The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The heights of Dorset

In a county of hills, downs and cliffs, Joël Lacey looks at some of the twenty most prominent

The Verne at Portland dominates the horizon (image: Andrew Writer)

Size, at least when it comes to hills and their views, is not everything. Topographers – those who measure the landscape’s lumps and bumps – talk about a hill’s prominence, which is defined as the hill’s summit’s height above the lowest contour line encircling it and no higher summit. In general terms, this means hills likely to have a decent view, with no larger hill obstructing it.

Bulbarrow Hill (image: Dawn Verdaguer)

This is not universally true, though. Shaftesbury’s 219m height affords it spectacular views on two sides, but its proximity to Melbury Beacon means it has a relatively low prominence; likewise, nearby Breeze Hill’s 262m height (just 17m less than Dorset’s highest point, Lewesdon Hill, has a prominence of just 50m, owing to the proximity of Wiltshire’s Win Green (which is itself still 2m shy of Lewesdon). At the other end of the height scale, St Catherine’s Hill in Christchurch may only be 53m high, but where trees do not interfere, it still offers some terrific views as it is the highest point around looking west for some distance.

A misty shot of sunrise over Lewesdon hill: both the highest and the most prominent hill in Dorset (image: Richard Bovill)

In the main, though, the greater the prominence, the better the view, although photographers will tell you it’s much easier to get a great picture of Lewesdon Hill than from it, owing to the tree coverage.

Dorset’s twenty most prominent points

Rank Name Height(m) Prominence(m)
1 Lewesdon Hill 279 185
2 Hardown Hill 207 154
3 Nine Barrow Down 199 152
4 Swyre Head 208 150
5 Bulbarrow Hill 274 141
6 The Verne 147 140
7 Hambledon Hill 192 131
8 Telegraph Hill 267 121
9 Lamberts Castle Hill 258 121
10 Eggardon Hill 252 117
11 Ridgeway Hill 199 107
12 Lyscombe Hill 262 100
13 Toller Down 252 96
14 Duncliffe Hill 210 96
15 Bindon Hill 168 94
16 Chaldon Down 178 90
17 Pilsdon Pen 277 83
18 Seaborough Hill 204 80
19 Black Down 242 78
20 Ball Hill 251 74

In terms of the most prominent hills for their height, the winner has to be The Verne on Portland; its prominence is 95% of its height (140/147m) and so it offers splendid views across a panorama in any direction. This prominence of course is no reflection on the attractiveness of what you are looking at from prominent hills.
For those living in the West, the sight of Colmer’s Hill, which whilst it may not figure even in the top 30 most prominent hills in Dorset, is still visible and more importantly recognisable, means that they are nearly home.

Duncliffe Hill: Thomas Hardy's "Traveller's mark" (image: Richard Walker)

For those in North Dorset, the same is true of the double-humped form of Duncliffe Hill. Indeed when Thomas Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure, he included the lines:
‘Where Duncliffe is the traveller’s mark, And cloty Stour’s a-rolling dark’.

Black Down is probably better known as the site of the Hardy Monument than as a hill in its own right (image: Shawn Matthews)

Being recognisable and attractive are likewise not synonymous. Some contend that the views from Okeford Hill (as you crest it on the Turnworth to Okeford Fitzpaine road), which has no prominence to speak of despite its 223m height, are the best in Dorset, but if you know of a better view, send your suggestions to us at the addresses on page 5; mark your letter/email ‘Dorset’s best view’. ◗

The majestic form of Swyre Head as it looms over the surrounding countryside (image: Joe Dunckley/Cotch.net)

The scene of the surrounding views from Pilsdon Pen (image: Mike Kempsey/DT6 Photography)

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