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Purbeck - Dorset

Purbeck

Purbeck is a district of Dorset that takes its name from the peninsula known locally as the 'Isle of Purbeck'. This sixty square mile chunk of land jutting into the English Channel is bordered on three sides by water and, although not actually an island, has an insular character which is largely due to its geography.

A ridge of chalk from the Cretaceous period known as the Purbeck Hills runs along the peninsula from Ballard Down, a National Trust nature reserve north of Swanage, managed for its calcareous grassland habitat, through Corfe Castle and almost to East Lulworth, a hamlet consisting of 17th century thatched cottages. East Lulworth is relatively low-lying due to a break in the cliff that occurs at Arish Mell, while to the north is Luckford Lake, a small stream feeding into the River Frome, which in turn runs into Poole Harbour. In the past the low-lying land would have been very boggy and difficult to cross in winter, hence the 'Isle' of Purbeck.

The nearby Corfe Castle represents another attempt to defend the area from marauding armies. Built in a gap in the Purbeck Hills this ruined castle dates back to the 11th century. It is now owned by the National Trust, who are currently attempting to restore it. The village of Corfe Castle, built in the gap below the ruins, is a picturesque affair and attracts many visitors each year.

The Purbeck coastline is part of the ninety-five mile stretch known as the 'Jurassic Coast', named England’s first natural world heritage site in 2002 because of the unique insight it offers into 185 million years of the Earth’s history. The Purbeck Beds are an internationally important record of the evolution of mammals at the beginning of the Cretaceous period, and a total of more than 100 different vertebrate species have been identified from fossils. The Purbeck limestones are also famous for dinosaur tracks, the most significant of which are at Keat’s Quarry, where footprints more than a metre in diameter were discovered in 1986.

The rise of tourism during the Victorian era led to the growth of some of the small towns and villages in Purbeck, notably Swanage. Only ten kilometres south of Poole, Swanage was a small port and fishing village until the Victorians developed it as a seaside resort. The 19th century wooden pier survives today and is home to sightseeing and angling boats and the ferry to Brownsea Island, a peaceful island of woodland, wetland and heath owned by the National Trust and famous for being the birthplace of the guides and scouts. There is a Scout and Guide Heritage centre on the island as well as the Baden-Powell Outdoor Centre. Brownsea Island is first and foremost a haven for wildlife including red squirrels, peacocks and deer. Swanage is also home to the six mile long Swange Railway. This steam railway originally opened in 1885 and runs past Corfe Castle to the town of Norden.

North of Swanage the sandy beaches of Shell Bay and Studland Beach are hugely popular with sunbathers and Studland’s three miles of golden sand includes the National Trust’s only designated nudist beach.

Along the coast from Chapman’s Pool is Worbarrow Bay, a wide, shallow bay just east of Lulworth Cove. Worbarrow Bay, which exposes a sequence of cretaceous rocks from the chalk of the west to the Purbeck Beds in the east, is arguably home to one of the best sections of the Cretaceous in Europe. It is owned by the Ministry of Defence and only accessible when the Lulworth army firing ranges are open.

The Ministry of Defence have played a significant part in Purbeck’s recent history, most notably in the case of Tyneham, a ghost village commandeered by the War Office in 1943, along with 30 square kilometres of surrounding heathland, for use as a firing range for training troops. This temporary measure became permanent in 1948 when the army placed a compulsory purchase order on the land and village and it has been used for military training ever since. In 1975, following sustained lobbying, the village and footpaths were opened to the public at weekends and throughout August and today, although the Elizabethan Manor House was pulled down in 1967, the church and schoolhouse remain intact and are preserved as museums. The absence of farming has allowed the land to become a haven for wildlife.

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