Walk - Church Ope Cove

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2018. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

  1. Coming out of the car park at Wakeham, cross the road to take the footpath almost immediately opposite, alongside the wall of Pennsylvania Castle. Follow the signed footpath down through the woods, going through the archway into the ancient graveyard.

Pennsylvania Castle was built in 1797-1800 by John Penn, who was the Governor of Portland. His grandfather, William Penn, was a philosopher and Quaker who founded the Province of Pennsylvania in North America, also establishing the city of Philadelphia, today the USA's fifth most populous town. John spent 30 years enhancing his estate, sometimes controversially. In 1800-22 he fenced in the land around Rufus Castle and St Andrew's church (see below), but the public outcry led to a lengthy court battle, resulting in his paying five shillings rent per annum for it. He also had a large oval stone bath built above the cove, requiring his servants to fill it by hand with buckets of seawater; but this was also built on common land and the court set such an exorbitant rent for it (two shillings and sixpence per annum) that he abandoned it.

A nineteenth-century archaeological excavation at St Andrew's Church found statues at the site of the old church similar to Bronze Age ones found at Salisbury, and another dig a century later found evidence that the site was occupied in the Iron Age. An ancient well and an earlier graveyard were also found, and it is thought that there was a Saxon church here around the sixth century, but the church dedicated in the fifteenth century to St Andrew was built by Benedictine monks sometime in the twelfth century, after an underwater earthquake had damaged the Saxon chapel a century before. In 1340, and again in 1404, French raiders landed in the cove and torched the church, which was rebuilt. In 1625 a landslip damaged it again, and half the cemetery fell onto the beach. A wall was built to shore it up but another landslip fifty years later caused a lot of damage, and in 1734/5 the Southwell Landslip sent more graves to the beach below, including that of the twin daughters of King Ethelred, who had both died at birth in 990. The repair costs this time were so high that, despite a visit by charismatic preacher John Wesley in 1746, the church was abandoned ten years later and a new one built at St George's Reforne, using stone from here.

  1. From the graveyard follow the steps down towards the cove. Before you reach the bottom they join the main flight of steps to the beach from Church Ope Lane via Rufus Castle. Carry on down the steps to the beach, turning left before the sea to pick up the path heading through the undercliffs above the shoreline.

The rocks at the top of the cliffs are the Purbeck Beds, from the Lulworth Foundation (see the Lulworth Cove & the Fossil Forest Walk), with a band of harder Portland Stone below them. These rocks mark a gradual change in the environment in which they were laid down, from deep seas to coastal swamps. This happened while sea levels were falling at the end of the Jurassic geological Period, between 147 and 142 million years ago. As the sea got shallower, the sediments that made up these rocks were laid down in warm seawater, and like the rest of Dorset's Jurassic Coast they are full of fossils, including plants such as the fossilised tree outside the Portland Heights Hotel on Priory Road. If you examine some of the limestone blocks scattered around Portland, you will find that many of them contain shells and ammonites. All these rocks were formed in horizontal strata, or layers, but Earth movements caused by the continents of Africa and Europe colliding during a mountain-building period, known as the Alpine Orogeny, tilted Portland's plateau around 30 million years ago, resulting in its distinctive wedge shape.

  1. At Durdle Pier, about three quarters of a mile further on, there is a crane once used to load Portland stone onto waiting ships. From a small stone quarryman's hut the path heads steadily uphill to the left, to join the former track of the old railway. Turn right up here to carry on along the track for another half mile or so, to where a rusty post marks another path heading uphill.

Durdle Pier was built in the eighteenth century for loading quarried stone onto ships. It is said that the Portland stone used by architect Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666 was loaded onto the ships here. Like the red crane further south (see the Portland Bill Walk), the derrick on the pier was later used by fishermen for lifting boats into the water, after the quarries closed.

  1. Turn left onto this path and follow it up through the undercliffs, finally climbing through trees to the road at the top of the cliffs.

The undercliffs along here were created by a series of landslips, the largest of which - the Great Southwell landslip - occurred in 1734, between Durdle Pier and Freshwater Bay. It was Britain's second largest recorded landslide, and the area of remote wilderness that it created made it a haven for wildlife. Springs at the top of the cliffs soak through into the soil, and goats have recently been introduced to keep down the scrub with their grazing, which enables a rich variety of more delicate plants to thrive. Low-growing herbs such as wild thyme, small scabious and the tiny-flowered squinancywort flourish in the limestone grasslands, as well as the creeping plants horseshoe and kidney vetches and bird's-foot trefoil. These attract a wide range of butterflies and moths, including a species of silver-studded blue butterfly that is unique to Portland, as well as red-and-black Burnet moths that fly in the daytime, and the hummingbird hawkmoth, a European immigrant that really does resemble a hummingbird. There are also many species of rare lichens, liverworts and mosses.

  1. Reaching the road by the Young Offender Institution, turn left. When the road swings around to the right, a little way beyond, carry on along the path ahead, past the car park and onwards along the top of the cliffs above Durdle Pier. Passing around the edge of Yeolands Quarry, bear left around Silklake Quarries beyond it to rejoin the Coast Path. Ignore the path to the right a little further on, following the Coast Path back to Rufus Castle. From here go through the archway and up Church Ope Lane to the main road, turning left here to return to the car park at the start of the walk.

The Young Offender Institution started life as HM Prison Portland The Grove in 1848, when convicts working in the Grove quarries built their own cells (see the Portland Plateau Walk). Today it is a rehabilitation centre for prisoners aged 18-21.

Nearby refreshments

In Easton and Weston

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