Dorset Walk – Studland, Ballard Down and Old Harry
Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold take one of Purbeck’s finest walks
Published in August ’12
If you wonder why Purbeck holds a special place in so many hearts, walk along Ballard Down and you will wonder no more. It is one of Dorset’s most attractive hills, either to look at from afar or to walk on. From its ridge on a fine day, the panorama sweeps round from the hills of mid and north Dorset, through Poole Harbour, Studland Bay, Bournemouth Bay and the Isle of Wight straight ahead, to the town of Swanage with the sun sparkling off its bay. In anything but the depths of winter, the songs of skylarks shower down on you. It’s a magical place.
More prosaically, Ballard Down is the setting for an obelisk, converted from a London lamp standard and erected in 1892 by George Burt, to mark the arrival of Swanage’s first municipal water supply nine years earlier. The obelisk was taken down during the war for fear that it might be a useful landmark for Luftwaffe navigators but was re-erected in 1973 by a TA squadron of the Royal Engineers.
The stacks at Handfast Point, known as Old Harry Rocks, are part of the line of chalk, formed 65 million years ago, which also outcrops at the Needles off the west coast of the Isle of Wight. It is only a few thousand years since the sea broke through and separated the two. The gap between the mainland and the first stack is known as St Lucas’s Leap, supposedly after a greyhound that went over the cliff while chasing a rabbit. St Lucas seems an unlikely name for a dog, and he was by no means the only dog to have fallen here. On the other hand, why should an evangelist (Lucas being a form of Luke) be leaping around the Dorset coast and giving his name to part of it?
Studland is in itself not an especially attractive village, but as well as a glorious seaside setting, it has perhaps the best small Norman church in Dorset. St Nicholas’s is particularly notable for its corbels at the junction of wall and roof. They include a man pulling at his mouth to make a rude face, kissing couples and other mildly erotic subjects. In the churchyard is the grave of Waterloo veteran William Lawrence and his French wife, with inscriptions in English on one side and in French on the other.
1 Leave the car park through a small gap in the top right-hand corner (if your back is to the road) and turn left on the path. Enter the churchyard through a kissing gate and walk straight past the church onto a narrow path that goes over a rise and down to a road opposite the Old School House. Turn right and go straight across the crossroads into Heath Green Road. About 50 yards after Heatherside, turn right onto a track, signed to ‘Playing field’. Immediately after the playing field turn left and, in front of a wooden gate, bear left to a gap in the fence.
2 Beyond the gap, follow the distinct path until it meets a track on a bend. Walk straight ahead, past a row of houses, to a kissing gate at the end of the houses that leads onto the heath. Stay on the path to the left, alongside a ditch, and ignore a wider path that curves away to the right. After a stile, continue in the same direction on a wider, rutted track. The track narrows to a path and, after a pair of double gates, continues through high gorse bushes before emerging alongside the 6th green of the Isle of Purbeck Golf Club. In a few yards it reaches a T-junction with a grassy track, with the 4th
3 Turn left and walk up to a gate onto a road. Turn left, then in 50 yards right over a stile. Walk straight ahead towards a bench by the 8th tee, then continue in the same direction to enter woodland. Descend quite steeply, bearing left, to a stile. A few yards beyond the stile, bear left to walk along the field, closing with its right-hand edge. Reach that edge at the first gate on the right and turn left onto the broad verge of a road. In about 70 yards, cross the road to climb a track which leads steeply up the side of Ballard Down and reaches the ridge just before
4 Continue all the way along the ridge almost to its end at Ballard Point, shortly before which the path bends to the left and descends to a gate. Walk along the cliff-top, down to Handfast Point. Having admired Old Harry Rocks, turn left, again following the cliff-top. The path goes through woodland and along a large open field and eventually reaches the outskirts of Studland. Here descend to a road, turn right and walk back up to the car park.
Distance: About 5½ miles.
Terrain: Walking on the springy turf of Ballard Down is a delight. The lower sections of the route can be muddy. The climb up to Ballard Down is steep but short.
Start: In the car park next to the Bankes Arms in Studland (fee; free to National Trust members).
How to get there: In Corfe Castle turn east off the A351 onto the B3351. Follow it into Studland and turn right at the sign for South Beach. Turn immediately right, and right again in front of the wall of the Manor House Hotel. The car park is a few hundred yards on the right. If crossing the Sandbanks ferry, follow Ferry Road into Studland and turn left at the sign to South Beach. OS reference SZ038825, postcode BH19 3AU.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset). OS Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck).
Refreshments: The Bankes Arms, the Manor House Hotel.