is a castle in outward appearance only, having been built as a Victorian folly, and recently converted to house an art gallery and exhibition centre. On its seaward side, reached by steep stone steps, is sited an enormous stone globe erected at the same time as the castle, depicting the world as it was then understood to be, a history lesson in itself. On the landward side, a much more modern feature is a walkway representing the timeline from the world's origins to the present day, scaled for geological, botanical and human history - the latter of course occupying only the last few inches. Perhaps the idea of this timeline was inspired by the fact that we in the World Heritage Site known as the Jurassic Coast, which extends all the way west into Devon. Indeed, we entered the Jurassic Coast back at Old Harry, although his chalk is strictly speaking Cretaceous.
* Durleston Head to St Aldhelm's Head *
In fact, calling this the Jurassic Coast was clever branding but dubious geology, since three distinct periods are represented. However the limestone over which we are walking after rounding Durleston Head is the genuine Jurassic stuff. The local stone is prized as a superior building material, and is quarried right along the southern side of Purbeck, in places out of the cliffs themselves. One of these coastal quarries is soon reached, the so-called Tilly Whim Caves, where you can still see the cave-like shafts cut horizontally into the cliff-face. 'Whim' in this context refers to a specially built crane and pulley system, traditionally used hereabouts to winch the chunks of stone out to be loaded into boats below. Since a roof collapse some years ago we are no longer allowed to venture into Tilly Whim caves; no matter, if we feel daring we will be able to explore the similar ones a few miles further west at Winspit, despite those having also suffered a recent rockfall.
The other consequence of the underlying limestone is that rainfall drains quickly and the clifftop vegetation is sparse, mostly open grassland, allowing uninterrupted views. Once we have passed the lighthouse-topped promontory known as Anvil Point, these become spectacular, straight up the coast for half a dozen miles to where it curves and rises to St Aldhelm's Head. Not quite as straight as first appears, however, since several deep coves and disused quarries indent the cliffs, notably at Dancing Ledge, so-called because the removal of whole strata of stone has left a flat area as big as a dance-floor over which the tides wash. They have pitted and scarred its surface, exposing some fascinating ammonite fossils, but, just in case anyone was tempted, rendering it most impractical for dancing. By contrast, the old workings further along at Winspit come complete with horizontal shafts, or 'galleries', which my sons always used to insist were smugglers' caves. Who knows? The galleries might have served this purpose too, since these shores certainly saw their share of smuggling. Even whim-assisted, though, it would have taken remarkable skill and courage to bring a clandestine cargo ashore amid the raging surf and jumbled rocks of Winspit.
On we go, making our way up to the top of St Aldhelm's Head, from which we catch our first clear views of Portland Bill looming like a semi-submerged sea-creature in the western distance. Along the clifftop we pass a monument erected to the developers of radar in WW2, who were based at nearby Worth Matravers, then a coastguard station, and finally an ancient stone chapel in which to take shelter from the wind. 'What if there is no wind?' you may be wondering. Ah, but there is always wind on St Aldhelm's Head.
* St Aldhelm's Head to Kimmeridge *
Had we been walking this route twenty-five years or so ago, we would now have descended in the shadow of the cliffs to the elegantly symmetrical semi-circular pebble beach at Chapman's Pool, but the path down now seems to have been closed. Instead, we keep to the cliff-top, passing a memorial garden dedicated to the Royal Marines killed in an IRA attack on their barracks at Deal in 1989, and in other conflicts. It is sited here because the marines use these shores for training exercises. The clifftop is a spectacular setting; I can imagine that the notes of the Last Post played by a bugler once a year echo hauntingly out over the cove below.
The main path now circumvents Chapman's Pool. We could still find our way down to see its abandoned Lifeboat Station, but then we would also find our way back up, and we are about to be faced with a steep climb up Houns-tout cliff in any case. Pausing at the top to catch our breath, we are equally rewarded with wonderful views to westward and threatened with the distant prospect of several equally exhausting climbs that await us in that direction. Once we are down from Houns-tout, though, the next few miles along lower-lying cliff-tops are not overly demanding, except in the odd instance where coastal erosion has undermined the path. The geology is changing. Although there are still underlying limestone spurs which in places can be seen sticking out to sea, the cliff-faces increasingly display grey layers of crumbly clay and shale, and falls are frequent. The path has been rerouted in several places over recent years.
Up ahead we can see a round tower atop a hill. This is Clavell Tower, a noted local landmark, originally built by a landowner of that name in 1830 as an observatory from which he could view the coast, especially that part of it that fell within the bounds of his estate. For many years it was not only a ruin but in danger of toppling into the sea as the cliff on which it stood eroded, but it has now been painstakingly rebuilt further inland by the Landmark Trust, which specialises in restoring old buildings of architectural interest for holiday lets. Although I have a family base at which to stay only a few miles away, I have to admit that I am tempted.
Descending from Clavell Tower to Kimmeridge Bay, we notice that the rocky outcrops are darker and more friable than ever. This is oil shale, rich in fossilised sea life - and the occasional relic of dinosaurs. You are not allowed to dig, but erosion releases the fossils in any case and they can often be picked up on the beach after a storm. A local man, Steve Etches by name, has built up a notable collection of specimens over the years, which can be viewed by appointment, and there is currently a project afoot to build a museum in which to display them more widely. I wish it success. The oil in the soil here has also attracted another kind of interest, and exploratory wells have been sunk from time to time. As long ago as 1848, the streets of the nearby town of Wareham were lit by 130 lamps fuelled by gas from Kimmeridge shale, which was also used as an industrial raw material. One hopes that the current fad for shale gas extraction doesn't result in a revived exploitation of the area.
* Kimmeridge to Flowers Barrow *
Before continuing along the coast path, we need to watch out for red flags. If they are flying, it means the army's firing ranges are in use and walkers can proceed no further. Since we have planned this walk in advance and would not want to abort it two-thirds of the way round, we will have already checked by phone or online, but we will watch out for red flags in any case, just to be on the safe side. One wouldn't want to be blown off course by unexpected artillery. Just inland from here is the ghost village of Tyneham, requisitioned by the army during WW2 and never returned to its inhabitants. Treading its streets and peering into its remaining dwellings is like returning to the past through a time-warp, and well worth the short diversion.
Along the coast here we must keep to the cliff-tops since the beaches are out of bounds. This is a pity, since the one at Brandy Bay - a name redolent of its smuggling past - looks worth exploring, shingly and even sandy in places, but also criss-crossed by broken ledges and rock pools. Gad Cliff, up which we are now climbing, is another wearying ascent, jutting dramatically upwards over the rocky shores, but again repays the effort in the views from the top. And there is an incidental benefit, or compensation at least, to this stretch having been sequestered by the military. Free from farming, it is an accidental haven for all kinds of wild flower - scabious, milkwort and bee orchids, for example - that flourish in great profusion.
The further we go along the clifftop here, the more the path slopes downwards and the more clearly the promontory at its end comes into view. Warbarrow Tout by name, from this angle it always reminds me of a crouching toad, seen from the rear. As with most fanciful interpretations, this one grows less and less tenable as one draws nearer and the more prosaic detail becomes visible. We see it is formed of steeply sloping strata, the relic of some ancient upheaval, and has survived as a headland because it is of harder stone than the bay beyond, which has chalk cliffs behind a shingle beach - the pebbles graded by the tide around the curve of the shoreline, almost like Chesil Bank on a smaller scale. Again, though, this is designated a danger area and we cannot go down to explore. Instead, we face another demanding climb up to the peak of the clifftop, the site of an Iron Age fort known as Flowers Barrow.
* Flowers Barrow to Durdle Door *
Little trace of the prehistoric fort remains. Part has already slipped down the cliff, the rest become overgrown with the passing of time, but explanatory boards help you to imagine how it must have been. Flowers Barrow does, in any case, command perhaps the best variety of views along the whole of this scenic coastline: back east over the way we have come; north, inland, over the tank-scarred heathland of the Royal Armoured Corps' practice ranges; and west towards yet another high chalk cliff overlooking the crescent of Mupe Bay. It is a mile or two distant, but we are now into our stride and are quickly round to the further headland. Somewhere hidden amid the jumble of rocks below lies Bacon Hole, an authenticated smugglers' cave, but one which has reportedly suffered a collapse and can no longer be visited.
No matter, a sight of even greater interest awaits just round the corner: the Fossil Forest. Perched on a long ledge below the cliff-top, this is exactly what it says on the label: the fossilised remains of a forest of some 150 million years ago. Walking through it is rather like visiting an open-air sculpture park, and one could stay musing for a long time as one tries to make sense of the strange shapes to be seen there. Resisting the temptation to linger, we go on to Lulworth Cove. The cove is notoriously pretty, the blue pool of its anchorage almost enclosed by the two encircling pincers of rock that seem to threaten to deny it exit to the sea. For visitors, it boasts a shingle beach with a beachside café, a Heritage Centre and a car park only a few hundred yards away. After the previous unspoiled twenty miles, it takes a momentary effort to recognise that, by most English standards, Lulworth Cove is only mildly spoiled, and is indeed remarkably beautiful.
Nevertheless, from here on over to Durdle Door we will find ourselves accompanied by many walkers, whereas before we encountered only a few along the way. But Durdle Door does, as they say, have to be seen, and the scenery en route should not be neglected either: the deep, crinkly hollow of Stair Hole, and the ribs of rock like dinosaurs' bones that poke up through the waves at low tide in the lee of the Durdle Door headland. Pictures of the limestone arch itself are so frequently to be seen in articles and documentaries about the area - and I notice on Dooyoo too, at the head of this page - that I hardly feel the need to describe it. It can, at present, be explored on foot, but idiots have put this freedom in jeopardy by 'tombstoning' from the apex of the arch, some being seriously injured in the process. Or perhaps I should more accurately say that officious busybodies are putting this freedom in jeopardy by demanding that idiots should be prevented from endangering themselves.
Beyond Durdle Door the coast path leaves Purbeck - the limit of my ambitions at present - and we will leave the remainder of the Jurassic Coast to hardier pilgrims. Lovers of rustic place-names and cinema history alike, however, might wish to persevere just half a mile further to Scratchy Bottom. This dry valley was used as the location for the scene in the film of Far From the Madding Crowd in which a herd of sheep is driven over the cliff edge, a fittingly Hardyesque conclusion to a Dorset journey.
* The practicalities *
For anyone who feels inclined to undertake this walk in reality, a few practical pointers may be helpful. The starting point at Sandbanks can be reached easily by bus from either Bournemouth or Poole. If you are lucky in the summer months the bus might be an open-topped Purbeck Breezer, in which case stay on it across the Sandbanks Ferry and alight on the other side. Otherwise, the ferry will cost you £1 as a pedestrian; it crosses every 20 minutes.
At the other end, escaping from Lulworth Cove by public transport is more difficult, as buses are few and far between. So far as I have been able to discover, the last bus leaves at 17.45 on weekdays, 16.25 on Sundays and Bank Holidays. This makes doing the walk in two days very rushed if you're relying on public transport, impractically so on Sundays or Bank Holidays; you couldn't reach West Lulworth from any feasible overnight stopping-place to the east by that deadline if you are to see the sights along the way. But you'd probably want to do the latter part of the walk at a weekend, since the army range routes are usually then open, often not the case on weekdays. To check opening times, phone the MoD helpline (01929 404819) or visit their website.
Assuming you could be at Sandbanks early to begin the walk, you could reasonably aim to reach Worth Matravers (just inland from Winspit), where there are one or two B&Bs, on the first night; then on to West Lulworth, which has several places to stay, for the second; on the third day, see Durdle Door in the morning and be back at West Lulworth in time to catch the bus. If you can't reach Sandbanks early, take three nights: the first in Swanage, then at one of the B&Bs around Kimmeridge, and finally at West Lulworth.
* Wild about Purbeck *
As wild coasts go - Patagonia perhaps, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Island - it must be admitted that Purbeck is decidedly on the tame side. Nevertheless, once you have left Swanage behind, it is about as wild as you'll find in England. It is also as beautiful as you'll find, and full of geological, historical and botanical interest. It has benefited enormously from being accessible only by foot for most of its length, and from being barely accessible at all in some stretches, the silver lining to the cloud of the army's high-handed behaviour. For connoisseurs of coastlines, it is a treat that has to be experienced.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012
Note: I regret that this review does not cover the full length of the Jurassic Coast; I know the western end only in places and couldn't do it justice. In the fullness of time, I shall try to walk the full length and update the review. Those interested in the geology of the Jurassic Coast, incidentally, should seek out the series of websites compiled by Dr Ian West of Southampton University, in which he presents not only some illuminating science but many evocative photographs of the coastline.
Summary: Exploring the eastern end of Dorset's 'Jurassic Coast'