old_harry_rocks_robert_pittman | Isle of Purbeck

The Isle of Purbeck is a peninsula much of which is now designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It is bordered by water on three sides. The English Channel is to the south and east, where steep cliffs fall to the sea. The marshy lands of the River Frome and Poole Harbour are to the north.

Geology and Geography

The Isle of Purbeck is geologically very complex. The limestone beds rise as cliffs to the south forming the Jurassic coastline. A chalk ridge forms the Purbeck Hills along the spine and clay lowlands and sandy marshlands lie to the west and towards Poole Harbour.


In the past, quarrying of limestone was an important part of Purbeck life. This work was concentrated around the cliffs along the coast between Swanage and St Aldhelm’s Head.

Stone was removed from the cliff quarries by sea, where the stone was dropped into waiting small boats using wooden cranes or “whims’. Horse and carts were also used to transport large blocks to Swanage.

Clay workings near Wareham produced ball clay which was sent to the potteries in Poole and in the Midlands.

Both Purbeck stone and ball clay were carried by train once the Corkscrew arrived.


The varied underlying geology has resulted in a very diverse landscape. Chalk downland contrasts with lowland heathlands. Each habitat has abundant and rare varieties of insects, flowers and birds which can be seen and heard on many of the walks in the area.

The limestone cliffs on the coast form part of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO world heritage site. This stretches 95 miles from Devon to Dorset and ends at Old Harry’s Rocks on the eastern end of the Purbecks. The Jurassic Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Britain.

The walking trail on the coastal section of the Purbecks is part of the South West coastal path. This is a 630-mile-long National Trail which stretches from North Devon around Cornwall and ends in Poole Harbour.

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