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History of Studland Bay

The Second World War viewing structure, Fort Henry, at Studland Bay, Dorset
Fort Henry at Studland Bay | © National Trust Images / Clive Whitbourn

Studland Bay is known to many as a leisure destination boasting four miles of beach, but its historical significance is often overlooked. Discover how Studland Bay was used for military operations during the Second World War and how it came to be donated to the National Trust in 1981.

An aristocratic escape

The aristocratic Bankes family, who once owned Corfe Castle and Kingston Lacy spent summers at their Studland residence, now a popular hotel called ‘The Pig on the Beach’.

The summer residence was ideally placed to gain easy access to the sandy beach. Henrietta Bankes and her son Ralph frequently spent time as a family on the beach.

On his death in 1981 Ralph Bankes bequeathed the Bankes estate, including Studland, Corfe Castle and Kingston Lacy, to the National Trust.

Second World War defences running into the sea at Studland Bay, Dorset
Second World War defences at Studland Bay | © National Trust Images / Jon Bish

Live World War Two ammunition may occasionally be found. If you see anything, do not touch or remove it but note the location using what three words and report it immediately to a member of staff or call 01929 450500 or the police on 999.

War time training

Exercise smash

Exercise Smash, a full-scale dress rehearsal for the Allied invasion of Europe, took place in Studland Bay in April 1944. Many duplex-drive Valentine tanks were used during the exercise.

The duplex tanks were modified versions of the existing Valentine model which had propellers and a fabric ‘skirt’ added so they could be launched from offshore as part of the assault on the Normandy beaches.

Dragon's teeth

Look out for the concrete anti-tank defences known as Dragon’s Teeth, placed between Middle beach and Fort Henry. These huge concrete posts form part of the defence against an enemy invasion. More of these can be found further up the coast at Bramble Bush Bay near Shell beach.

Fort Henry

Then Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and Allied Supreme Commander, Dwight D Eisenhower, watched Exercise Smash from Fort Henry above Middle Beach.

You can still visit Fort Henry today and view the bay just as Churchill did. Follow the South West Coastal Path from the car park at Middle Beach.

A memorial

Tragically, on 4 April 1944 many of the amphibious tanks sank and six lives were lost. A memorial to those who died stands alongside Fort Henry.

A close up of Second World War defences with beach huts in the background at Middle Beach, Studland Bay, Dorset
Second World War defences at Middle Beach | © National Trust Images / Jon Bish

Studland’s sand dunes

Studland beach and its dunes haven’t always existed. Sand began being deposited on the eastern shore of the Studland peninsula only about 500 years ago.

The beach today is just the seaward edge of a dune system that’s been growing ever since.

Little Sea

It was this growth that formed a barrier that created Little Sea, a freshwater lake that’s separate from the sea. The dunes are still growing. In fact, the dunes are growing at more than one metre per year at the northern end of the peninsula.

How dunes are formed

Dunes are formed as wind blows sand up from the beach into mounds and ridges. They continue to blow around until they’re stabilised by the dune marram grass.

The Studland dunes are unusual as they’re made of acidic sand with very low shell content.

An aerial view of the beach at Studland Bay in Dorset in spring

Discover more at Studland Bay

Find out how to get to Studland Bay, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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Visitors exploring the beaches at Studland Bay

Things to do at Studland Bay 

Explore the four miles of beautiful beaches that line the sheltered waters of Studland Bay, making it ideal for family beach trips and coastal exploration.

Picnic blankets, reusable cups and colourful backpacks

Eating and shopping at Studland Bay 

Discover what’s on the menu at Knoll Beach Café, where you can sit and sip while enjoying sea views, then pop into the shop for a treat to take home.


Dynamic Dunescapes at Studland Bay 

Catch up on how Dynamic Dunescapes, a nationwide project to restore sand dune landscapes to improve the habitat for nature, is progressing at Studland Bay.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.

The sun rising over Knoll Beach with grasses in the foreground at Studland Bay, Dorset

Naturism at Studland Bay 

A designated section of Studland Beach is probably the best known naturist beach in Britain. The 900m area of Knoll Beach is marked with signs and posts.

A small dog on the lead standing at the beach

Visiting Studland Bay with your dog 

Studland Bay is a two pawprint rated place. Well-behaved dogs are very welcome. We have certain restrictions to ensure everyone enjoys the beach, whether on two or four feet.

A group of cattle graze while wearing Nofence collars, which contains the cows using virtual fencing technology, at Studland Bay, Dorset

Our work at Studland Bay 

Studland Bay is a special landscape that dedicated teams of staff, volunteers (and a herd of cattle) help maintain for the safety and enjoyment of wildlife and visitors.

A volunteer clearing bracken in the woods at Studland Bay, Dorset

Volunteering opportunities at Studland Bay 

Volunteers play a big part in caring for habitats and helping visitors across Purbeck and we are always looking for friendly and passionate people to join our teams. Come along to our Purbeck volunteer recruitment event on Saturday 20 January to learn more.