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Legging it in Dorset — Studland and Old Harry

Rodney Legg describes a six-mile circuit of National Trust coast, downs and heath in the Isle of Purbeck

Studland Beach is almost empty on a choppy day

Purbeck’s famous diversity in terms of geology and landscape, matched by its dynamic flora and fauna, combine at Studland with a superlative seaside. This six-mile route brings in the sands, chalk stacks, downland, heathland and expansive views. Everywhere en route is owned by the National Trust in this easily walkable mix of rights of way, permissive paths and access land with a right to roam.

The land-holding and its conservation imperatives came about in three stages. First, a National Nature Reserve was established over limited areas of the heath in the 1950s. Next, the southern slopes of Ballard Down were bought for the nation in the 1970s. Then on the death of Ralph Bankes at Kingston Lacy in 1981, his family’s 500-year ownership of this part of the Corfe Castle Estate came to an end as he had bequeathed all his property to the National Trust. With extensive restoration projects on downland Manor Farm and heathland Harmony Farm, as well as at Redend Point, the Trust has reversed both the agricultural revolution and a former ‘keep-out’ mentality. Little of this would have happened but for the collapse of property prices after the Great War, which caused the Bankes family to drop plans to sell Studland after auction posters had been printed.

Military history includes the biggest and most important observation post in the British Isles. It was built for wartime leaders, including Winston Churchill and Dwight D Eisenhower, to view live-fire rehearsals for the D-Day landings on similar beaches in Normandy. Built by Canadian engineers in 1943, it was named Fort Henry for their home base in Ontario. King George VI led the early-morning VIPs who filed into its protective concrete on 18 April 1944 for Exercise Smash. Beside it is a memorial to six Dragoon Guards who were drowned when their experimental floating tanks sank in Studland Bay.

This remains a busy coast with comings and goings from Poole Harbour varying in size from yachts to Brittany Ferries. Once the Bankes yacht was the local flagship – when Studland Manor, now the Manor House Hotel, was their seaside home – and memorials in their churchyard plot include an inscription to heroic 20-year-old William George Hawtrey Bankes. As he lay dying of his wounds at the siege of Lucknow, in the Indian Mutiny in 1857, Cornet Bankes’s dying words were about boating again in Studland Bay. He was posthumously awarded the new Victoria Cross for gallantry.

Old Harry Rocks

Older history is in sight, including the tower of the parish church – a short diversion from the car park beside the Bankes Arms – which with its Saxon and early Norman work forms the earliest complete building in the county. Studland Castle, one of Henry VIII’s forts contemporary with Portland Castle, fared less well and has entirely fallen into the sea. Round barrow burial mounds date back to the Wessex Culture of 2100 to 1500 BC.

The plant-life is improving, thanks mainly to restoration projects on down and heath that have been taken out of intensive farming. Blue colours range from bell-flowers in the grass to the spectacular gentians of the bogs. Seabirds, however, continue to decline as a result of over-fishing and other adversities. On land the most conspicuous animals, in terms of numbers and size, are the Sika deer.

The degree of difficulty in terms of terrain is slight to moderate. Summer temperatures are liable to climb, unless fog is rolling in from the sea, and can vary greatly depending on whether you are down on the heath or crossing the 517-feet summit of Ballard Down. None of the slopes is overly steep and there are only four stiles and ten gates to contend with.

Fort Henry

1. Park and start in Middle Beach car park, owned by the National Trust, which is in Studland village at the seaward end of Beach Road (OS reference SZ037828). Set off southwards, across the lane, to the path up the slope beside the thatched police post. The track runs through the sycamore trees with Redend Point to the left and the paddocks of the Manor House Hotel to the right. In 200 yards come to a gun battery, dating from 1940, and the much larger Fort Henry observation post.

In 250 yards the coast path has a view across to Old Harry Rocks. Here turn right, inland from the flight of steps that drop down to South Beach. The path between the paddocks leads to Manor Road in another 250 yards. Turn left and pass the Bankes Arms. Proceed to the public toilets at the bend in 250 yards which is overlooked by the thatched cottages, numbers 2 and 3, in Watery Lane. Turn left here, eastwards up the track which passes Harry Warren House, and follow the clifftop to Old Harry Rocks in a mile. Studland Castle, which stood here, has been entirely washed away. Mariners know this as Handfast Point. The next land begins at the Needles on the Isle of Wight.

2. Continue along the clifftop, which is known as Old Nick’s Ground (for the Devil), south-westwards above Turf Rick Rock and the Pinnacles. Ascend to the main slope of Ballard Point in 1100 yards. Here the path curves inland and climbs to the trig point on top of Ballard Down in 600 yards. The route is now westwards along the top of the ridge with views south over Swanage and north to Poole Harbour. Pass a couple of Bronze Age burial mounds and the 1852-dated Judge’s Seat, which was provided by law writer David Jardine. Marker stones from 1776 indicate the boundary between Swanage and Studland parishes but the land each side is now owned by the National Trust, so the fence was removed and ploughed ground has been restored to open downland. In 1350 yards cross the site of a wartime radar station.

The obelisk on Ballard Down above Swanage

3. The next landmark, in 900 yards, is a former gas-lamp obelisk, rising from the side of a Bronze Age round barrow. Swanage contractor George Burt removed it from Lombard Street in the City of London and placed it here in 1892 to commemorate abstraction of water from the chalk aquifer. It was demolished in 1940 to deny German aircraft a navigation marker and re-erected by Royal Engineers in 1973. One of the displaced hexagonal sections remains on the ground (note the iron gas pipe running through it).

The bridleway continues through the gate and then bends to the north to descend to the road in 500 yards. Cross the road to the opposite verge and then turn left along it. Proceed to the stile in the hedgerow at the bend in 250 yards. Turn right here and climb up the ridge, through the trees on Dean Hill, to the edge of the gold course in 250 yards. From here cross the fairway, following the footpath arrows northwards to a stile in the roadside fence in 150 yards.

4. Turn left along the main road, facing oncoming traffic, to the corner in 50 yards. The track into Godlingston Heath enters the National Nature Reserve in 200 yards. Turn right here, keeping the main heath to the left and that of a heathland restoration project across the hedge and fence to your right, around Harmony Farm. Continue straight ahead after the pair of gates and at other path junctions to a forking of the ways in 1000 yards. Here, just after the mound on Black Down, fork left. The general direction is north-east towards the prominent buildings of Knoll House Hotel.

In 500 yards pass a small covered reservoir to the left and come to a gate in a further 100 yards. Proceed straight ahead and bear left at the path junction in 100 yards, then in 150 yards come to a cross-roads of tracks at Wadmore Lane. Turn right along it, to the Ferry Road in 300 yards. Turn right and head back into Studland village. In 125 yards, after passing Morval and Coombe House, turn left into the Coombe. A public path runs the length of this wooded glen for 250 yards. On reaching Beach Road turn left to return to the car park in 100 yards.

Harbour and heath from the golf course

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