Walk - Dancing Ledge and Langton Matravers
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2021. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the Spyway Barn car park, go through the gate to take the track up to Spyway Farm.
The barn is a Grade II listed building and dates from the early nineteenth century. The name is thought to refer to the smuggling activities that took place on the coast, where caves were sometimes used to store contraband. There are many caves in the cliffs between St Aldhelm's Head and Swanage, although for safety reasons they are no longer open to the public. Many of them are home to the increasingly rare greater horseshoe bat, and some of them have featured in TV episodes of Dr Who and Blake's 7.
- Going through the gate to the left of the display, cross the first field.
The National Trust manages its land with a particular interest in both nature conservation and archaeology, and farmland is grazed traditionally using sheep and cattle, and without the use of fertilisers. As a result, typical limestone plants thrive here, which in its turn encourages a rich variety of butterflies and insects. This field is being managed as a traditional hay meadow, providing a valuable habitat for linnets and skylarks.
The National Trust is also involved in the future of the quarries around Acton. Some of these are nearing the end of their useful lives, but there is still plenty of the valuable Purbeck limestone around them, and the Trust plans to fill in the old quarries and reseed them with grass as it opens new ones, preserving the landscape while continuing to provide stone for building projects. It is also paying attention to the preservation of wildlife outside the fields, and a small pond near the Priest's Way is home to a population of rare great-crested newts.
- In the second field head for the far gate and follow the path down the steep hill. Cross the stile at the bottom to walk to Dancing Ledge.
Dancing Ledge is another of the many quarries in the region worked for the Purbeck limestone, which was used for building work here as well as much further afield. Ramsgate Harbour, in Kent, was built using limestone from this quarry. Stone from Dancing Ledge was transported by ship direct from the quarry, the water here being deep enough to permit the ships to approach the ledge, and it is so named because the platform remaining from the quarrying is roughly the size of a ballroom floor.
Look out for its famous puffin colony, nesting on the cliffs in the spring, and maybe even dolphins offshore in the summer.
The stone in this part of the Dorset coast was laid down in layers, or beds, over the course of many millions of years. Kimmeridge Clay was the first layer to form, during the late Jurassic geological period (see the Kimmeridge Walk), and the Portland Sands were laid down on top of this, with the Portland Beds on top again.
After this, in the early Cretaceous period – approximately 155 million years ago – the Lower Purbeck Beds were deposited in shallow seas, brackish lagoons and freshwater. From fossils found in these rocks, geologists and palaeontologists have been able to work out that shellfish, shrimps and insects lived around the swampy marshlands at that time. Later, there were fish, amphibians and reptiles; and after them came the Purbeck Mammals. Over 100 different species of small vertebrates have been found in fossils in the Purbeck Beds, most of them the size of a shrew or a rat.
- Returning to the Coast Path turn right, towards Swanage.
In spring the chalk grasslands are alight with wildflowers such as the rare early spider orchid and the pale yellow trumpets of cowslips. These are followed in the summer by chalk milkwort and horseshoe vetch, attracting many butterflies including several different species of blues, and the rare Lulworth skipper.
- Cross the stile at the top of the hill and drop into the valley, climbing to the stile at the top of the far hillside and continuing to the pylons ahead, heading for the seaward side of the lower one.
There are two of these pairs of pylons along the coastline here. These are mile indicator posts, set a nautical mile apart. Passing ships can measure their speed by lining up the first pair of pylons and timing their progress to the second pair.
- Cross the stile to your left just past this post and walk up the field, bearing right to cross the stile in the stone wall.
The whole area is divided up by crumbling stone walls of local stone stacked in roughly horizontal layers, in some cases marking boundaries that have been in place for several centuries.
Crossing this stile too, follow the path across the next field, keeping left at the fork. Go through the gap in the wall and follow the path to the left, doubling back to another in the wall. Turn right after this gap to take the path signed Belle Vue, joining a track after a couple of fields.
At the top of the hill, there are spectacular views ahead to Corfe Castle. Perched strategically on its mound in the dramatic break between the towering ridges of West Hill and East Hill, Corfe Castle was in the perfect position for a stronghold in uncertain times, since no-one could travel between the north and south of the Isle of Purbeck without passing it. Although there was probably a Roman defensive site here, the crumbling ruins visible today are of the eleventh-century limestone rebuild of a ninth-century wooden building. Two centuries later King John added a fine hall and chapel, and some domestic buildings; and his son, Henry III, constructed additional walls, towers and gatehouses.
- Continue along the track for about a mile and a half, to a junction by an ivy-clad wall. Turn left, towards Priest’s Way & Worth, and carry on along the track, past some farm buildings.
The Priest's Way follows the route taken by the local priest as he trudged back and forth between the churches in his care, in Worth Matravers and in Swanage.
- At the gravel track at the bottom of the hill go left, past the limekiln, following the track as it turns right.
- Go left at the fork by the farm buildings, through the gate and follow the lane, forking right to head back to the car park at the start of the walk.