The Purbeck Hills

'If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe.' So wrote E.M. Forster in Howards End.

The section he had in mind stretches from Corfe Castle to Ballard Down, overlooking Old Harry, with its views over the Studland peninsula and Poole Bay as far as the Isle of Wight.

" Seen from the west, the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty. It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner - chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow."
- E.M. Forster

Ballard Down is the last in a line of chalk hills cutting across the Isle of Purbeck, each with its own special character. To the west are Ailwood Down and Nine Barrow Down where the summit is dotted with stone-age burial mounds.

Below, the great glittering sweep of Poole Harbour lies on one hand and the limestone uplands of south Purbeck on the other.

Corfe Castle

Further west, and the distinctive outline of Corfe Castle comes into view in a gap in the hills - a perfect illustration of the strategic thinking that placed it there.

Footpaths and bridleways make Ballard Down and Ailwood Down readily accessible to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. There are some gaps with steep climbs but the hills barely reach 200m above sea level and the summits form a fairly level ridgeway.

The entire section from Old Harry to Corfe Castle is part of the Purbeck Way long distance route.

Beyond Corfe the Purbeck Hills march on into the military training ranges around Lulworth. The 18th-century folly of Creech Grange Arch is a quirky landmark along the way.


A theme in Howards End, published in 1910, is the creeping urbanisation of southern England. Forster lists the Purbeck Hills among a dwindling number of 'survivals' standing firm against the red brick tide, and he is pessimistic about their future.

Fortunately his pessimism was unfounded, in this instance at least, and they remain unspoiled to inspire us.

As Forster put it: 'The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England.'