Walk - Heaven's Gate at Kimmeridge Bay
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 quarry car park above Kimmeridge, walk a few yards back up the road, turn right and then take the track on the right a moment later, running above and behind the quarry. This will lead you up over Smedmore Hill, giving fantastic views out over coast and countryside. (Ignore the first spur to the right, which comes to a dead end moments later above the quarry).
From the vast quantity of flint scatters and tools found around the area, archaeologists have been able to establish that people have lived and hunted here since the Mesolithic period, some 6000 or more years ago. Many Neolithic sites have been identified, and there are extensive Bronze Age barrows around Purbeck, including the spectacular one to be seen a little later in the walk, at the end of this ridge.
During the Iron Age, from roughly 700 BC to the middle of the first century AD, the area was quite densely populated, and there is evidence of Iron Age people manufacturing and exporting jewellery such as rings and bangles, made from Kimmeridge Shale on rudimentary lathes. To your left as you walk along the track here, on the north-eastern slopes of Smedmore Hill, there are the remains of a settlement from this period, and an early field system.
- At the end of the track go through the gate onto the path beyond, carrying on in the same direction to the mound at the end of the ridge.
The last gate before the trig point at the end of the ridge is inscribed “Heaven's Gate”, and it's easy to see why. There are tremendous views in all directions from here: inland to the Purbeck Hills, and over to Corfe Castle, the jewel in the Isle of Purbeck's crown (see the Corfe Castle Walk); or out to sea, over the World Heritage Jurassic Coast.
Twenty million years ago Purbeck’s Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks were pushed up into a huge fold by great earth movements, and the chalk ridge of the Purbeck Hills was forced into an almost vertical position by the power of the movements. (See the Dancing Ledge Walk). On the coastal fringe of Purbeck, to your right, are the dark shales of the Kimmeridge Clay which was used by the Iron Age people, and the Romans after them, to make the ornaments already mentioned.
Shale was exploited for an astonishing number of purposes through the ages, from grease, pitch and fertiliser to wax and varnish, as well as larger items like tabletops and furniture legs. There was even an Oil Shale Workshop as far back as the Roman times, and there was mention of local oil being used to light the streets of Paris, as well as nearby Wareham. In the sixteenth century, local oil powered a glassworks here.
On the northern shores of Kimmeridge Bay, to the west of the car park, is BP's Kimmeridge Wellsite, thought to be the UK's oldest continuously producing wellsite. It was first drilled in 1959, although the area has seen repeated attempts to drill for oil since before World War II. Oil is extracted by beam pump, or the “Nodding Donkey”, and produces some 80 barrels a day (12,720 litres).
Back here on Smedmore Hill, the dramatic mound in front of you is a Bronze Age tumulus or burial mound. Take the time to go to the top for breathtaking panoramic views.
- From the tumulus, turn back towards the way you came, and go back to the stile, now on your left, just a short distance away. Crossing this will take you down a steep path towards the coast. When you come to the waymarker on the right, towards the bottom, cross the stile into the field, but stay on the left-hand edge of the field as you head towards the coast, turning left over the next stile to follow the path through the field beyond to the South West Coast Path.
- On the Coast Path turn right, heading past Rope Lake Head and Clavell's Hard and beyond them to the wonderfully named Cuddle, and Hen's Cliff.
The cliffs along this part of the Dorset coast are of international geological importance, containing fossil-bearing rocks from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods which have helped to shape our understanding of evolution. The Kimmeridge rocks, in particular, are famous for their fossil reptiles and ammonites.
The clifftop vegetation is also noteworthy and includes the country's most prolific wild cabbage population, which grows abundantly around your ankles as you walk through here. Other interesting plants around your feet are the pink-headed thrift, white sea campions and the creeping rock samphire with its rubbery leaves. Attracted by the vegetation, unusual white and blue butterflies also thrive.
Towards the end of this stretch of path is Clavell's Tower, built in 1830 as an observatory and a folly. The local coastguards used the tower as a lookout until it was gutted by fire in the 1930s; and PD James, struck by its desolate condition in 1975, used it as the setting for her novel, “The Black Tower”.
Before that, Thomas Hardy used to visit, with his first love Eliza Nicholl; but when he did, the tower was located on the stone ring in the grass to the seaward side of where it stands now. It was moved to its current position by the Landmark Trust, stone by stone (and there were 16,272 of them) and at a cost of £900,000, to protect it from the crumbling of the cliffs where it stood. It was refurbished at the same time and is now used by the Trust as a holiday cottage.
The Clavells were a local family, descended from Walter de Clavile, who arrived in England with William the Conqueror.
- Going down the steps after the Clavell Tower, at the bottom you come to the handful of buildings and boats at Kimmeridge Bay. Turn right and go past the Purbeck Marine Wildlife Reserve building, turning left through the car park just afterwards to follow the path as it winds around the bay and emerges in the car park beyond.
- From the top of the car park turn left onto the lane which heads west, and pick up the second footpath crossing the fields to your right after the buildings here, just beyond the hedge after the first signed footpath, and follow it towards Kimmeridge Coppice, just to the west of the picturesque village of Kimmeridge.
- When the path forks as it approaches the coppice, bear left, and then take the second path on your right, heading past the church and into Kimmeridge village.
- On your left as soon as you pass the church is a footpath leading uphill beside the churchyard. Take this as it climbs steeply through the field, and at the top turn right, going over the stile and onto the road beyond. Cross the road to return to the car park.
There is a bistro-style restaurant in the old post office in Kimmeridge, as well as the Square & Compass in Worth Matravers, the Ship Inn or the King's Arms in Langton Matravers, and several pubs and tea shops in Corfe Castle