Walk - The Priest's Way
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2022. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the Car Park in Worth Matravers, turn right into the village. Take the left turn past the Square and Compass and carry on the road uphill until you come to the footpath heading through the fields to your right.
- Go over the stile to pick up this footpath and carry on to the far right-hand corner of each of the two fields, to come out on the track beside Eastington Farm.
Eastington is a seventeenth century farmhouse built from the local limestone, and it is a Grade II listed building which is now owned by the National Trust, as is much of the area around here. The Trust manages the land with a particular interest in both nature conservation and archaeology, and it 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
- Carry straight on ahead along the track, ignoring the paths to left and right at the end of the first field. Keep going past the quarries and the track at Blacklands, to the left, and the quarries on the right, until you come to a path heading to the right, towards Dancing Ledge and the South West Coast Path.
Here you are on the Priest's Way, an old track winding its way to Swanage, which was the route taken by the local priest as he trudged back and forth between his church here and the other church in his care in Swanage.
As a part of its role as land owner, 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, so the Trust plans to infill 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. The small pond near the Priest's Way is home to a population of rare great-crested newts, and there are equally rare greater horseshoe bats in the old quarries.
Also being preserved in the local area are another famous and fascinating feature revealed as a result of quarrying: fossilised dinosaur footprints! Most of these are of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon (both small fry at around 10 metres long), but at nearby Keat's Quarry, footprints were found which were a metre in diameter themselves, belonging to a 30-metre, 30-ton Diplodocus.
- Turn right on this track and follow it downhill to the coast, forking left at the drive to Sea Spray to carry on downhill past the quarry. Ignore the small paths leading away to right and left, and continue seawards until you come to the Coast Path.
Dancing Ledge is one 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. 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. Ramsgate Harbour, in Kent, was built using limestone from this quarry.
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.
- At Dancing Ledge turn right onto the Coast Path and follow it around the coast. At Seacombe the Coast Path heads inland, around an inlet that is almost completely cut off from the sea, and starts up the combe (a dry valley) known as Seacombe Bottom.
- Carry on along the Coast Path towards Winspit and Chapman's Pool.
- At Winspit the path again heads inland around the inlet, and a path heads away to the right; but once again, turn left to follow the Coast Path westwards, this time to the lookout station at St Aldhelm's Head
- The track to your right at the lookout station heads past St Aldhelm's Chapel, just a few yards up from here. After you have visited the chapel, and the National Coastwatch Institution lookout – which is open to visitors unless there is an emergency – carry on along the Coast Path around the headland.
St Aldhelm's Chapel dates back to the thirteenth century, and was built on the site of a much earlier Christian hermitage, but the current building is a nineteenth-century restoration. As well as being noted for its square shape, the chapel is unusually aligned, with its corners - and not its walls - facing the four compass points (see the St Aldhelm's Chapel Walk). St Aldhelm was Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne at the end of the seventh century, and was a noted Latin poet and ecclesiastical writer.
The present lookout, overlooking the notorious St Alban's Race, was built in the 1970s for the Coastguard Service, but was returned to the Encombe Estate when the service stopped visual lookout duties in 1994. It is one of 49 NCI lookouts set up the same year around the coastline of England and Wales after two fishermen died on the Lizard within sight of the newly-closed coastguard lookout. On St Aldhelm's Head the NCI leases the building at a modest rent of 'one crab per annum if demanded'.
- Very soon steps descend into a steep-sided valley, and a footpath heads off to the right. Ignore this side path and carry on up the steps out of the valley.
- A number of tiny paths travel over the undercliffs on your right. After you have passed the end of Chapman's Pool a slightly bigger path zigzags up the hillside from the boat house, crossing the Coast Path to continue inland. Turn right onto this path and follow it through two fields, crossing the track by the car park to continue ahead in the same direction to Weston Farm.
- At Weston Farm, bear left along the track and then turn right on the road to carry on in an easterly direction until you reach Worth Matravers. Keep going along the road through the village, past the village green with its pond and village pump, until you come to the Square and Compass.
The Square and Compass has been an inn since 1752, and it has been in the same family for over 100 years. There is a fossil museum in the pub, including some dinosaur fossils, as well as other fascinating artefacts from local history: prehistoric tools, Roman coins, bits of 18th century shipwrecks, and agricultural curiosities like cow cake cutters and turnip crunchers.
The Square & Compass in Worth Matravers