The Dorset walk: Durlston and Dancing Ledge
Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold on a circular seaside walk with some stunning views
Published in May ’14
Durlston Country Park is one of Dorset’s gems. Not only is it a National Nature Reserve with a huge variety of birds both resident and migratory, wildflowers and butterflies – plus a glimpse of a dolphin if you are very lucky – it boasts a lighthouse, a quarry and evidence of George Burt’s efforts to improve the knowledge of the residents of his home town of Swanage. It was Burt who in the 1880s built Durlston Castle, which a major project has converted into a gateway to the Jurassic Coast with a visitors’ centre, a gallery dedicated to exhibitions, an excellent restaurant and up-to-the-minute reports on the natural history of the park. Burt allowed free public access to the castle’s grounds, and on its walls are interesting scientific facts and improving bons mots. Most striking of all, to the south of the castle is the Great Globe. Weighing forty tons and ten feet in diameter, it was brought to Swanage by sea in fifteen sections and set up in an alcove carved out of the solid rock.
Tilly Whim is a former quarry from which the public are now barred for safety reasons but whose entrance and workings can be seen from the path. The excavated stone would be lowered into barges by means of a crane or ‘whim’ (Tilly was probably the name of the quarry’s one-time owner) and taken round to Swanage Bay to be loaded into larger vessels. Nearby Anvil Point lighthouse, opened in 1881 by Joseph Chamberlain, then Minister of Transport, is now fully automated. The lighthouse-keepers’ accommodation has been converted into holiday cottages. Also in the park are two tall markers; by getting them in line and measuring how long it took to reach a similar pair of markers exactly a nautical mile to the west, a vessel could check its speed and calibrate its instruments. The fact that the distance is actually four yards short of a nautical mile probably does not matter in these days of GPS and other gizmos.
The walk follows the coast path to Dancing Ledge, the easternmost of the three cliff quarries along this stretch of coast, Seacombe and Winspit being the other two. Each of them is a ledge formed by a geological stratum coming to the surface. It is well worth scrambling down to Dancing Ledge, to walk on ammonites and step over the lines scored in the rock by the carts that took the quarried stone to the waiting barges. At low tide you can swim in the pool blasted from the rock by local quarrymen on the instructions of Tom Pellatt, headmaster of Durnford preparatory school in Langton Matravers, so that the boys from his and the many other prep schools in the area (all now closed) could swim.
The route heads back east along the Priest’s Way, the route taken by the clergyman at Worth Matravers to visit the church in what was then the much smaller coastal settlement at Swanage.
1 Walk down the car park into the fascinating ‘Timeline’ that leads into Durlston Castle. Having seen all that the castle has to offer, head downhill towards the sea, past the Great Globe, and turn right on the cliff-top onto the coast path. Follow it past the measured mile markers and the entrance to Tilly Whim. Climbing up to Anvil Point lighthouse, look back for a view of the quarry. Continue along the edge of the cliff, eventually leaving the park and continuing on the coast path for almost two miles to where a post and rail fence on the left, just before an opening in a stone wall, marks the path down to Dancing Ledge.
2 The diversion is well worthwhile, but the route of the walk lies up the steep grassy slope to the right. Near the top of the slope bear right onto some rough stone steps, which lead to a kissing gate. Go through it and walk up two fields, then between old farm buildings on the left and the former farmhouse on the right. Immediately after its gate, bear right and walk across the field to join the Priest’s Way, on which bear right through a gate. Continue on the track until it does a left-right dog-leg, goes up a slope and reaches two gates. Take the left-hand option into a field and follow the right-hand edge.
3 Near the end of the field, turn left round a wall and follow it to join a drive at the front of the building (South Barn). Turn right on the drive and go down to a cattle grid, then almost immediately double back to the right onto a track. Where the track forks, take the left-hand option through a double gate. Continue ahead with a wall on the right to go through another gate on the other side of the field, then go straight on with a view of Swanage Bay ahead. Pass the first drive to Belle Vue Farm on the left and immediately after the next gateway, turn right onto a path with a stone wall on the left and a line of trees on the right.
4 Where the path becomes a track, continue ahead over the rise. The track ends at an open field. Head for a gate in the far left-hand corner and walk down the left-hand edge of the next field. At the bottom turn left through a gap in the wall and walk ahead. There is a choice of paths but take the one closest to the wall on the left initially and then closest to the edge of the plateau on the left, in order to maintain height as far as possible; basically, though, keep walking straight ahead. On a very clear day there is a view of St Catherine’s Point, the southernmost point on the Isle of Wight, some twenty miles away.
5 Emerge eventually onto a grassy bluff with the lighthouse below and to the right, the measured mile markers straight ahead and a tarred road running up the hillside ahead and to the left. Here turn left and take a narrow path down into the valley, where cross a wooden bridge and turn right up a grassy track. This rises gently to a wooden gate straight ahead. Continue ahead, paralleling the left-hand hedgerow, and emerge immediately above the measured mile markers onto the tarred road visible from the other side of the valley. Turn left and return to the car park.
Distance: About 6 miles
Terrain: The coast path can be quite demanding in places, and it is a steep climb up from Dancing Ledge
Start: The car park above Durlston Castle (fee payable). OS reference SZ 032774; postcode BH19 2JL.
How to get there: From Swanage station, head south down Station Road and bear right into Institute Road. At the end bear left, then take the first turning on the right. At the very top of the hill turn right and follow the main road to the end. The car park is on the left.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset), OS Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck)
Refreshments: Durlston Castle ◗