South Purbeck - cliffs, quarries and orchids

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The south coast of the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset is a place built on stone foundations - in every sense.

The Purbeck stone forms a distinctive landscape of towering sea cliffs topped by grassland rich in nature. This also provided the economic foundations of the area for centuries.

South Purbeck is easily explored via a network of rights of way including the South West Coast Path and the Priest’s Way, both of which offer spectacular sea views.

Prized stone

Limestone from South Purbeck has been prized by masons since Roman times. It was used in virtually all the great cathedrals of southern England, including Westminster Abbey, and closer to home in the construction of Corfe Castle.

A once thriving quarrying industry continues at a reduced scale today, while older workings have become cherished parts of the landscape.

Dancing on Purbeck

One of the best loved of these is Dancing Ledge, a flat expanse of rock which is covered at high tide, and which includes a swimming pool blasted into the rock for the use of local children. Some say Dancing Ledge got its name from the way the waves sometimes ‘dance’ over the rock: others because it is roughly the same size as a ballroom.

Stone from here was once loaded directly onto ships and used to build Ramsgate Harbour in Kent.

Climbing

Today the area is popular with rock climbers and coasteering fans. A bit of scrambling is needed to explore it fully. The coast was a haunt of 18th and 19th-century smugglers who hid their contraband in the tunnels created by quarrying.

Traditional grazing methods have preserved a landscape of typical limestone grassland criss-crossed by dry stone walls. The hillside terraces called strip lynchets near Winspit date from medieval times and were used to provide more farmland.

Natural treasures

The area is rich in plantlife, including the rare early spider orchid. The field to the west of Dancing Ledge is the best site in Britain to spot this tiny jewel when it flowers in late April or early May.

Wildflowers including horseshoe vetch and cowslips provide splashes of colour in spring and summer, as well as attracting rare butterflies like the Adonis blue and Lulworth skipper. 

Puffins, guillemots and razorbills make their nests on the cliffs below.