The Dorset Walk: 1 – Kimmeridge Bay and Swyre Head
Matt Wilkinson and Andy Farrer on a classic Purbeck coastal walk
Published in May ’16
Kimmeridge Bay is one of the gems of the Dorset coast, with its finger-like ledges stretching far out into the sea at low tide, the chubby round stones of its beach and the fascinating strata of its cliffs, which delight geologists. Not just geologists, because the distinctive shale was polished up in the Roman era and even earlier to make jewellery. The shale bears oil, which has been exploited in different ways over the centuries, including to light the streets of Paris until the Parisians complained about its foul smell. Kimmeridge Bay’s ‘nodding donkey’ oil pump has been operating since 1961, when it was the first of its type in the UK.
The bay is also rich in wildlife and offers the rarity of an underwater nature trail for divers and snorkellers. For the land-bound there is the Fine Foundation Marine Centre, with lots of information about what is going on under the waves a few feet away.
On the cliff to the east stands Clavell Tower, built as a folly-cum-observatory-cum-summer house by John Clavell of Smedmore in 1830. It was the model for the Black Tower in P D James’s novel of that name. Originally built some way from the cliff-edge, ten years ago it was in danger of being dumped into the sea by erosion, so it was dismantled brick by brick and re-built some 25 yards inland. The work was done by the Landmark Trust, who now let the building as surely one of the most unusual holiday cottages in even their eccentric portfolio.
At 682 feet, Swyre Head is the highest point on the Isle of Purbeck. To the east are Encombe House and the Golden Bowl, Hounstout and St Aldhelm’s Head, but it is to the west that one’s breath is really taken away, with Gad Cliff, White Nothe and Portland just elements in one of the most stunning views that Dorset can offer.
Distance: About 5½ miles
Terrain: After rain, parts of the Coast Path are muddy and the field-path between Rope Lake Head and the base of Swyre Head can become soggy. The Coast Path undulates and the climbs up to Clavell Tower and (especially) Swyre Head are challenging.
Start: The quarry at the top of the hill leading down into Kimmeridge village. OS reference SY918801. Postcode BH20 5PE (approx.).
How to get there: Turn south off the Wareham bypass into Grange Road, signed to Kimmeridge. Pass the Springfield Hotel and Creech Grange. At the top of the hill, take the hairpin bend to the left and go downhill. Pass the turning to Steeple and take the next road on the right. Continue until the road begins to descend into Kimmeridge and the quarry is on the left.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck).
Refreshments: None on the route. Clavells tea-room and restaurant is in Kimmeridge village.
1 Turn right out of the quarry and walk up the road for 75 yards, to the second gate on the left. Go through it and follow the edge of the hill, with an open field to the right. 25 yards before the end of the field, turn left over a stile onto a path that doubles back, down the hillside, to reach some rough steps descending on the right. Go down these and straight ahead across a field. Bear right at the end of the field to reach a gap into the next field. Continue towards the sea across two more fields, then follow the left-hand edge of the next field. At the end of that field bend right and left to meet a paved road. Turn right and, with the nodding donkey across the field to the right, continue to the very edge of the cliff. Here turn left on a narrow path.
2 From this path, observe the state of the tide and whether there is a way between the cliffs and the sea on the beach ahead. Pass the cottages at Gaulter Gap and, ignoring a right fork, reach a junction of paths. If the tide is low enough to allow it, turn right onto the beach, then left to walk round the bay to the Fine Foundation Marine Centre. If the tide is in (or if you prefer slightly easier going underfoot), turn left across a bridge and up some steps, then follow a path along the edge of the cliff into an area of scrub. Emerging into a clearing, turn right and look for the first path out of the clearing in about 80 yards. Follow this down through more scrub and over a bridge. The path winds down to emerge onto a rough track. Turn right to reach the Fine Foundation Marine Centre.
3 Retrace your steps up the concrete slipway and cross a paved road on a right-left dog-leg (next to some dragon’s teeth anti-tank defences that survive from World War 2) to head up some steps signed to Chapman’s Pool. These lead up to Clavell Tower, from where follow the Coast Path for about 1½ miles to Rope Lake Head, identifiable by a not-quite-horizontal white band that runs across its face.
4 About 200 yards beyond Rope Lake Head, cross a stile on the left and walk up the left-hand edge of the field. At the first opportunity, go through a gate straight ahead onto a rough track. Continue, ignoring a right fork, until the track bends sharply to the right, where turn left. Go through the first gate on the right and continue uphill, parallel to the right-hand hedge. Choose any path as long as it is leading up the hillside ahead. Eventually all come together into a single path which, with the help of steps in places, climbs to a stile at the top of the hill.
5 Turn right to reach the summit of Swyre Head and to admire the views, then double back, keeping the fence at first and then a drystone wall on the left. Pass a trig point and go through a gate into a field. Follow the left-hand edge of this and five more fields, in the last of which the path becomes a stony track and descends to a road. Turn left, then left again at the T-junction, and the quarry is on the left. ◗