Say hello to Old Harry
Lawrence McNeela has taken a once-a-year opportunity to see the famous Purbeck landmark from a different angle
Published in July ’09
Each year countless thousands tread the coastal path from Studland village on the Isle of Purbeck to nearby Handfast Point to gaze at the chalk stacks known as Old Harry Rocks. If you are one of that number you may, like me, have harboured crazy ideas about what it would be like to stand at the bottom of those mighty cliffs looking up, rather than at the top looking down like everyone else. On a few occasions each summer the early-morning tide falls low enough to make this possible. A strenuous 45-minute hike from Studland’s South Beach is required and it is not an adventure for the faint-hearted or those not physically fit. Anyone thinking of attempting it must read the paragraph in bold type on page 7.
This year, the best time to wander around the exposed cliff base is the weekend of 24-26 July. Low water is an astonishing 23 cm at 5.44 am on the morning of Friday 24 July; high water reaches nearly ten times that depth just six hours later. The following day, a low water of 25 cm takes place at 6.28 am. On the Sunday the far more respectable time of 7.10 am sees low water only marginally higher at 33 cm.
On a beautiful morning last year, I set out with my wife and two other companions from golden sands still wet from the receding tide. The boats in the harbour were sleeping and the gulls were our only companions, except for what we were convinced were a couple of porpoises playing offshore. Carpets of emerald seaweed were soft and spongy underfoot; elsewhere, razor-sharp rocks decorated with limpets and mussels were no pleasure to scramble over. There was even the occasional wade through knee-high water thrown in for good measure.
The walk was longer and harder than we had anticipated but getting there was half the enjoyment. Headlands were rounded and eventually the cliffs changed from sand and clay to brilliant white chalk. The colours brought out by the early morning sun were unbelievable in their clarity. There was also a silence one rarely finds in this busy spot. For us, so early in the morning, there were no speedboats or jet-skis whizzing by, no flocks of day trippers on the cliffs.
Once this part of the Dorset coastline would have been joined to the Isle of Wight. All that is left of that bridge to the Needles is a handful of stacks, arches and pinnacles known as Old Harry Rocks. One theory behind the unusual name is that Old Harry was a pseudonym for the Devil. He was certainly busy in these parts if the local folklore is to be believed and is said to have hurled the Agglestone, a 400-ton lump of sandstone found on nearby Studland Heath, from the Isle of Wight. Whether his target was the village church or Salisbury Cathedral is open to conjecture. Either way, he was a very poor shot!
Another theory is that the rocks take their name from a local rogue, ‘Old Harry’ (Henry) Paye, a notorious pirate and wrecker from Poole at the turn of the 15th century. Where Ballard Down meets the sea is one of the places where Henry Paye used to stand waving a white lantern on foggy nights. The hapless foreign vessels below thought they were following the stern navigation light of another ship and were wrecked on the treacherous rocks that now bear his name.
Most people and most guidebooks erroneously believe Old Harry himself to be the first set of rocks reached when walking along the coast path from Studland, at Handfast Point. In fact, he is a little further along the headland, near to the pinnacle. Fifty years ago the stack known as Old Harry’s Wife collapsed and all that remains of her is a stump visible just below the surface of the waves during these really low spring tides. Local fishermen painted a black band around Old Harry to show that he was in mourning.
Very impressive the rocks are when the tide is in, but they become something more wonderful altogether when the water is low enough to walk amongst them. During that summer morning, with the sun warm on our faces and the air so clear we could see for miles, these towering white monoliths resembled the ruins of an ancient Greek or Roman outpost – or maybe Atlantis, as they sprang from the surface of the waves. This seemed particularly true of the arch we walked through, whose erosion by the ceaseless tides had shaped it into the most wonderful contours. The layers of chalk had been chipped away so that they looked like brickwork and it did not require much imagination to think of it as the work of the hand of man rather than nature.
To allow ourselves enough time to explore, we had left one hour before low water. The idea is to remain for thirty minutes, fifteen each side of the low water time. However, the tide comes in quickly and unevenly here so we left after twenty; better to be safe than sorry.
It was magnificent to explore the bottom of cliffs I had stood upon so many times before. In fact, it was there on Ballard Down that I had proposed to my wife, Joanna, exactly ten years earlier. This is what she had to say about our experience at the foot of the rocks: ‘It was magical being at the bottom when you only ever see it from the top looking down. You are intimate with the rocks rather than looking at them from a distance. You could touch them, be one with them. Normally they aren’t accessible. When you’re standing on the tip of the headland looking back, it’s like you shouldn’t really be there and it’s a one-week-a-year opportunity.’
I was similarly moved to the fanciful thought that we were in a place it was apparent nature did not want us to be. It was as though we had entered an enchanted land, as though we had conquered these magnificent cliffs that for the remainder of the year are the insurmountable walls of a mighty fortress. On a beautiful sunny morning last summer, the sea’s retreat made the seemingly impossible dream to walk amongst them a reality.
It cannot be emphasised strongly enough that to visit Old Harry Rocks at low tide is a hazardous expedition because of the rugged terrain and the danger of being cut off by the incoming tide. It is positively advised against by Swanage Visitor Centre and should not be undertaken alone, in poor weather, in unsuitable footwear or if any member of the party is in anything other than good physical condition. A mobile phone or other means of summoning help in an emergency should be carried. Double-check the tide tables: note that we left Studland no less than an hour before low water and started the return journey no more than fifteen minutes after low water.