The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Dorset walk — Durlston, Swanage and Ballard Down

Matt Wilkinson and Mark Bauer explore the Purbeck resort and the countryside around

Anvil point near Durlston
Anvil Point from the west

As a rule these walks avoid towns, but somehow Swanage doesn’t count. Sandwiched between the Purbeck Hills and the sea, it is less a conurbation than an integral part of the gorgeous landscape in which it lies. It is also a town of great historical interest whose appearance owes much to John Mowlem (1788-1868) and his nephew, George Burt (1816-94). Both of them made their fortunes in London but were great benefactors of their home town.

The gem of the first part of the walk is Godlingston Manor, parts of which date back to about 1300. It is not just its antiquity which makes this one of the most beautiful buildings in Purbeck. Then the walk crosses the valley and climbs the hill to the north of the town. Here lay Swanage’s early prosperity, for it was here that the quarries were situated. The stone trade was by far the most important economic factor in this part of Purbeck until the idea of holidays by the sea arrived. The stone was taken down to quays by the pier and later, the walk follows the railway lines that carried it along the quayside. First, though, the route goes through Durlston Country Park and passes Anvil Point lighthouse, the successor to the first one installed here in the 1880s.

The Great Globe and Durlston Castle were built by George Burt, who believed that even when relaxing, people should be fed useful information, so on the walls of the castle are tablets bearing all kinds of information. This ranges from the time in Rome when it is noon in Greenwich to the flying speed of a carrier pigeon. It is to be hoped that these tablets will be preserved when the castle has been converted into a visitors’ centre for the Jurassic Coast.

Leaving Swanage, the walk climbs to Ballard Down, with its wonderful views over the landscape the walk has just left and to the north over what seems like the whole of Dorset.

Although there are inevitably some steep climbs, the going generally is very easy. It is a walk perhaps best not done in high summer, when tents and caravans can encroach on the route.

Distance: About 8¼ miles

Start: The more northerly of two lay-bys at Ulwell, north of Swanage. OS ref SZ021810.

How to get there: If driving south-east through Purbeck, turn left just before Corfe Castle, on the B3351 to Studland. Pass a conspicuous viewpoint on the left and in .4 of a mile turn right, signed to Swanage. At a T-junction turn right and the lay-by is in .2 of a mile, on the left. Alternatively, leave Swanage on the road to Studland and the ferry. The lay-by is the second one on the right after passing Ulwell Cottage.

Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck)

Refreshments: Plenty in Swanage. The Village Inn at Ulwell is close to the start/finish.

Swanage Bay
Swanage Bay

1. Turn right out of the lay-by and in a few yards cross the road to turn left over a stile. Walk along a path parallel to the road. In front of a gate into a caravan park turn sharp right. At the far end of the path turn left through a gate and follow the left-hand edge of the field beyond. Just over the rise halfway along the field, bear slightly right to go through a gap in a line of bramble and gorse and continue in the same direction to the bottom right-hand corner. Here cross a stile and turn left onto a grassy track. Follow it down to meet a stony track, where turn right and pass Godlingston Manor. Follow the track as it bears left in front of a farmyard and leads down to a lane. Turn right, then take the first lane on the left. Follow this down to the main road through Herston.

2. Turn left, then first right into Benlease Way. Near the top of the hill bend to the left, then turn left and immediately right into Shaston Close. In the far right-hand corner of the close, turn right on an enclosed path which leads up to a left fork and cross-paths. Go straight across, through some undergrowth, and continue straight uphill through a gate. Reaching a ruined building with a gate to the right, bear left to go up the side of the ruin and through two stone gateposts. Turn left here to walk along the edge of a narrow field. At the end of the field, cross a stile and turn right onto a narrow lane. Just before the gate into the quarry at the end of the lane, turn right down a narrow enclosed path. Turn left over a stile and continue along the track straight ahead, with quarry workings on either side. At the next gate, ignore the track as it bears to the right and continue straight ahead, up the right-hand edge of the field. At the top of the field cross a stile and walk down the right-hand edge of the field beyond for about 30 yards.

Swanage from Ballard Down…
Swanage from Ballard Down…

3. By a gap in the wall on the right, turn left and walk across the field, with the sea to the right. Go through a gate and bear slightly right to avoid thick undergrowth but continue with the sea to the right as Anvil Point lighthouse comes into view. Follow the path as it winds along the hill-top, always heading in the general direction of the lighthouse and not losing significant height. At a wall with a barred gate ahead and a kissing gate a few yards to the right, go through the kissing gate and now the path descends to the lighthouse. Arriving at the white gate into the lighthouse, turn right and at the end of the wall continue down to the cliff-edge, bearing left on a rough path which descends into a deep gully. Climb up the other side and follow the wall on the right past a pair of measured mile markers and the entrance to Tilly Whim Caves, formerly a stone quarry. When the Great Globe appears on the left, turn left to walk up past it and Durlston Castle. Just past the castle, turn right on a broad rough track. Follow this through the trees until it eventually swings left where the path ahead has had to be closed due to erosion.

4. At a kissing gate, turn right onto a road. Take the first turning on the right into Belle Vue Road and as it bends sharply to the left, turn right into a grassy area. Leave this in the far corner, onto a wide expanse of grass. Walk straight ahead, aiming for the top of the just-visible Wellington Clock Tower, brought to Swanage by John Mowlem. Then in about 300 yards bear left, down to a car park. Walk along its right-hand edge, cross a pedestrian crossing, descend some steps and walk between two Ionic pillars (John Mowlem again). Turn left to reach the pavement behind the beach and follow the curve of the bay round (note the railway lines) to reach the sandy beach proper just beyond the Mowlem Institute. Walk along either the beach or the pavement of Shore Road.

…and, looking the other way, the view north over Poole Harbour
…and, looking the other way, the view north over Poole Harbour

5. Where Shore Road bends away to the left, continue straight on along the beach. About 250 yards beyond the end of the concrete promenade at the top of the beach, turn left up some wooden steps. Ignore a left fork over a bridge and continue uphill. The path emerges into an open field and follows the right-hand edge. It leaves the field and enters an area of woodland and undergrowth but is very easy to follow. Eventually the views on either side open out as the path climbs towards and up the flank of Ballard Down. Continue all the way to the top of the hill. Turn left and walk along the ridge to the obelisk erected by George Burt in 1892 to mark the extraction of water from the chalk hills. Here turn left over a stile and follow the hedge on the right steeply downhill. Emerge into a lay-by and turn right on the road to walk to the next lay-by, where your car is parked.

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