Walk - Durlston Country Park's Woodland 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 2020. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the Durlston Country Park car park, cross the road to take the path leading back towards Swanage, following the tree waymarkers.
Insects flourish in the shelter provided by mature hedges such as the one before you, and species seen here in the summer include bumble bees, bush crickets and the gatekeeper butterfly.
Note the unusual shrubs growing beneath the trees as you enter the wood. There are records of people collecting plants as long ago as 1495BC, when the fifth Egyptian Pharaoh Queen Hatshetsup sent botanists to Somalia to bring back incense plants, but the Victorians developed plant collecting into a passion that transformed many country estates in Britain. Estate owner George Burt planted a number of exotic species here from around the globe, including snowberry from America, bamboo from China and Japanese spindle.
Burt was the nephew and business partner of a nineteenth-century stonemason and builder, John Mowlem. Acknowledging that they owed much of their success to the fine Purbeck and Portland limestones in their quarries, the two wanted to use some of their wealth to enhance the area. In 1862 the uncle built the Mowlem Institute, a reading room and library, and the same year Burt bought Durlston Head and the surrounding land, including the limestone quarries at Tilly Whim Caves (see the Durlston Clifftop Walk). He developed the estate on the clifftop, with its fine views along the coast and across the bay to the Isle of Wight, for the benefit of the tourists who were visiting the South West Coast in ever-increasing numbers as a result of the railways being built throughout Britain. In 1887 he built Durlston Castle as a restaurant for the estate and laid out most of the paths in the park. He also commissioned the Great Globe, 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 his uncle's Greenwich stoneyard.
Burt used ships to deliver the building stone from his quarries to London, and the ballast he picked up in the capital for his return journeys can be seen throughout Swanage, including many of the bollards, as well as the entire facade of the Town Hall, which started life as the front of the Mercer's Hall in London. Most spectacular was the Wellington clock tower, originally built as a memorial to the Duke of Wellington but such a poor timekeeper that it was removed when it was realised that it was obstructing traffic around London Bridge in 1860, and Burt brought it to Swanage instead.
In the 1890s the castle roof was used by Marconi engineers for early wireless work, transmitting signals to the Isle of Wight.
In the past, coppicing has been used in the small ash plantation as you approach the glade, and the alternating phases of light and shade encourage an abundance of wildlife. In this process young trees are repeatedly chopped down, leaving a stump which produces thin branches to be harvested for brushwood, poles or firewood. When these branches are lopped in their turn, the process begins all over again, keeping a tree in a juvenile condition. As a result a regularly coppiced tree never dies.
- At the fork in the path, take the path to the left, unless you would like a more level shortcut, in which case you should follow the right-hand path.
The tall trees in the glade in front of you provide good shelter for wildlife but still let in the sunlight, and the insects thriving here, including hoverflies and butterflies such as the speckled wood, provide a good source of food for many migrant birds in the spring and autumn. Listen out for flycatchers and warblers.
There is a viewpoint on the seaward side of the glade looking out to Peveril Point. There was a major landslip some 70 years ago in the wood below the viewpoint, completely destroying the semi-mature woodland that had been established there. The wet, unstable conditions have led to the growth of hardy species such as willow. Listen for the call of chiffchaffs in the spring, and look out for sparrowhawks hunting above, as well as sandwich terns fishing in Durlston Bay.
There are frequent small landslips in the inaccessible areas of the estate, caused by the instability of different layers of rock. Durlston Head is of international importance for its varied beds of hard stone inter-layered between softer clays and shales. At the bottom of the stack are the Portland beds, were formed in cool clear seas some 150 million years ago, while above them 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 whole continents very slowly drifting around the globe.
Durlston's 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. Many of the fossils and rocks of both the Portland and Purbeck series’ can be seen in the Rock Room or in the Fossil Wall at the Learning Centre.
- After a tour of the glade follow the Coast Path back towards the castle and the car park; or for a longer walk carry on along the Coast Path (see the Durlston Clifftop Walk).
The wide path from the glade is known as Pinecliffe Walk, and before the landslip it was used by horse-drawn carriages bringing visitors to Durlston Castle from Peveril Down. There was once a stand of Pine trees here (another favourite of Victorian estate-owners). Many of these have now been felled, and their rotting stumps provide a haven for woodlice, beetles and fungi, which in turn attract birds and small mammals, such as mice and grey squirrels. Occasionally a shy roe deer can be glimpsed through the trees.
The seventhwave cafe at Durlston Castle.