The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Purbeck’s country park

Hamish Murray tells the story of Durlston and looks forward to future developments there

Durlston Castle
Durlston Castle will be developed as a centre for visitors to the park

Durlston, near Swanage, is a real gem of the Dorset coast, comprising over 100 hectares of internationally important coastal downland, seacliffs and traditional haymeadows. Few places in Britain are richer in wildlife, and the unique range of species includes Early Spider Orchid, Early English Gentian, Adonis Blue, Lulworth Skipper, Guillemot and Peregrine Falcon. In spring and autumn thousands of migrant birds visit Durlston to rest and feed before continuing their long journey. A recent article in The Times listed Durlston as one of the six best places for enjoying nature in the country.

Geologically, Durlston is one of the most important sites on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Here at Durlston the rocks provide a superb fossil record of life on earth 135 million years ago, including the best source of reptile and mammal fossils of the era anywhere in the world. The Jurassic Coast is England’s first (and so far only) natural World Heritage Site. The geology of this unique stretch of coastline represents 185 million years of earth history in just 95 miles, enabling visitors almost literally to take a walk through time.

The Great Globe in Durlston country Park
The Great Globe, 40 tons of Portland limestone, was George Burt’s most spectacular contribution to the landscape in the park

Durlston has strong cultural links. Several English artists took inspiration from the area, and Shell, under their manager Jack Beddington, proved enthusiastic patrons: Graham Sutherland illustrated a 1932 Shell advertising poster using the Great Globe. Paul Nash lived in Swanage between 1934 and 1936, where he wrote and illustrated the Shell Guide to Dorset. Intrigued by London artefacts in a seaside town, Nash wrote an influential article about their surreal quality for the Architectural Review in 1936. Another artist, John Piper, first met Nash in Swanage and, along with the poet John Betjeman, they developed the appreciation of architectural character that ultimately led to the idea of conservation areas and listed buildings.

Since 1973, Durlston has been owned and managed by Dorset CC as Dorset’s first country park and during this period the site has been successfully managed under the ethos of conservation for public enjoyment. This has enabled millions of visitors to enjoy Durlston’s rich natural heritage while, at the same time, the site’s ecological value has been carefully conserved and enhanced. Established twenty years ago, Friends of Durlston has flourished and the 700-strong membership is an invaluable source of voluntary support, providing well over 5000 hours of practical help over the past year.

No article about Durlston would be complete without reference to George Burt ‘the king of Swanage’. Born in 1816, the young George worked locally as a stone-mason before moving to London at the age of 19 to work for his uncle, John Mowlem, who already appreciated his nephew’s ‘good business qualities, shrewdness, fine character and energy of nature’. His uncle’s opinion proved correct and both Burt and the firm prospered.

A computer-generated impression of Durlston Castle after the projected restoration
A computer-generated impression of Durlston Castle after the projected restoration

Using his wealth, Burt played a major part in the plans to transform Swanage from an old-world village to a fashionable seaside spa. To this end, he bought an estate at Durlston, but it was not until he retired in 1886 that he turned his considerable energies to developing the land, with Durlston Castle as its centrepiece. Burt commissioned the Weymouth architect Crickmay to design his new castle on Durlston Head, (John says it wasn’t designed by Crickmay) a strange mock-baronial affair with ‘grandeur of feudal character’ which was constructed by a local builder, William Masters Hardy.

Fired by a Victorian zeal for learning and the natural world, George Burt set about transforming the rest of his estate. The most spectacular of his many creations was the Great Globe, carved at Greenwich in 1887 out of 40 tons of Portland limestone. Elsewhere, the estate was landscaped and planted with a variety of plants from around the world. A zig-zag path was cut into the undercliff, but this disappeared some forty years later after a major landslide. It is worth noting that fifty men were employed to maintain Burt’s new Elysian landscape.

George Burt’s plans for his estate were not entirely altruistic. Various plans were laid for a major residential development at Durlston, beginning with 88 plots of freehold building land in 1891. Such schemes continued well into the 1920s but met with little success.

As part of a Dorset Field Club outing in September 1892, Thomas Hardy and his wife, Emma, had lunch at Durlston Castle. Hardy observed: ‘He had a good profile, but was rougher in speech than I should have imagined after his years in London’. George Burt conducted the party from Swanage station to Durlston Head: ‘the owner of this magnificent property explained points of interest on the way’.

Not everyone was enamoured by Burt’s vision for Durlston. ‘Someone with money built a vast sham castle up there,’ reads one account. ‘A great and hideous globe affronts us with its unnecessary display of learning’.

The Castle has always been used as a restaurant of sorts, but in 1890 the upper floor was used briefly as a signal station by Lloyds of London. Between 1898 and 1900, the Nobel-prize winning physicist Marconi conducted early experiments in radiotelegraphy from the Castle to the Isle of Wight. In 1954 the Durlston Model Railway housed in the castle was described as ‘probably the most comprehensive display in the country’.

Durlston's rich range of plant life
Durlston’s rich range of plant life includes bee orchids and ox-eyes

With the establishment of the Country Ppark, Dorset CC acquired the freehold of the Castle but had to let the building on a long lease. This arrangement was not entirely successful and, when the lease for this important landmark became available in 2003, Dorset CC were able to purchase it back with support from the South West of England Regional Development Agency (SWERDA). This gave Dorset CC and its partners e Castle had various tenants who ran the venue as a pub, restaurant and even nightclub. Generally these uses did not fit within the ethos of the management of the Country park that surrounded it.

Fired by a Victorian zeal for learning and the natural world, George Burt set about transforming the rest of his estate. The most spectacular of his many creations was the Great Globe carved at Greenwich in 1887 out of 40 tons of Portland limestone. At Tilly Whim, Burt arranged for a new access tunnel to be blasted through the rock, enabling the caves to be opened as a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, the caves were closed in 1975 due to rockfalls. The estate was landscaped and planted with a variety of plants from around the world: ‘high above the fuchsia waved the lordly Pampas grass’. A zig-zag’ path was cut into the undercliff, but this disappeared some 40 years later, following a major landslide. It is worth noting that 50 men were employed to maintain Burt’s ‘ New Elysian landscape’.

George Burt’s plans for his estate were not entirely altruistic. Various plans were laid for a major residential development at Durlston beginning with 88 plots of freehold building land in 1891. Such schemes continued well into the 1920s but met with little success.

Not everyone was enamoured by Burt’s vision for Durlston: ‘Someone with money built a vast sham castle up there … a great and hideous globe affronts us with its unnecessary display of learning’
As part of a Dorset Field Club outing in September 1892, Thomas Hardy and his wife, Emma had lunch at Durlston Castle. Hardy was introduced to the ‘King of Swanage’ and observed; ”he had a good profile, but was rougher in speech than I should have imagined after his years in London”. George Burt conducted the party from Swanage station to Durlston Head: ‘ the owner of this magnificent property explained points of interest on the way.

Durlston Castle remains one of the area’s most important landmarks. In 2003, the acquisition of the Durlston Castle lease with support from the South West of England Regional Development Agency has given gave Dorset County Council and its partners the opportunity to ‘develop and manage Durlston as an inspirational, world-class visitor facility with the highest commitment to conservation, community involvement, sustainability and customer satisfaction’.

Central to the future of the Park is the development of the Castle as a world classcentre for visitors to Durlston and the wider World Heritage Site. The present Park Centre will become a new Learning Centre for more formal education and family activities.

The restoration of Durlston Castle will repair the fabric of the building and replace inappropriate 20th-century additions such as the porch and UPVC windows. Access to and within the building will be enhanced to ensure that visitors of all ages, abilities and interests can enjoy the experience. New displays will highlight the ever-changing face of Durlston, encouraging visitors to heed the words of George Burt, ienscribed on a rock on neara ledge outside Tilly Whim Caves, to ‘look round and read great nature’s open book’.

It is equally important that the step change in Durlston’s management is financially viable. New, high-quality catering and retail facilities will be developed with greater opportunities for functions, special events and temporary exhibitions. Durlston’s importance as a major tourism asset will grow, with economic and social benefits for the local area and wider region.

Although certain areas of the Park will be developed, Durlston’s rich natural and cultural heritage will be carefully conserved. A key part of this work will be the designation of a National Nature Reserve at Durlston. This designation will give further emphasis to the importance of Durlston for wildlife and increase awareness of the site’s true ecological value. The provisional launch date is June this year, which will coincide with Friends of Durlston’s 20th birthday celebrations.

Clearly, the successful development of Durlston Castle and the wider Park requires significant investment. In 2006, following three years of careful development, the Project was assigned £3.27m, at Stage 1, by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This success, along with other major funding contributions from SWERDA and Dorset CC means that a large proportion of the £5.85m total project cost should be met. In February 2008 the proposals were awarded planning consent.

However, there has been a ‘match funding’ gap of well over £1 million to find before the major funding is confirmed and the project can go ahead. All the match funding needs to be in place by September 2008. The Project Team, Friends of Durlston and the Jurassic Coast Trust are working hard to raise the required money and have achieved some notable successes. In particular, the Durlston Appeal has raised considerable amounts of money from a wide range of fundraising activities led by Friends of Durlston. Applications for the Walk of Words have been particularly encouraging. If you would like to get more involved, join Friends of Durlston or or become an individual or corporate sponsor of the Project.

 The scenery of the Jurassic Coast is spectacular in all weathers
The scenery of the Jurassic Coast is spectacular in all weathers

[Hamish Murray, Dorset Countryside Head Ranger, will be running in the London Marathon on 13 April to raise money for the Appeal. Appeal leaflets and sponsorship forms are available at the Centre or visit www.durlston.co.uk]

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