Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 550ft
Max height: 666ft
Min height: 180ft
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Start: Swyre Head car park (Grid Ref: SY943792, Postcode BH20 5LL, What three words: sunblock.promotion.pans). Parking is limited and can get busy at peak times.
Map: OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck and South Dorset
How to get there: Travelling south through Corfe Castle, turn right at the end of the village. Follow the road to Kingston and at the pub turn right again. Follow the road all the way to the end to meet the car park.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code. A few small stiles to cross along the last section of the walk.
Refreshments: The Scott Arms in Kingston.
The Isle of Purbeck is the most popular area in Dorset for tourists, and locals alike, to explore. However, if you know the area better than some, or have scrutinized a map to find different locations, Swyre Head may be one that draws your attention. This particular walk takes you through some of the slightly more hidden areas of the Isle of Purbeck. It is also a walk that avoids the large climbs that the Jurassic geology creates, yet still gives you some impressive views of the expansive coastline.
The walk can be started from three separate locations, the quarry at Kimmeridge, the car park at the edge of the village of Kingston or, were we will start now, The Swyre Head car park.
On leaving the chalky floor of the car park, turn left to go through a kissing gate and then straight through the following one, taking you into a large field. This is often filled with sheep so be aware of scattering the flock. A small chalky track leads you up to the top of the hill with woodland on your right hand side. Once at the top, go through another gate leading you to a grassed terrace. The forest and a dry stone wall is on your right and on your left the ground drops away, the sea is comes into view and down in the valley, or Golden Bowl as it is known locally, sits Encombe House. As the coastline disappears eastwards, St Aldhelm’s Head juts out into the sea aggressively.
The present Encombe House was completed in 1770 by John Pitt (cousin of the Prime Minister William Pitt). The manmade lake was also installed and the water works that accompanied it. This led to the nickname of the Golden Bowl due to its fertility aided by the location, it’s micro climate and manmade watering system.
Behind you, at the high end of the Golden Bowl, sits a 40ft high obelisk made from Purbeck stone. When trees are in full leaf it may be a little harder to spot! It was erected in 1835 by the First Lord Eldon (John Scott) in honour of his brother Baron Stewell (William Scott). A later inhabitant, but of the same family, was (also) John Scott who played the role of Lord in Waiting for King George VI (1937-52) and for Queen Elizabeth II (1952-1968).
The current owner is James Gaggero; he paid 20 million pounds for the property having made his millions by operating Gibraltar Airways, now owned by Easy Jet. They are the 6th family to own estate in 1100 years.
Follow the grass terrace as it curves along the hillside. Swyre Head is ahead of you marked by the small Bronze Age buriel mound at its peak. Swyre, in old English, means neck or beak of a ship. This is quite accurate as it is almost possible to recreate the famous “I’m flying” Titanic scene in the far corner of the head. It is the Isle of Purbeck’s highest point, the OS trig stone marking 203m, but including the barrow it is 208m high. The views clearly reflect this, stretching from Dartmoor in the West, the Isle of White to the East and, on a clear day, Normandy, in France, to the South.
In addition to the barrow, there are many other examples of evidence in the landscape from earlier civilizations. The Iron Age in particular has proven to be a lucrative era. Walking from the barrow at Swyre Head, follow the stone wall, ignoring the first gate, keeping it tightly on your left to the next gate. The views are wild; Corfe Castle and Poole Harbour are on your right, with the further views to the North into the depths of the Dorsey countryside. Continue along the path and eventually, passing through another gate, you will see some earthworks on your right hand side, just before the hill dips out of view. This is a good example of an Iron Age settlement that utilised the area’s most prominent resource – Kimmeridge shale – for trade and in culture. Discoveries have been made of jewellery such as rings and bracelets. Speeding ahead in time, the Romans also used the resource, table legs, having been worked and polished from the shale, seemed to be particularly popular, or maybe they weren’t and that’s why so many discoveries have been made in the bottom of ditches!
Straight ahead of you is the view of the coastline. The geology of the cliffs are clearly visible, the chalk hills disappearing off into the distance until they crash into the sea, while the gentle Purbeck beds lie low on the floor below you.
On your left, the opposite side of the hill to the settlement, Smedmore House sits in the valley. This house is a rarity due to the fact that it has been in the same family since William the Conqueror (this is allowing for a few ‘through marriage’ exceptions). There are two inhabitants who seem to outshine the rest. John Clavell was a famous highwayman, feared by many late night travellers. On finally being caught, he managed to escape the gallows by writing two books about his escapades back in 1627; giving his secrets away saved his life. His uncle was Sir William Clavell who was an entrepreneur. It is also this family that give their name to Clavell Tower.
Sitting high on the hill, framed by the sea but way below your standing point is Clavell Tower. It is a welcome landmark for those at sea and a picture postcard for those on land. Not long ago it was at risk of having its foundations eroded away and the whole building washed into the sea but was moved slightly northwards out of dangers way, renovated and is now available to let as a self-catering holiday….‘cottage’?.
As you continue to walk along the ridge, the village of Kimmeridge can be glanced through the trees to the west. This small village, made almost completely out of the classic Purbeck stone with thatched roofs, was one of the last few villages in England to receive electricity and running water. Approaching the area from this route it is hardly surprising as you descend deeper into the green valley with little civilization. Other than the tower of St Michael and All Angels’ church in Steeple in front of you and the flicker of a country road below you, there is little development.
Kimmeridge Bay is clear to your left. Once known as Haunted Bay, it was a popular smugglers cove. The tricky coastline meant only experienced and local sailors could navigate the rocks leading to the downfall of strangers and the free for all for smugglers and villages alike. It is an incredibly unspoilt area and its importance has been recognised by its designation as a nature reserve – the first of its type (underwater) in the country. It is run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust and the Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre, based in the bay.
Remaining on the track, walking west and descending the hill, the sea disappears out of view and you meet the road (this would be a starting point had you parked in the quarry car park, just hidden around the corner on your left). On the road turn right and continue to follow it for about a mile. The road is quiet and narrow, so be aware of any traffic that could suddenly appear. Corfe Castle starts to reveal itself in the distance. Directly on your left are fields that slowly reach across the valley and then suddenly rise up to create the Purbeck hills. Following the line of the hill away from you, the break appears and it’s filled with the impressive silhouette of the castle.
Follow the road that continues along the same gradient until it turns a corner and drops down to a farm. Follow the road around the corner and then slowly up another small hill where a road turns left. Opposite the turning is the next footpath to take. It is narrow and rocky, so watch your step. It is easy to imagine that in the wetter months this particular path is more likely to be a small waterfall. It is quite steep but the stones act like steps making it a little easier to endure. The path leads to a stile and opens up into a field. Turn left and continue to the next gate. Travel diagonally across the next field to the next stile. The route is easy to follow with handy stiles and posts marking the way. Corfe Castle gradually dominates your view more and more with Poole harbour slowly emerging behind it. As you gain height the woods that appear in front of you surround Kingston which is where you are aiming for, the church tower of St James’ pops out above the tree tops. Follow the path along the field boundary until you reach the woods. Enter into the darker shadows though a gap in the stone wall to join a track, turn right and at the next track you have the option to head straight back to your car or turn left to explore Kingston.
There is more of an argument to explore Kingston, mainly due to the popular pub that will provide you with much needed refreshment but also because of a few other reasons. Kingston has the most elaborate church – St James. It was a wealthy little village in the 12th and 13th centuries thanks to the extraction of Purbeck marble. It was an incredibly important resource – strong, durable and decorative, containing many fossils of age old sea snails. Apparently the marble was used in all but three English Cathedrals. It was, understandably, used extensively on the interior of St James’ church and on completion, in 1870, it became known as Purbeck’s Cathedral. The church tower contains 8 bells, way more than necessary for the small village but it was commissioned, encouraged and loved by John Scott (3rd Lord of Eldon) as his own private church, which explains some of its extravagance. It was given to the village in 1921.
Kingston does not escape a bit of media attention either. The pub plays an important part in this too. Thomas Hardy’s ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ was filmed in the area. The Scott Arms’ own beer garden was the location of Michael Henchard’s fictional grave. The gravestone is still visible today, in between a few picnic benches!
From the pub trace the route you would have arrived by car (passing the third starting option on your left). Follow the small road heading west, and when out of the woods the views, once again, are spectacular; opening up to the North with Corfe Castle framed by Poole Harbour sparkling in the distance. The road ahead stretches in to the fields ahead and you slowly disappear down them. The forests on your left are full of deer and hare, so keep your eyes peeled as you pass. As the trees get closer so does the car park, leading you straight back to your vehicle.