Through the Dorset heath and along a hogsback ridge


The so-called Isle of Purbeck (which is not an island) is bounded by the English Channel to the south and east, by Poole Harbour and the River Frome to the north, and by the little stream called Luckford Lake to the west. As a result of the underlying geology the area may be divided into four natural regions, each running from west to east. In the north is a relatively level area of heathland on the Bagshot beds. To the south of this is a long narrow ridge of chalk called the Purbeck Hills. Then there is a valley of Wealden clay;  and finally there is an upland area of Purbeck and Portland beds which presents a rocky coastline to the south. The walk described here combines the sombre beauty of the heath with the more dramatic beauty of the Purbeck Hills.

The Purbeck Hills are crossed by only two streams, the Wicken and the Byle; and between the two is a steep-sided hill crowned by the gaunt ruins of Corfe Castle. The keep was built early in the twelfth century, and various additions were made in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The castle has been ruined since 1646, but two of the towers were inhabited in the eighteenth century. The village of Corfe Castle, which lies to the south of the ruins, is one of exceptional beauty. Not only the walls, but even the roofs of its cottages are made of Purbeck stone. Other Purbeck-stone villages in the area are Worth Matravers, Langton Matravers, Church Knowle and Kingston.


To the north of the Isle of Purbeck is Poole Harbour, a large natural inlet linked to the sea by an entrance only a quarter of a mile wide. The shore is fringed with sea club rush and sea lavender (which has little blue flowers). Sea purslane grows along the margins of creeks, and farther out the mud flats are covered in rice grass. The birds most commonly seen here are oystercatchers, shelducks, black-headed gulls and curlews.

The only island of any size in the harbour is Brownsea Island, where red squirrels are found and where the first Boy Scout camp was held in 1907. There is also Round Island, where Sir Thomas Beecham wrote the biography of Delius; Long Island, which was used as a hideout by Harry Paye the pirate; Green Island, which was formerly used as a pottery;  and Furzey Island, which is now used for the extraction of oil by B.P.

In the Middle Ages the Isle of Purbeck was an important source of marble, which was transported from Corfe Castle to Poole Harbour, and thence by sea to cathedrals all over the country. The Purbeck Marblers’ Road can still be traced, and is the subject of a poem by Bevan Whitney.

In 1982 some of the most beautiful scenery in Dorset was bequeathed to the National Trust by Ralph Bankes of Kingston Lacy. This was the greatest gift ever made to the trust, and it included Studland Heath, Ballard Down, Corfe Castle and village, part of the south coast of Purbeck, Hartland Moor, Kingston Lacy house, Badbury Rings and Holt Heath.


The Dorset Heath (box feature)

The Dorset Heath plays a prominent part in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native, where it is called ‘Egdon Heath’. In Hardy’s day it extended almost continuously from his birthplace near Dorchester to the sea at Studland, but now much of it has been reclaimed for agriculture or forestry, or used for the extraction of gravel. More recently oil has been obtained from the heath, and the Wytch Farm Oilfield is the most productive in the country. Another product of the heath is ball clay, which is sent to the potteries at Poole and Stoke-on-Trent. Disused clay pits make attractive small lakes, the best known of which is the Blue Pool.

Among the more interesting plants of the heath are bog myrtle, also called sweet gale on account of its delightful scent, cotton grass, heath spotted orchid, marsh gentian and royal fern. Sphagnum  moss grows in the bogs, along with jointed rushes and sundew. The less acid bogs are dominated by black bog-rushes, which may be identified by the black tufts about an inch from the top of their stems.

All six British reptiles occur on the heath – adder, grass snake, smooth snake, slow-worm, common lizard and sand lizard, but the smooth snake and sand lizard are rare.   Roe deer are often encounterd, especially early in the morning or in the evening; and sika deer are found in the forestry plantations. The bird for which the heath is most famous is the Dartford warbler, but this is not often seen. A much commoner bird is the stonechat, which is frequently seen perching on gorse bushes. As dusk falls on the heath in summer the churring of a nightjar can usually be heard, the pitch of its note changing slightly whenever the bird turns its head.

Characteristic butterflies of the heath are the grayling, a large butterfly with a habit of aligning itself with the sun so that it casts no shadow, and the silver-studded blue, which is difficult to distinguish from the common blue. The silver-studded blue is most often seen in July, and the grayling in late July and August. Dragonflies can be seen wherever there is water, including the blue emperor dragonfly. Entomologists come to look for the heath grasshopper, the large marsh grasshopper and the bog bush-cricket, but these are likely to be missed by the ordinary visitor. Much commoner is the tiger beetle, which is green with yellow spots.


Studland is noted for its church, which retains many Norman features including two rib-vaulted ceilings.  To the south of the church is a stone cross bearing the inscription ‘Spaceship Earth’ and the date 1976. The most remarkable building in the village is the Manor House, which is embellished with an enormous number of tiny stone-roofed gables.

Extending to the north from the village to the mouth of Poole Harbour is a magnificent sandy beach backed by sand dunes. Behind the dunes is the lake called the Little Sea which was joined to the sea until 1850. On the shore of the lake are hides where people can watch the water birds without disturbing them.

On leaving Studland the route passes through an attractive birchwood and crosses a little stream (A) where hard ferns grow at the water’s edge. These ferns are easily recognisable because they have two different types of frond:  only the upright fronds have gaps between the pinnae.

When it leaves the wood the path crosses the finest area of heathland in Dorset.   Pale grey sand is exposed, and this becomes dark grey farther on. The dominant plant is heather, broken up by patches of gorse and bracken, with cross-leaved heath in the wetter areas. Purple moor grass also grows here, and in late summer the yellow flower-spikes of bog asphodel rise from the marshy area to the left of the path. The best time to see the heath is in the autumn, when it is a beautiful mixture of subtle colours.

The path leads to an enormous boulder called the Agglestone (B), 17 feet high and estimated to weigh 400 tons. Boulders this size are common in mountainous area, but in Dorset there is nothing else like it. It is also known as Devil’s Anvil, or the Witchstone, and was even more impressive before it fell over onto its side in 1970. Here the sand is cream-coloured, and farther on the ground is littered with fragments of brown heathstone.

Before long the route leaves the heath and follows the crest of the chalk escarpment of Ballard Down, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest noted for its butterflies. The chalk is tilted so steeply the dip slope is almost as steep as the scarp slope. This is the finest ridge walk in Dorset, with views across Swanage Bay to Peveril Point on the right and views of the heath and Poole Harbour on the left – an agreeable mixture of land and water. In clear weather the white cliffs of the Isle of Wight are visible ahead:  at one time these were joined to Ballard Down.

The route passes the Ulwell Barrow and the Obelisk (C), where an inscription (difficult to read) says that the granite was taken down from near the Mansion House in London and re-erected here in 1892. Farther along the ridge two tumuli are passed on the right. Soon there is sea on both sides and Durlston Head (with Durlston Castle in silhouette) can be seen behind Peveril Point. Just before the Ordnance Survey column is reached the route crosses an ancient bank and ditch called a cross dyke (D).

Where the ridge reaches the sea there is spectacular coastal scenery with glistening white cliffs and three stacks one behind the other – the Pinnacle, the Haystack and Old Harry (E). Cormorants are common, and the clifftop is bedecked in a multitude of wild flowers in the spring. Wild cabbages also grow on the clifftop.

As Handfast Point is approached the coastline becomes divided by narrow promontories into small coves. The third promontory is pierced by an arch. Eventually this will collapse, leaving the promontory as a stack. Between Handfast Point and Old Harry is the island called No Man’s Land, which was joined to the mainland as recently as 1920. There are more promontories and coves beyond Handfast Point. Here the rock is still chalk, but instead of dropping sheer into the sea the cliffs are broken up by grassy ledges and the chalk is stained brown.

Before returning to Studland the route passes through Studland Wood (F), where butcher’s broom grows. This is a plant about two feet high with dark green sharp-pointed leaves (actually modified stems) and red berries in the winter.

[Route directions and maps have been removed from these articles.]