Isle of Purbeck - By Lou Stone
I live in Sussex, but I have been coming to Purbeck in East Dorset for about 20 years, drawn mainly as a rock climber. The Isle of Purbeck is all about the rocks!
It’s part of England’s first UNESCO World Heritage Coast, awarded purely for its geological significance. The area stretching from Exmouth in Devon to Studland in Dorset is unique on the planet in spanning an incredible 185 million years of Earth’s history, 1/3 of complex life’s time on earth, all visible as you walk along the coast: Cretaceous chalk in Dorset, to Jurassic limestone, to the Triassic sandstone in Devon.
The Isle of Purbeck is full of drama: pinnacles and arches, cliffs folding and cliffs sliding, and its Jurassic Coast is world renowned for being one of the richest heritage sites for prehistoric remains, showing the evolution of marine species. Purbeck stone is also highly prized by builders, and all the picturesque local villages may only be developed using the local stone. The whole area is criss-crossed by a great network of public footpaths across the hills and heaths, and the South West Coast Path serves its entire coastline.
I don’t climb on the arches and pinnacles, my powers don’t quite stretch that far! But I have climbed on the quarried sea cliffs underneath the Coast Path, which it’s possible to visit as a hiker from the safety of a path in order to see the giant ammonites.
It’s difficult to choose a favourite walk, so many features compete for attention: the dinosaur footprints visible in the rock bed exposed by quarrying, the 5 miles of golden sands at Studland Bay National Nature Reserve hemmed in by another 4 different protected habitats rich in rare flora and fauna, the chalk arches at Old Harry Rocks that used to connect with the Needles in the Isle of Wight, the haunting romance of Corfe Castle ruins, or the ghost village of Tyneham – evacuated in WW2 and deserted but preserved intact ever since.
But no trip to Purbeck would be complete without a visit to Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove! Both have paying car parks, but it’s possible to do a figure of eight walk to visit both out of Lulworth car park.
The South West Coast path is the obvious and most used route to Durdle Door, but the secluded foothpaths behind the ridge are little known and usually quiet and make a nice route back. Durdle Door owes its name to the Old English for ‘thirl’ – to drill or bore, a fitting name since it’s a natural limestone sea arch formed when the power of the waves eroded softer rocks to form a hole through the middle. It’s visible from the clifftops, but well worth the steep hike down to the viewing platform, or even down to the beach if you’re feeling adventurous, for the world famous and highly photogenic views, and possibly a paddle.
Lulworth Cove was also formed by the power of the waves, combined with a river swollen with melting ice at the end of the last Ice Age (now a small stream). The softer rocks were hollowed out to leave the resistant limestone layer forming the edges of the stunning horseshoe-shaped cove encircling its turquoise waters, great for bathing in when it’s warmer. But this area is also fantastic for seeing the huge powers of geology at work, because the rock layers appear to be folded vertically over themselves, caused by the same collision of tectonic plates that formed the Alps. It’s also worth a short climb to ‘Stair Hole’ to really see the drama of this folding in the form of a beautiful double rock arch. And of course why wouldn’t you then want to reward yourself with some well-earned Lulworth ice cream in one of a huge array of flavours, whilst taking in the picturesque village.
On a weekend, when the MoD website shows there’s no live firing, the military range that overlooks Lulworth Cove is also a worthwhile ‘secret’ destination, much less visited and hence much quieter than the cove, which really surprises me as the views both back over the cove and also ahead along the cliffs are stunning. Being a military range may at first seem off-putting, but in fact this has protected the area from development, and it’s now a rich grassland home to rare butterflies and a hunting ground for birds of prey. As well as ever-unfolding dramatic cliff-top views, there’s are also the remains of an internationally important fossilised forest to be seen – look out for the huge stone rings known as ‘algal burrs’, created during the Jurassic era when a lagoon rose to swamp the forest, encasing the trees in limestone with sticky mats of algae. The range is accessible both from the far end of the cove (the path at the near end is closed due to cliff erosion), or by walking back out of the village a little way and picking up the path onto Bindon Hill Fort, and these points can be combined to create a lovely loop.
Perhaps now you can understand my bias for the Purbeck rocks!