The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Dorset walk — The Purbeck valley, Langton Matravers and Nine Barrow Down

Matt Wilkinson and Pat Sheehan LRPS explore the heart of Purbeck

A Swanage Railway locomotive arriving at Corfe Castle from Swanage

The two ridges which make up the Purbeck Hills deserve all the admiring comments they receive, but the valley that lies between them is sometimes neglected by comparison. Yet it has a charm and interest of its own as this walk, which explores part of its eastern end, shows. Geologically speaking, it is formed of Wealden Clay between the chalk to the north and the Purbeck limestone to the south and was cut by a series of small streams.

Corfe Castle guards the entrance to this part of the valley and it is here that the route starts before tracking diagonally across to the southern ridge and climbing up to Langton Matravers. Here is the archetypal Purbeck quarrying village, much gentrified now but still bearing clear traces of its stone-producing past. In the churchyard of St George’s is ‘The Quarryman’ by Mary Spencer Watson, the renowned sculptress who died recently and whose lifelong home, Dunshay Manor, has been passed earlier on the walk. An oddity about St George’s is that its tower is lower than its roof.

The route then heads straight back across the valley to climb the northern ridge. What you call this ridge depends on where you are and even from which side you are looking at it: Nine Barrow Down, Kingswood Down, Ailwood Down, Brenscombe Hill, Rollington Hill, Challow Hill. To the layman, though, it looks like one continuous down and for convenience is commonly, if inaccurately, referred to as Nine Barrow Down. The views on this last stretch are magnificent – at first back over the valley that has just been explored and then opening up to the north and west in a panorama stretching from Poole Harbour and Bournemouth Bay round to the hills of mid-Dorset and beyond.

The view across the valley from the western end of Langton Matravers

A bonus for railway buffs is the Swanage Railway, over or under whose track the walk passes no fewer than four times. The line refused to die after being controversially closed by British Rail in 1972 and now there is a thriving service between Swanage and Norden, using both steam and diesel power.

Being on clay, the early part of the walk can be muddy underfoot after rain. The only climbs of any significance are from Dunshay to Langton Matravers and up the side of Nine Barrow Down, but these are gradual and not too taxing.

Distance: 8½ miles
Start: Challow walkers car park, Corfe Castle (OS ref SY964822)
How to get there: From the Wareham direction, enter Corfe Castle and pass the turning to Studland on the left. Take the next on the left (Sandy Hill Lane), as the main road bends to the right round the bottom of the castle. The car park is on the left in about 300 yards.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck)
Refreshments: The Kings Arms and village stores at Langton Matravers are on the route. Corfe Castle is well provided with pubs and tea-rooms.

St George’s, Langton Matravers, with its stunted tower, and Mary Spencer Watson’s ‘The Quarryman’

1. Turn left out of the car park and just beyond Challow Cottage, turn right into a field. Follow the right-hand edge of the field down to the bottom corner, where go down a slope to a bridge and a gate. Cross the next field to a kissing gate and some steps up to the railway. Cross the tracks and on the other side bear left across an open field to the lower of two metal kissing gates. Head for the bottom corner of the field beyond, where cross a stile next to a small stone Wessex Water building and turn left. Walk up to a hedge and turn right. The path descends steeply and swings left to pass under the railway. Beyond the railway, turn right on a boardwalk up to an open field. Turn left and follow the left-hand field-edge. Go through a gap into the next field and bear left to keep following the left-hand field-edge. Go through a gate in the top left-hand corner of the field and continue straight ahead to pass to the left of a modern house, heading towards an older house whose gable-end is covered in creeper.

Looking back over Swanage from near the top of the climb up Nine Barrow Down

2. Go through a metal gate at the bottom of the field and turn right on a track which leads round to the left of some farm buildings. Leave the farm by a gate and go straight across one field, along the left-hand edge of the next one and straight across a third, to reach a gate with the main road beyond. Cross carefully and walk down the drive immediately opposite. Follow the drive as it bends right in front of Woodhyde Farm and goes under the railway. Almost immediately after the railway, turn left and walk straight along a narrow field to the far right-hand corner. Here, cross a stile and bear slightly right through a gap in the hedge. Walk across the field beyond to a gate about 150 yards up from the left-hand corner. Bear right up to the top of the next field, then left to walk along the top edge of the field. Just before the far end, turn right over a wooden stile and walk diagonally across the field beyond to a stile which gives onto a lane.

3. Turn right and walk past Dunshay Manor. Just past the drive to Primrose Hill Farm on the left, cross a stile in the wooden fence on the left. Continue to another stile and in the next field go straight ahead, slightly but steadily uphill, heading for a stile in the middle of the field and another beyond, on the skyline. On the other side of the latter stile, bear slightly left to walk up to a stile in the top left-hand corner of the field. Turn left on the track beyond and in a few yards left over a stile. Bear right and head for the right-hand end of the houses on the skyline. Cross the stile here and turn left to walk down through Langton Matravers. Just past The Hyde on the right, turn left into Crack Lane. At the bottom of this lane, go straight ahead and walk carefully up the main road for 200 yards to the first turning on the right, signed to Knitson.

The view north from Rollington Hill to Poole Harbour

4. About 50 yards after going under a railway bridge, turn right down a track to a gate and stile. On the other side of the stile, turn left to follow the left-hand field-edge. At the very top of the field, turn left over a stile and bear slightly left to walk between a hedge on the left and a fence on the right down to a metal gate. Beyond, follow a clear track which leads up to the buildings of Knitson Farm and out onto a lane. Here turn left for a few yards before turning right up a paved track just beyond Dairy Cottage, signed to Knitson Old Farmhouse. Walk up this track, which soon becomes unpaved, and turn left at the top onto a track which runs along the bottom of Nine Barrow Down. At the next gate, fork right to climb the side of the hill. Very near the top, where the track swings right, continue straight ahead to reach the grassy track which runs along the ridge. Turn left and follow the ridge for about 2 miles to a gate to the left of a radio mast. Beyond, bear left on a narrow path which runs down the side of the hill. At the bottom, turn right on a lane and the car park is immediately on the right.

The path down to Corfe Castle near the end of the walk

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