Walk - Durlston Country Park's Clifftop Trail

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.

Route Description

  1. Starting at the Durlston Country Park's car park, descend to the Coast Path, following the Durlston Clifftop route, waymarked with a picture of a shag.

The underlying rock in Durlston is limestone and much of the park is calcareous grassland, thought to have been created when the native oak forest was cleared, about 1000 years ago. It is particularly rich in wildflowers, and over 500 species have been identified here, including several species of orchid, such as early purple and green-winged orchids. The flowers attract insects, and 500 different moths are to be found here, as well as 34 species of butterfly, including the common blue and the dazzling Adonis blue. Over 250 species of birds have been recorded in the park, too, and the cliffs are home to breeding colonies of guillemots, razorbills and fulmars, while shags and herring gulls can always be seen on the rocks below.

As part of the Durlston Marine Project, a video camera has been attached to the cliff, opposite the main guillemot colony, enabling live pictures to be beamed back to the Visitor Centre. The Marine Project has also highlighted the importance of Durlston’s coastal waters for other marine wildlife, particularly bottle-nosed dolphins.

From the Coast Path, you look across to Anvil Point Lighthouse, built of local limestone in 1881. Initially, it was illuminated using a paraffin vapour burner, and it wasn't until 1960 that it was electrified. The light was positioned to act as a waypoint for ships in the English Channel, and to the west it gave a clear line to Portland Bill, while from the east it was designed to guide ships into the Solent, keeping them away from the hazardous Christchurch Ledge. The tower is 12 metres high, 45 metres above the sea at high water. Its light flashes white every 10 seconds and can be seen for 9 nautical miles. The original fog signal, which was a 5-minute cannon, was replaced in 1981 by automatic equipment, although this is no longer in use. In 1991 the lighthouse was fully automated and is now under the central control of Trinity House. It is sometimes open to the public.

The pair of metal posts on the slope above are mile indicator posts, part of a ‘Measured Mile.’ There is another pair of identical posts a nautical mile to the west, and they are used by passing ships to measure their speed. By measuring the time taken to travel from the point where the first pair of posts lines up to the place where the second pair does the same a ship's crew can measure its speed. Several journeys are usually made, in order to allow for the effects of the wind and the tides.

  1. Carry on eastwards, passing the former entrance to the Tilly Whim Caves.

The Tilly Whim Caves constituted one of the many quarries along this coast, providing Purbeck limestone for many building projects throughout England during the eighteenth century. Laid down 135 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, the limestone was extensively used during the Napoleonic wars to build fortifications right along the southern coast of England. The demand for the stone slumped at the end of the wars, however, and the quarries had stopped working by 1812. In 1887, Victorian businessman George Burt opened Tilly Whim Caves as a tourist attraction for his Durlston estate (see the Durlston Woodland Walk), but they were closed to the public in 1976 for safety reasons. They are now a roost for bats and a nesting ground for seabirds.

A "whim" was a special type of wooden crane, used to lower the finished stonework from the quarry ledges to the boats below. Burt delivered the building stone to London by ship, and the ballast he picked up in the capital for his return journeys can be seen throughout Swanage, including the entire facade of the Town Hall, which started life as the front of the Mercer's Hall in London.

Burt built Durlston Castle in 1887, not as a castle at all, but as a restaurant for his estate, and he laid out most of the paths in the park today for the benefit of his Victorian tourists. Engravings he commissioned are dotted around the cliffs on plaques and include quotes from Shakespeare and the Bible. The same year he commissioned the Great Globe at Durlston Head, a map of the world as it was in the 1880s, carved from 40 tons of local Portland limestone and built in 15 segments at the Greenwich stoneyard of John Mowlem, Burt’s uncle.

  1. A little further on, just off the path, you pass a hide. This is a good spot for watching out for seabirds and even dolphins.

Since 1988, volunteers have conducted a daily Dolphin Watch from the clifftops, logging their observations to add to the body of information available about these sea mammals. Four hundred metres off Durlston Head, a hydrophone (underwater microphone) has been installed, the first in the world to be permanently deployed to study the marine environment. Sounds picked up underwater are transmitted live to the Durlston visitor centre, where there is a display on the Marine Project.

The rocks at Durlston are of international importance for their varied beds of hard stone inter-layered between softer clays and shales. As you round Durlston Head there is a very visible geological fault, where the sheer cliffs of Portland limestone give way to the gentler slopes of the Purbeck beds. The Portland beds, lying beneath the Purbeck Limestone series, were formed in cool clear seas some 150 million years ago, while the younger Purbeck beds were formed in a landscape of swamps, ponds and saltwater lagoons. After they had been laid down these rocks were deformed and broken by the tectonic forces caused by the continents very slowly drifting around the globe.

The instability of the different layers of rock has caused frequent landslips, creating a natural wildlife sanctuary, providing shelter for some of Durlston’s shyest mammals, including roe deer and badgers (see the Durlston Woodland Walk).

 The rocks are also noted for the fossils they contain, giving an extraordinary record of life in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous period. These include shells, fish scales, sharks, crocodiles and even dinosaur footprints, all formed over millions of years.

  1. Carry on along the path leading uphill from the headland to return to the car park, or carry on along the Coast path for an easy stroll to Swanage.

Nearby refreshments

The Lookout Café at Durlston Castle.

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