Studland and Godlingston Heath
As the largest expanse of unspoiled lowland heath to survive in Dorset, the wilderness of Studland and Godlingston Heath is perhaps the closest thing to the landscape of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex that the 21st century affords.
In his Return of the Native, Hardy places the fictional Egdon Heath further west, but today it is here in Purbeck that we can best enjoy the uninterrupted vistas of gently undulating hills covered in purple heather he describes.
Some of the best views of the heath sweeping down to the shores of Poole Harbour are from the dramatic Agglestone – a 400 tonne rock sitting alone on a hill as if a giant had dropped it there.
So out of place does it seem that legend suggests it was placed there by supernatural forces. It is said the Devil was sitting on The Needles when he saw Corfe Castle being built. He was so offended by the beautiful white tower of the Norman keep that he threw his cap at it: the missile fell short, however, and became the Agglestone.
Legend aside, the 17-foot rock is thought to be part of a band of ironstone which crosses the heath, also including the nearby and much smaller Puckstone.
As an internationally important example of lowland heath, the area is managed by the National Trust as a designated National Nature Reserve.
A wide range of habitats include sand dunes, peat bog, alder and willow carr and the freshwater lagoon of Little Sea, as well as heathland.
All six species of native British reptile are to be found here, including the rare sand lizard and smooth snake.
The best time for reptile spotting is April and May as they emerge from hibernation and male sand lizards turn bright green to attract a mate.
Visit in high summer and you’ll find the heathland clothed in purple heather and yellow gorse while wetter areas are alive with dragonflies.
Wildfowl are the big attraction in winter and birdwatchers are also drawn to Studland and Godlingston Heath as one of the main strongholds of the Dartford warbler.
The distinctive call of the nightjar can sometimes be heard at dusk while little egrets stalk around the water margins and terns flit overhead.