Walk - Smugglers Inn - Burning Cliff
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.
- Go around the left-hand side of Smuggler's Inn to follow the path behind it out onto an open field and walk to the stile at the top of the slope on the right-hand side of the field. Pick up the South West Coast Path here, following it around above the cliff towards Ringstead..
Drop down the path to the right to visit the beach before climbing the slope. One of Britain's most important geological sites, the cliffs and ledges around Osmington Mills are formed from a limestone known as Osmington Oolite. It is composed of 'ooliths' (from the Greek word 'oos', meaning egg). These are tiny spheres, each of which is the result of a grain of sand or a fragment of shell being rolled around the bed of a warm, shallow sea and gathering calcium in layers which build up to form the oolith. Osmington Oolite can be seen in the back bank of the car park.
Many of the weathered slabs on the beach contain 'trace fossils', which are the remnants of the burrows and tracks of animals that lived when the rock was being formed. There are also huge boulders, known as 'doggers', formed from Bencliff Grit, a bed of sandstone which once held large quantities of oil. A rainbow sheen can sometimes be seen on the surface of the sea on a calm day, which is due to the discharge of oil from the rocks into the sea.
Shale oil has been exploited on the Dorset coast since Roman times, and at Kimmeridge Bay, a little further east, the BP 'nodding donkey' (an oil pump) has been pumping the equivalent of 80 barrels of crude oil a day since 1959 (see the Kimmeridge Bay Walk).
- Ignore the footpath heading inland at Bran Point, about half a mile on. Cross the footbridge just beyond and carry on along the Coast Path to Ringstead.
The ledges along this coast, where the limestone has been eroded to the flat reefs you see below you, were as hazardous to unwary sailors as they were useful to the smugglers who knew their way through them, and there have been many shipwrecks here over the centuries. As you walk along the Coast Path you can see the remains of the Minx, a coal barge which broke free of her moorings on Portland in 1927 and was wrecked on Pool Ledge, at a place the locals call West Maze. Look out for cormorants on the wreck.
- Reaching Ringstead, the Coast Path turns inland with the track and then takes a right-hand turn down the lane just before The Kiosk. Follow it past the holiday park, bearing left with the track beyond as you enter the National Trust land at Ringstead Bay. The track becomes a path and heads through woodland before coming out onto open ground. Ignore the path on the left, to South Down, and carry on along the Coast Path towards White Nothe as it starts to climb towards the ridge running above Burning Cliff.
Burning Cliff was so named after a landslip in 1826 triggered a spontaneous oil-shale fire which smouldered for several years. The Kimmeridge shale of this part of the coastline contains up to 70% organic material, which makes it burn easily when it is fractured (a process currently being considered as a form of alternative energy, known as 'fracking'). A small fire is thought to happen somewhere in the area every few decades, burning in a series of small explosions and giving off oily, sulphurous fumes.
The wooden church, St Catherine's Chapel, was built by the widow of a controversial vicar of London's Stroud Green, Dr Robert Linklater. At the end of the nineteenth century he used Holworth House as a holiday home, and his widow had the chapel built when she sold the house in 1926. It was restored in 2010.
As you head upwards, you can see how the cliffs have slid into the sea over the millennia, creating a secluded undercliff which is a haven for wildlife. Landslides are a common occurrence along this coastline, where there are layers of chalk on top of sandstone, and you can see large cracks here and there at the top of the undercliffs, where the top layer is beginning to slide again. The White Nothe headland, ahead, is formed of a harder chalk with a better resistance to the erosive effects of wind and water.
- Follow the path as it climbs steadily up towards the ridge. After the wooden church stay with the Coast Path as it turns right onto a small path, going through the gate as you come out of the trees, to climb steeply over open ground.
- Going through the gate at the top, take the footpath to the left, crossing between the house and the thatched barn to the lane beyond. Turn left here, bearing left a moment later, following the National Trust track high above South Down, past the parking area at the summit, to the left fork just before the road.
- Fork left onto the path, dropping steeply downhill on the edge of the heathland, and follow it around to the left of the buildings and into a field. Carry on ahead along the right-hand hedge to where a footpath goes into the next field.
- Turn right into this field and follow the path downhill to the bottom right-hand corner, crossing the stream and carrying on ahead to the road.
- On the road turn right, and follow it to the woodland ahead.
To the left, Glebe Cottage is a listed building, converted to a cottage in the eighteenth century from the ancient chapel of the deserted medieval village of West Ringstead. The village was abandoned some centuries ago, although no-one is sure why, and all that remains of it now are some humps and ridges in the area below you as you approach the cottage.
- At the end of the trees turn left off the lane, onto the footpath that runs through the trees. At the junction of paths ford the stream and carry on ahead towards the thatched cottage, passing to the left of it to come out on a road.
- Carry on along the road towards Osmington Mills or about half a mile, until you come to a stile in the left-hand hedge. Take this path and follow it diagonally to the right, going through the gate to follow the narrow path around the buildings. Fork left twice to return to the car park.
Smuggler's Inn at the start of the walk, others en route