Walk - Corfe Castle to Swanage
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 Square in Corfe Castle walk a short distance down West Street, taking the narrow path between buildings on the right, signposted for the Purbeck Way, turning right in the playground to follow the footpath from the far end along the left-hand boundaries of the fields. Carry on across the road at Halves Cottage and take the footpath on the right by the parking area, carrying on ahead on the open ground beyond.
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.
In the sixteenth century Elizabeth I sold it to her dancing master, Sir Christopher Hatton, and in 1635 it was sold to the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Bankes. When the Roundheads raged through Dorset in the English Civil War a decade later, the Royalist castle survived a six-week siege and a number of half-hearted blockades. In 1646 a second major siege was successful and the Parliamentary forces systematically destroyed the castle, although an astonishing proportion of it survived.
- At the waymarker post turn left, following the path to the B3069 to cross the road and take the footpath opposite, bearing right across Corfe Common on the Purbeck Way.
The Purbeck Way is a 27¾ -mile walking route which runs from Wareham via Corfe Castle, Ballard Down and Chapman's Pool to Swanage, exploring the highlights of the Isle of Purbeck's outstanding scenery.
Corfe Common, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and preserved as rough grazing and a public open space, has extensive earthworks, field patterns and trackways going right back through history to prehistoric times. An axe and several small flints found in a disused sand quarry on West Common have been dated as being from the Mesolithic period, which started after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. There are also numerous Bronze Age bowl barrows, or burial mounds. These would have been high-status burials, and their positions on hill-tops made them useful landmarks for the people who lived here. There are field systems visible here from the Iron Age onwards, too, and a series of parallel cuttings on the common have been identified as ancient trackways, where carts loaded with stone were brought from local quarries to Corfe Castle.
- Cross the stream on the footbridge to leave the common and follow the waymarkers for the Purbeck Way through fields.
- In the trees bear right to carry on along the track, crossing the B3069 again to pick up the footpath almost immediately opposite. In the trees at Coombe Bottom bear right to continue through Hill Bottom to the South West Coast Path.
The Swanworth Quarries, by Coombe Bottom, are an important source of Purbeck limestone and are of particular interest to geologists, containing the most complete section on the Isle of Purbeck of the many different beds of limestones. Local limestone beds are also famous for their fossilised dinosaur footprints. These are mostly from mammals and small dinosaurs, but at nearby Keat's Quarry, diplodocus footprints were discovered that are almost a metre across (see the Dancing Ledge Walk).
- Bear left on the Coast Path, to carry on in the same direction, and follow it around St Aldhelm's Head.
St Aldhelm's Chapel dates back to the thirteenth century and was built on the site of a much earlier Christian hermitage, although the current building is a nineteenth-century restoration (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'. There is another NCI lookout at Peveril Point.
- Stay on the Coast Path as it heads briefly inland at Winspit, and again at Seacombe and Dancing Ledge. From here it travels due east to Durlston Head, with a series of paths and tracks running inland to Langton Matravers and Swanage.
Winspit Quarry was another major source of Purbeck limestone until the 1940s when it was used for naval and air defences during the Second World War. Later it featured in the TV series Blake's 7 as the planet Mecron II, and as the planet Skaro in Doctor Who. The dramatic caves in the quarry, now closed to the public, are home to a colony of greater horseshoe bats, the UK's largest bat, currently in danger of extinction.
At Headbury Quarry there is a cannon on the rocks, salvaged from the Halsewell, which was wrecked in a storm in 1786, on its way to India. 166 people died, including the captain and his two daughters and two nieces.
Dancing Ledge, too, was worked for the Purbeck limestone, and Ramsgate Harbour, in Kent, was built using stone 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. The platform remaining from the quarrying is roughly the size of a ballroom floor, hence its name.
The two pairs of pylons further on 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.
Purbeck limestone was used to build the fortresses built along England's south coast during the Napoleonic wars at the start of the nineteenth century, and when the conflicts were over demand for the limestone slumped. The Tilly Whim quarries closed in 1812, but in 1887 businessman George Burt opened the caves as a tourist attraction for his Durlston Estate. These too have since been closed, after a number of dangerous rock falls, and they are another important roosting place for the bats.
The path passes Anvil Point lighthouse, built in 1881, and on to Durlston Country Park. If you have time and energy, it is worth a detour to the park's information centre, where a webcam follows the progress of the seabirds nesting on the cliffs in the spring, and a hydrophone gives a chance to listen to dolphins and porpoises in the sea below. Durlston Castle, ahead, was built as a folly by George Burt, who was also responsible for the inscriptions carved around the clifftops and the enormous Globe. Made of Portland Stone, the 10-metre Globe is one of the largest stone spheres in the world and weighs 40 tonnes.
- Carry on along the Coast Path as it rounds Durlston Head and bears right to continue through woodland on the cliffs above Durlston Bay.
- Turning right on Durlston Road in Swanage, carry on northwards through the town to go directly to the station if you want a shortcut; but otherwise take the Coast Path off to the right at Belle Vue Road and follow it to Peveril Point.
- From Peveril Point carry on along the Coast Path past the pier and around the seafront.
- Turn left around The Mowlem, bearing left along Shore Road briefly and then bearing right along Station Road to the end of the walk at the station.
There are numerous restaurants, pubs and tea shops in Corfe Castle and Swanage