Branksome to Kimmeridge Bay / Tynham to Sidmouth

The VanWe returned to the south coast in a motor van to continue west from Bournemouth. The summer this year happened on a Thursday afternoon in August and we were hoping for a late sunny spell to compensate - but we were wrong. We postponed the trip for a day as severe gales and flooding were sweeping the south and west but slightly better conditions prevailed on Sunday morning so we set sail.

Alum ChineThe original problem of full campsites ("it’s half term sir") disappeared, as everyone else cancelled their bookings! The clocks had gone back this morning so it would be dusk by five o’clock.

We dropped Alison with Helen in Southampton and drove towards the ‘retirement‘ belt along the Channel coast. We crossed the Hampshire/Dorset border and stopped west of Bournemouth pier at Branksome where the famous Bournemouth chines are carved into valleys in the cliffs.


Swanage BayDorset is a rural green undulating county with a narrow ridge of chalky hills following the 75-mile coast and the rocky peninsula of Portland extending to the south. The Isle of Purbeck is a promontory jutting out below Poole Harbour and has the appearance of an island.

Stone Age Man left a significant mark on the county as seen at Maiden Castle and many Roman remains have been found around Durnovaria - now Dorchester. Edward I put the royal into Lyme Regis and George III was the first monarch to plunge into the sea at Weymouth.


BranksomeThere were some expensive looking houses here and we found a leafy carpark at the top of the cliff. As we descended the steps to the sea we could see some of the familiar beach huts and a lot of people strolling along the promenade in the watery sunshine. The usual features of a seaside resort were not so much in evidence apart from the zigzag paths on the cliff.

The tide was covering the sandy beach and the sea was rough enough for some waves to break over the sea wall, but it was still possible to see the line of groynes stretching all along the coast from Christchurch to Poole. Overlooking Poole Bay, the hotels of Bournemouth could be seen clearly from the cliff top.

Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island

Ferry to PurbeckWe followed a B-road and were soon driving along a narrow neck of land that separates Poole Harbour from the sea. Across the entrance to the harbour there is a vehicle ferry, just a few hundred yards in length, to the Isle of Purbeck. The harbour coastline - the largest in Western Europe - stretches for some 60 miles and includes some 10,000 acres of water and mudland with picturesque islands.

BrownseaIn the middle of the water is Brownsea Island, a mile across and famous for the start of Baden Powell’s Boy Scout Movement in 1907. A stone commemorating his experimental camp was erected in 1967. The island can be accessed in summer by ferry.

Baden Powell StoneBrownsea has had a varied history, pillaged by Vikings and extensively mined for china clay. Its pottery brought settlers with its own school and brass band. They were evicted by its last owner, Mrs Bonham-Chistie and the island returned to nature. In 1961 she died and the Treasury accepted the island in lieu of death duties. A nation-wide campaign was launched to save the island and the money was raised for the National trust to take over.

Poole HarbourWe stopped at Sandbanks to watch the windsurfers and photograph the sunset over the island, noting the forest of yacht masts. The car park was an unfriendly one as it has an entrance too small for us, so like several other camper vans, we parked on the road along the side of the harbour.

As the winds were still very strong, we drove inland to a campsite at Crossways, a few miles east of Dorchester. As it was such a good site and situated centrally, we stayed for three nights.


News headlineThe next morning the forecast was for a return of the gales. The man in the van next to us said "I’m going home before it starts again", and booking sites in advance was no longer a problem to us. It was, however, a bright sunny morning so we retraced our route to Poole to have a look at the town.

Custom HousePoole is the county’s largest city and has a warm climate and the appearance of a continental town with its pavement cafés and yachts in the harbour. It was once a base for smuggling and in 1747 a rich cargo of tea was taken from the Customs House on the quay. In the 18th century it was one of the main ports for trade to Newfoundland and provided some of the first settlers.

level crossingAlthough the town is old and has some narrow streets and an interesting museum, the centre is the usual covered shopping mall surrounded by car parks.

The most surprising feature is the level crossing across the High Street which looked very odd when a stream of shoppers complete with pushchairs surged forward as the gates opened.

Sea MusicWe made our way to the quay, where Georgian buildings line the harbour. Next to the Customs House (now a café) we were confronted by an imposing metal sculpture called ‘Sea Music’; we climbed the steps built around it to get a very good view of the ferries and ships in the harbour.

The French street market is held on the Old Quay every September, when market traders from across the Channel turn up with their own produce.

Poole potteryWe noted the large number of pubs in the town and bought a model ship in a small street before searching out the famous Poole Pottery where we avoided the overpriced factory tour and left the shop without buying anything


The Isle of Purbeck

Poole Harbour from SpacePoole Bridge is a small metal structure that was closed for repair, so we had to drive the long way round to get to Studland Bay. The road took us to the west of the harbour to a region called the Isle of Purbeck. This is actually a promontory of low hills and heathland jutting out below Poole Harbour. The sea to the south, Poole Harbour to the east and the River Frome to the north do surround it on three sides with water but it is the boggy heath that ensured isolation in ancient times.

It has not always been tranquil. Purbeck has played it's part in history and has been a source of mineral wealth for millennia. Purbeck clays were prized by potters long before the Romans arrived and they have been extracted ever since. Shale was used for ornament and as a fuel for salt and alum extraction. Glass and Cement industries were established. Cathedrals, castles and entire cities are built of Purbeck stone and the largest onshore oil-field in Europe produces millions of barrels daily from far below.


Wareham  QuayAt the western point of the harbour between the rivers Piddle and Frome, stands the village of Wareham. It was an important Anglo-Saxon walled market town and river port, but as the Frome silted up in the middle ages it lost its port and now has only a pretty quay from where pleasure trips are run.

HotelOn our second visit we stayed in a very nice hotel here. Since the Industrial Revolution Wareham's trade in agricultural produce and Purbeck stone has been supplemented by trade in clays, first with Staffordshire and the Black Country and later with many European potteries.

Wareham walls

The ancient Saxon walls are at their most dramatic on the west side of town, now a grassy embankment, the walls were once a much greater obstacle. Wareham's walls were designed to stop axe and spear wielding infantry and to be defended by the same. The advantage of height meant that defenders could hurl spears at their attackers secure in the knowledge that few missiles would reach them in return.

The walls run nearly half a mile north from the River Frome enclosing three sides, the fourth being the river itself. The town fell more than once to the Danes, who attacked upriver and avoided the main defences. The walls themselves were only assaulted during the English Civil War, when they proved ineffective against cannonfire and musketry and the town surrendered. The walls were lowered after this and masonry reinforcements were removed.

Corfe Castle

Corfe CastleCorfe Castle is a spectacular romantic ruin, high on a hill and very visible from all around. The Purbeck stone buildings date back to William the Conqueror but King Alfred fortified the site against the Danes even earlier.It suffered the usual plundering during the Civil War but held out against the roundhead forces, only taken after a traitor let enemy in. The stone went to build the pretty village which had been renowned for its marble carving during the Middle Ages.

Corfe CastleWe parked by a stream at the base of the castle walls and walked up. With a clear blue sky the walls were very foreboding, including one tower at a very strange angle. Now owned by the National Trust, the remains are being well preserved and we climbed up multitudes of steps to see the fine views of the village, Poole Harbour and out to sea. We could see the little steam train on the railway from Swanage down below.

Corfe Castle VillageThe village is separated from the castle by a large, natural moat. Many of the buildings were made of stone from the castle, the local grey limestone and some of the cottages also have stone roofs.

Corfe Castle VillageThere followed a decline in prosperity when the centre of the Purbeck Stone trade moved to Swanage and house building stopped before the pattern of building had changed. The village has a picturesque quality which makes it the setting for several historical films. The Town Hall dates from 1774 and contains the Museum.

I cannot think of Corfe Castle without recalling Bill Bryson's account of his visit in his book 'Notes from a Small Island'. I cry with laughter every time I read it.

Studland Bay

Poole FerryThe road running east has great views across Poole Harbour and eventually winds round through Studland Heath to South Haven Point. Annoyingly, we had discounted using the ferry from Sandbanks only to discover that it carried not only pedestrians and cars as we had expected, but coaches and lorries as well. The distance across only looked a little longer than the boat; the ferry is known locally as the floating bridge.

South Haven Point

This flat peninsula belongs to the National Trust and is a nature reserve. Although this was called Shell Bay there weren’t many shells in evidence. The quiet beach is pleasantly sandy and backed with dunes, pools and tall grasses that swished in the breeze and it is the start of the South West Coast Path. We were rather amused by a harassed woman, herding several children, one of which - Michael - was determined to jump into every available stream and go in the opposite direction whenever possible.

Old Harry RocksStudland is a pretty village with stone houses and from here the white cliffs rise at Handfast Point to the isolated chalk stacks known as the The Old Harry Rocks. These rocks were once joined to the Needles on the Isle of Wight. The walk to Swanage looks very appealing as the place is so desolate. We did take a pleasant stroll up to the top of the cliffs to get some pictures of Old Harry and his wife.

Old HarryThe Heritage Coast runs from Handfast Point in the East to Exemouth in the west and the South West Coast Path runs along the clifftops. By a quirk of history the coastline has remained unspoiled although at times there has been considerable industry in the area.

Purbeck and Portland stone from coastal quarries were used to rebuild London after the Great Fire. The entire coast has seen more than its share of smuggling, wrecking and in earlier times piracy too. To this day it supports a fishing community and there are oil and gas wells in continuous production.



SwanageSwanage is not on the way to anywhere and no longer has a rail connection so it is a small half forgotten seaside resort.

Part of the town is built on a hill and is composed of lots of narrow winding one-way streets.

SwanageThe bay has lovely sands with white cliffs. King Alfred routed the Danish fleet here in 877 and later it was a medieval fishing village.

Wellington Clock TowerWith the coming of the railway it became a fashionable resort and the main trade was the quarrying of Purbeck Marble. The Wellington Clock Tower near the pier, was once a part of the old London bridge, moved here in 1867.

The Swanage area has always been famous for it's Purbeck Limestone, and during the 19th Century the quarrying of this stone formed the basis of the local economy. Originally the stone would be taken to the shore and loaded onto shallow draft vessels. Once laden, the small craft would sail offshore to the larger oceangoing ships. The stone would then be transferred, before being shipped around the coast to various parts of the country.

Swanage PierIn 1859 Parliament passed the 'Swanage Pier Act' which authorised the construction of a wooden pier to a length of 750ft, thus making it long enough to allow the stone to be loaded directly onto the large ships.


Durlston Head

Great GlobeA mile on at Durlston Head is a well kept country park with an interesting attraction called the Great Globe. George Burt, a Swanage stone magnate intended Durlston as the centrepiece of a luxury development in the 1880s. He built the 'Castle' and installed a globe of the world formed from 40 tons of Purbeck Marble that was carved at Greenwich.

Durlston HeadThere are two metal structures up on the cliff that look like transmitters but are actually mile posts used by yachtsmen to measure their speed. There are several sets of these at mile intervals along the coast; the measurement is taken when one tower is exactly hidden by the other.

At the bottom of the steep cliffs are the Tilly Whim Caves, an old quarry and smuggler’s hide but now a bird sanctuary. Tilly Whim Caves

We took one of the lovely walks along the impressive limestone cliffs to the lighthouse at Anvil Point from where dolphins can sometimes be seen close to the shore as well as many seabirds.

Kimmeridge Bay

Dancing LedgeThere is a nice walk around the coast path past Dancing Ledge, a disused stone quarry located right at the sea's edge.

St. Aldhelm's chapelSt Aldhelm’s Head is the southernmost tip of Purbeck, named after the first bishop of Sherborne. The small chapel of St. Aldhelm on the headland was built in the 12th century and is topped with a beacon for warning ships of the dangerous tides below. It used to be a sea-mark by which sailors could navigate this treacherous part of the coast.

The only way to Kimmeridge by road is back through Corfe Castle via Longton Matravers so we set off to the west to chase the disappearing sun.

Clavel TowerPerched on the cliff is the Clavel Tower which was built by a clergyman two hundred years ago for his astronomy and now looks like a folly. Below is a waterfall pouring into the sea. The tower was later a coastguard lookout but rumour has it that it's main purpose was initially as a signalling station to smugglers.

Kimmeridge BayThe Kimmeridge clays here are geologically famous because they preserve fossils, particularly ammonites, remarkably well. They are dark and crumbly containing bands of bituminous oil shale that were mined by the ancient Britons and polished to make jet-like ornaments. These soft grey shales are very susceptible to erosion and land-slip.

From the Iron Age and Roman shale workers to more recent alum, glass and fertiliser production, Kimmeridge has been a hive of industry. On the cliff-top at the western end of the bay is an oil well that produced 10,000 tons a year. Sunk by BP in 1959 it has been in continuous production ever since and it is the oldest productive well in the UK. Operation is automatic and except for the occasional tanker traffic there is very little to see. Many of the local rocks bear oil and the frequent rock falls release traces.

Kimmeridge at duskThe bay took on a spooky appearance in the evening light as we clambered down the deserted cliff path. Standing on the natural jetty, surrounded by sea, we felt very happy in the gathering dusk.

We left in the dark and went back to the campsite on the road to Dorchester. The weather was slightly calmer but we were glad of the sheltered seclusion of our pitch amongst the trees. We liked this site (including the TV aerial provided with the electricity hookup) and stayed for three nights. The next day was back to the terrible gales so we decided to return to the coast but spend the day inland if it got too bad.