Old Harry’s Rocks

From the small coastal village of Studland make your way along the cliffs to Old Harry’s Rocks. Now a stump, a stack and a bit of no man’s land, it once housed a castle. Both the caves below and the name linked to a famous local pirate. Continue along the cliff top past the Pinnacles to Ballard Down accompanied with stunning views across Poole Harbour, Sandbanks, Studland, Swanage and the open blue sea to the Isle of Wight. Visit the obelisk erected to celebrate fresh flowing water for the locals to return via a WWI camp, which has turned into luxury housing, and the ancient Saxon towerless Church.

Distance: 5.5 miles/7km (4.5 miles if missing the Obelisk)

Duration: 2 hours

Ability: Easy, only one gentle climb up Ballard Down.

Max Height: 450ft.

Min Height: 83ft.

Total climb: 423ft.

Terrain: Track, road path and field.

Map: OS Explorer 15 Purbeck and West Dorset

Start Point: South Beach Car Park (Postcode: BH19 3AU, Grid Reference: SZ037825, What Three Words: nets.followers.hammocks).

How to Get There: From Poole, take the chain ferry to Studland. Follow Studland Road into the village and take the first left then immediately right onto Rectory Lane. Turn right at the next T-junction and the car park is on the left (payment required, free for National Trust members).

Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.

Refreshments: The Bankes Arms and The Pig on the Beach, both in Studland village.

Studland is a small village on the Isle of Purbeck sheltered under the shadow of Ballard Down to the south and bordered by the sea to the east. It is dominated by holiday homes, second homes, or guest houses, meaning the village’s population varies hugely depending upon the season. It is famous for its beaches, having been used as a location for TV’s Monty Pythons Flying Circus, Only Fools and Horses and in a Music video for the band Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ single. The beaches and much of the surrounding land is owned and managed by the National Trust. Only a few ancient buildings remain in the village today, including the Church, the pub, a number of cottages and Studland Manor, now known as The Pig on the Beach Hotel. Industrial activity in the area dates back to salt panning at the time of the Domesday Book, but could date back to the Romans, and by 1340 records show that fishing was the areas forte.

The Bankes Arms
Studland 1902

From the carpark, make your way back out onto the road. Turn right passing the 16th century Bankes Arms. The pub is named after Rt. Hon. George Bankes, the owner of Corfe Castle and Kingston Lacy. He also built The Pig as Studland Manor House, his coastal retreat.

Continue to make your way through the village and, when the road curves, turn left up a track, signposted for Old Harry and circling a handy toilet block. Follow the cocooned track as it gently guides you up hill. The views are hidden by the thick vegetation but when the gaps appear the blue ocean stretches out towards Bournemouth. The sandy beach of Studland divides the sea from Poole Harbour which is filled with the orange hue of Brownsea Island and tipped with the most expensive land outside of London – Sandbanks. The path then opens out into a wide field before narrowing itself again just as it arrives at the peak.

As you approach Handfast Point, Old Harry’s Rocks come into sight. These are an impressive coastal feature that consist of three chalk rock formations. They include a small stump, which is old Harry’s wife who crumbled into the sea in 1509, the stack is Old Harry himself and the larger section is known as No Man’s Land. The formation marks the eastern most point of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Across the water to the east, and on a clear day visible to the naked eye, are The Needles; a continuation of the chalk band that created Old Harry, sitting on the most western point of the Isle of Wight.

The stories of the rocks are deep in myth and mystery. One legend says that the Devil (traditionally known as “Old Harry”) slept on the rocks. Another tale has it that a ninth-century Viking raid was thwarted by a storm and that one of the drowned, Earl Harold, was turned into a pillar of chalk. A further claim is that there is an old saying speaking of someone ‘playing Old Harry,’ which would mean ‘to ruin or destroy.’ The name was therefore used to give warning to passing ships. However, the favourite is the story of Harry Payne.

Harry Payne was a famous Poole pirate, born around 1360 and died in 1419. He was viewed as a Robin Hood type figure, but of the high seas. Hiding in caves and coves he knew well, he would surprise and attack hundreds of passing French and Spanish ships, raiding them of their gold, fine wine, intricate fabrics, exotic food and fragrant spices to then share amongst the people of Poole. Unfortunately, the French and Spanish grew tired of the attacks and together invaded Poole as revenge, burning the town and killing hundreds of people, including Harry’s brother. Harry was away at the time only to return to the devastation. Soon after the attack, a newly confident French ship sailed along the Dorset coast laden with the finest wine. Harry was quick to react, raiding the vessel and capturing 12,000 gallons of the wine, leaving the wrecked French ship to the tides. Harry returned to Poole gifting the wine to the inhabitants. The whole town was drunk for a month and even today a Harry Payne day is celebrated every year in the town, the next one scheduled for the 28th June 2022. His legend therefore also lives on within the chalk stacks, the caves below believed to have once been a hiding place for his loot.

In 1381 records show a ‘castellum de Studlande’ (Castle of Studland) existed on the cliffs at Handfast Point although the exact location is unknown. However, its origin may be earlier, the first settlement could have dated back to the Iron Age with it having once been a prime positon for a promontory hillfort. Legend also says that that King John stayed there when he visited Studland in 1205 and 1213. Between May 1584 and October 1586 the building was replaced with another castle, which existed until about 1770. Nothing physical remains today as the stones have all been lost to the sea.

1767 Map marking the castle

In the medieval period Handfast Point would have been less eroded and therefore would have offered a larger platform to house such a structure. The site would have provided clear views right across Studland Bay to the Isle of Wight giving plenty of warning of an impending attack. There may even be evidence of this ancient castle still sitting onto top of the chalk stacks, now covered with a cap of rough grass.

As you curve around the cliff edge you come to St Lucas’ Leap. St Lucas was apparently a greyhound, on a walk along the coastal path. Distracted by a rabbit, the worst case scenario occurred and he ‘leapt’ to his death. The name has stuck, giving this small division of land between the tall chalk formations its own story.

Following along the coast from Old Harry The Pinnacles appear, continuing the chalk themed geology consisting of a stack and a stump. The best view of these is from the next spur after Old Harry. These chalk formations have broken away from the cliffs and have crumbled into the sea over thousands of years, and will continue to do so throughout the future, slowly eroding away at Old Nicks Ground behind.

Old Nicks Ground is an area that was utilised during the Second World War. An observation bunker was stationed here, not only for enemy aircraft but also to be able to watch the troops train on the water below. In today’s landscape there are no remains to demonstrate the huge amount of military activity that once occurred here.

Follow the cliffs with the sea on your left, the gradient slowly getting steeper. When you reach a gate, walk along the route on the left hand side staying on the coastal path. Follow the trodden trail as it turns inland to rise to the ridge of Ballard Down. At the mile stone the views of Swanage below come into sight and occasionally you may hear the toot of the old steam train.

On Ballard Down’s northern slopes sits the ancient earthwork of Kings Barrow, while along the ridge are smaller ancient tumuli, some surrounding the approaching trig point. Head straight through the next gate and past the trig point, providing you with clear views to both the north and south. Bill Bryson referred to walking Ballard down in his travel book ‘Notes from a Small Island’. He described the views over Swanage, Studland and Poole Harbour as ‘beautiful beyond words’ and ‘like being on top of the world’.

Head through the next gate, continuing straight ahead, passing a few more earthworks. Also, scattered along the ridge, are some more modern additions. Occasionally a boundary stone appears amongst the grass marking the divide between the parishes of Swanage and Studland. On your right sits a small stone as an immediate example which, on its northern face, is engraved with ‘Studland Manor 1779’.

Continue to follow the ridge passing a stone seat. At the second stone seat, you have the option to carry on to the obelisk or cut back to Studland. To reach the obelisk continue straight ahead, climbing a little further and passing a few more tumuli, boundary stones and WWII foundations. Head through another gate and down the hill to reach the Obelisk.

Its purpose was to commemorate the provision of a new supply of drinking water for Swanage in 1883. It was erected in 1892 by George Burt, who was a local businessman and founding father of much of the town. The hexagonal, granite monument was brought to Swanage from London, having originally been outside the St Mary of the Nativity Church, on the corner of King William Street and Lombard Street. Burt went on to install the Great Globe at Durlston and had Durlston Castle built as a folly and restaurant. The Obelisk was taken down in 1941 as it was a landmark that might have aided enemy aircraft during WWII, but was re-erected in 1952.

Illustration of the obelisk outside St Mary Woolnoth Church in London before being moved to Swanage
The Obelisk in its original position in London (The British Library)

Retrace your footsteps to the second stone seat and fork left down the hill. The conurbation of Bournemouth rises above the water ahead, flashing white against the blue of the sea while the dark red roof tops of Glebeland Estate appear below. Follow the track down the slope to a gate where you join a tarmac road at Glebeland.

Glebeland Estate was a former WWI army camp. After the war, people bought the chalets as holiday homes, but it wasn’t long before they had all been replaced by new homes which created the mini-estate. Today the development is still relatively new, with homes being constantly revamped and taking full advantage of the views as well as modern design.

Follow the road all the way to the end at the 17th century Manor Farm. Here you meet a small junction with a modern Celtic cross, which was erected in 1976 and uses the old Saxon cross foundation as its base. Head straight up the dead end road to meet the church.

St Nicholas’ Church competes with St Martin’s in Wareham for the crown of Dorset’s oldest complete church. It dates from just prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066 and is appropriately dedicated to the patron saint of sailors. The church is built on the site of an earlier Saxon building which was destroyed by the Danes in the 9th century. In 1883, during the building of the tower, work was abandoned so it remains unfinished. It was possibly thought that the foundations couldn’t handle the intended height and so left it as we see it today with no tower.

Walk through the church yard and out on to the road to turn right. Head for the junction where ‘The Pig on the Beach’ sits to your left. . It is of an interesting and irregular design, its inspiration apparently dating back to a medieval manor that once stood on the site.

Turn right passing a fleeting view out to Old Harry on your left to return to the car park on your right.

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