Legging it in Dorset — Kimmeridge to Worbarrow
Rodney Legg explores hills and cliffs inside the Purbeck ranges
Published in August ’09
This is the Tyneham walk that does not enter the ghost village. Instead it encircles the evocative valley by passing above and around it on the hills and cliffs. The scenery is stunning throughout. The chalk downland of the Purbeck Hills offers sweeping views from Portland to St Alban’s Head. Down towards sea level comes more intimate coastal geology. It starts with oil-bearing shales and a nodding-donkey oil well which has been pumping for BP for half a century.
Rising to the west is the conical profile of Tyneham Cap at 549 feet above the sea which has not quite reached it. Between them lies a tumbled undercliff as inaccessible as any in Dorset. It claims numerous smuggling associations. The inlet is known as Brandy Bay and there is or was a genuine smugglers’ cave beside Wagon Rock. Six young men were apprehended hauling kegs up from it in 1834, and sentenced to death, but this was commuted to a spell of hard labour. Gad Cliff, named for resembling the shape of a quarryman’s wedge, rises snout-like as a curtain of crags.
Worbarrow Bay has its own miniature lookout. Worbarrow Tout projects into Worbarrow Bay with exposed outcrops of gypsum and Purbeck marble. Between these and the chalk cliffs is a colourful sandwich of Wealden sands, spread through the spectrum with white, yellow, red, brown and purple hues. The lost hamlet of Worbarrow was a fishing community, famed for its lobsters and crabs since a visit by Celia Fiennes, a pre-eminent female explorer and pioneer chemist. She visited Purbeck on her ‘Great Journey’ through Britain in 1698-99.
Entrenchments of a major Iron Age hill fort, dating from about 50 BC, ripple along the western extremity of the Purbeck Hills. Flower’s Barrow now encloses four acres but as much again must have fallen over the cliff. There are strong double banks on the landward approaches with the spaces between the ramparts having been stretched at each end to keep an advantage of height over distance with the defenders. This was the key engineering requirement for slingstone warfare. Catapult pebbles were found during a 1959 excavation.
Military occupation, intended to be for the duration of the conflict, took place six days before Christmas in 1943. The entire 3003 acres of Tyneham parish were requisitioned for the training of American Sherman tank crews for the upcoming D-Day invasion and subsequent Battle of Normandy. Hopes for its release faded after the Attlee Government decided – because of the new Cold War – that handing back Tyneham would mean the finding and clearing of replacement land elsewhere. Lulworth Camp has been home to tanks since they became operational in 1916 and is still the main gunnery school for British Armoured Fighting Vehicles. Battle-tanks use the Bindon and Heath Ranges but only light armour enters Tyneham Range, which also serves as an overshoot area – as does the sea.
Free of agricultural chemicals and ploughing, and with both access and armed incursions regulated and restricted to narrow corridors, the whole area amounts to a huge nature reserve. Countless rare flowers, fungi and insects flourish in a wide variety of micro-conditions. In terms of both climate and habitat this is military ecology as good as it gets. Surveys constantly throw up new species, some overlooked since Victorian times, and others recent arrivals that have found their way across the English Channel.
‘It’s like the Serengeti here,’ Major Mick Burgess and Lt-Col Ken Davies said when they took me to see their deer. Look upwards as well. Expect the croaking of ravens, the key-key-key alarm call of a peregrine falcon, and the mewing of buzzards to their young. Look out for the strewn feathers of peregrine kills – pigeon for preference – and evidence of other carnage.
Panel Distance: 7 miles.
Terrain: Clearly marked firm paths but with a couple of challenging climbs.
Start: On top of the Purbeck Hills in Whiteway viewpoint car park between East Lulworth and Creech Hill. OS map reference SY888811; postcode BH20 5DF.
How to get there: From the west, turn towards the hills from the entrance to Lulworth Castle, through the gate beside the sentry box. From the north, to Creech Grange then uphill through the trees and straight ahead at hilltop red flags, through the military gate. Pass the turning down to Tyneham and proceed for 900 yards.
Restrictions: The walk is only available when the Lulworth Range Walks are open. This is generally the case at weekends; from Christmas to New Year’s Day; at Easter; and in the August block-leave period. Check signs on approaching the area or in advance with Range Control on 01929 400700. While walking across Ministry of Defence land you must stay between the yellow-painted marker posts. Live ammunition is fired here, so it is unsafe to stray from these paths, and dangerous to touch any dubious object you come across.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landrangers 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth) and 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck).
Refreshments: The closest public houses are the Weld Arms in East Lulworth and New Inn at Church Knowle.
1. Set off across the grass beside the parking area, with Portland behind and Tyneham Valley down to the right. Enter the ranges and continue along the hilltop along the path which is parallel to the road. Drop down to the top end of the Tyneham access road in 800 yards and cross a stile into the trees on the other side. Known as Alms Grove, this used to be common land for ‘estovers’, such as kindling wood.
2. Resume following the hilltop path beyond the wood. Leave the ranges through the gate beside the sentry box in 600 yards. Turn right along the road, downhill from the junction, to the cross-roads in the valley floor in 1000 yards.
3. Proceed straight ahead, with the red flag to your right, into the stony track to Steeple Leaze Farm. Continue straight ahead beside a wood and then uphill across limestone downland. Enter the pasture above and join a second bridleway which follows the edge of the escarpment. Turn right along it, with Kimmeridge Bay down to the left, to the red flag in the corner of the field.
4. Re-enter the ranges and turn left, seawards down the slope, to follow the red flags to the oil well and the coast path.
5. Turn right, towards Portland, and pass the dip at Charnel with the site of the Victorian Kimmeridge lifeboat station. Next is the promontory of Broad Bench and its projecting shale ledges which are cherished by surfers for waves twice the height of those created by the artificial reef at Boscombe. Beyond the path rises above Hobarrow Bay, passes Long Ebb, and then ascends the great slope overlooking from Brandy Bay. Climb the foothills of Tyneham Cap and bear left on joining its path beside the romantic Ocean Seat viewpoint.
6. The cliff path runs along the landward side of the spectacular mile-long limestone crags of Gad Cliff. Head towards the white cliffs of Arish Mell, Cockpit Head and Bindon Hill. Descend Gold Down to sea level at wartime anti-tank Dragon’s Teeth beside Pondfield Cove.
7. Up to the left is an optional diversion to bearing picket T3 on the summit of Worbarrow Tout. The onward route is into Worbarrow Bay, where the Gwyle stream trickles across the shingle, below the foundations of Jack Miller’s Sea Cottage on the platform beside the remains of the slipway. Go over the footbridge and then pass between yellow posts in the fence-line in 15 yards. Bear left through windblown blackthorn scrub. Hereon the path is upwards, beside traces of the Draper family’s Sheepleaze holiday home and Mary Jane Wheeler’s bungalow. This becomes a 1000-yard climb of growing stiffness and steepness.
8. Cross the stile beside the 1940 pillbox and pause on entering the outworks of Flower’s Barrow. Here there is another optional extra, if you can find the energy, into the ramparts and across the interior of the hill-fort to the breathtaking view over the Arish Mell Gap. Inland is Monastery Farm, named for exiled Trappists who were given a refuge by the Weld family, after the French Revolution. The other landmark is Lulworth Castle.
9. The onward and outward route from Flower’s Barrow is from the eastern extremity of the earthworks, along the hilltop track, which is the prehistoric ridgeway along the top of the Purbeck Hills. A military road joins it from the left, after bearing picket H7, in 700 yards. Continue straight ahead and pass a trig point in 500 yards. Proceed into the dip in a similar distance and cross a flinty road on Whiteway Hill. Walk up the slope to return to the car park in 700 yards.