Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Enjoying access in the Isle of Purbeck

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Walk, 2004

It's easy to imagine that freedom to roam is all about those northern moors and mountains, the magnificent gritstone outcrops of the Peak District, let's say, or the rugged grouse moors of Bowland.

But the long-cherished right to open country can be celebrated down south, too. Access rights arrived for the central southern counties of England in December [2004] and although the implications for walkers may be less dramatic than in the north it's still worth checking out the new access maps. There are some real jewels here waiting for walkers to discover.

Take the example of the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset , for example. This is an area which surely needs little introduction for many people: year after year, walkers come here to enjoy the fine ridgeway walks along the Purbeck Hills and the stunning coastal walks between Swanage and Lulworth Cove. Places like Corfe Castle , Old Harry Rocks and Chapman's Pool well deserve their popularity.

But what about the other side of Purbeck which few people discover? The sandy heathland, bounded by the waters of Poole Harbour to the north and by the Purbeck Hills to the south, was originally part of the great Dorset heathland commemorated in Thomas Hardy's bleak novel The Return of the Native . In the last hundred years, the heathland has shrunk, as agriculture, forestry and development have taken their toll. But in Purbeck important stretches of heathland remain, including superb Hartland Moor north of Corfe.

This area has almost every official designation going: it's a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), an SPA (Special Protection Area) and an SAC (Special Area of Conservation). Not surprisingly, it's also a national nature reserve, looked after by English Nature. As Jim White, manager of English Nature's Dorset team, points out, there's something here for every kind of nature lover: rare birds such as the Nightjar, Dartford Warbler and (in winter) the Hen Harrier, all six British reptiles (including the elusive sand lizard and smooth snake) and unusual flowers such as the strikingly large heather called, appropriately, Dorset Heath. Even the lichen are worthy of note.

There's also much here to intrigue anyone interested in industrial archaeology. One of the first railways in southern England , the Middlebere Plateway, was built across Hartland Moor very early in the nineteenth century by a clay entrepreneur Benjamin Fayle, to take clay from his pits near Corfe Castle to boats moored on Poole Harbour . Unusually, the rails were L-shaped, the horse-drawn clay wagons had normal unflanged wheels, and the sleepers were simply stone blocks (some of the sleepers remain in place today, complete with holes where the rails used to be fixed). The remains of another nineteenth century clay tramway, a little further west, can also be followed across the heath to Ridge Wharf .

Jim White is relaxed about the coming of access to the Purbeck heathland. As he points out, English Nature has for some years tolerated public access to its reserve, though up to now as a concession, rather than a right. “The difference now is that it will be spelled out on maps, but we're relatively confident,” he says. His only real anxiety comes from the prospect of poorly controlled dogs. “It's their indirect impact: dogs flush out birds like nightjars, and predators like crows, magpies and foxes can then take advantage,” he explains. Dog-walkers, please take note.

Whilst the right to roam means just that, most walkers who come to explore the Purbeck heath will no doubt choose to stay on tracks and paths. Benjamin Fayle's old plateway is particularly useful here, not least because it provides a firm surface over what can otherwise be damp ground. The railway's route can be followed south towards Corfe for more than a mile. Another destination for a walk can be the bird hide overlooking Poole Harbour where, many years ago, the sailing boats moored up to take away Fayle's clay to the Staffordshire potteries. In those days, the heathland was criss-crossed by tracks and paths; now, almost two centuries on, this fascinating area of countryside can once more be properly explored by all.

Some other less well-known areas of Purbeck to explore:

1. Corfe Common. Share with the ponies the pleasures of Corfe Common - including the fine views of the castle itself. The common is best approached by walking along attractive West Street . This common land will in future be clearly marked on OS maps.

2. Arne. Public access to the Arne peninsula has increased significantly with access rights. Most of the newly open land (including heathland overlooking Poole Harbour ) forms part of the RSPB reserve.

3. Creech Barrow. Walk up to the trig point on prominent Creech Barrow. Look out for reminders of the old clay mining industry here.

4. Seacombe. Wander at will across the fields and hills north of Seacombe Cliff. Look out for the mediaeval field terraces (strip lynchets) on the hillside above Seacombe Bottom.

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