07 Jun The Purbeck Way: A Dorset day walk with a difference
The Purbeck Way is a circular path that cuts it’s way through glorious Dorset countryside, along a majestic stretch of the Jurassic coast and through quaint country villages way off the beaten path. Circumnavigating the Isle of Purbeck, it’s a challenging but hugely enjoyable day walk on England’s spectacular south coast.
Chances are, you’ll have heard of the South West Coastal Path if you’ve ever walked in the south of England. 630 miles of meandering trails trace the dramatic coastlines of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, starting in Minehead and leading all the way to Poole Harbour on the Hampshire border. It’s undeniably beautiful and challenging, taking in both the Jurassic coast of Dorset as well as the varied and rugged coves, beaches and headlands of the west country.
But did you know it had a little sister?
The Purbeck Way is one of several less well-known long distance paths that share tracks with some of the South West Coastal Path. Starting in Poole Harbour, it swings in a wide loop through the Dorset countryside past some its most iconic landmarks. With a total distance just shy of 30 miles, it’s a great introduction to this area. It’s an enjoyable way to enjoy some of the highlights of the Jurassic coast, without tackling its full length.
With a quiet weekend and glorious weather forecast, we decided it was time to give the Purbeck Way a go. Just over an hour from home, and with a little tweaking to the route, it looked like the perfect full-day walk for us. Challenging enough to get us excited, easy enough to reach to have no need of booking accommodation. Whilst we added a few twists of our own, we were mostly loyal to the original trail – making it easy to navigate. Here’s our story of the Purbeck Way.
A quick note on walking during Covid-19
We undertook this walk just after travel restrictions were lifted during the Covid-19 crisis in the UK.
We chose to travel no further than an hour from home and to an area we knew as this felt most comfortable.
Aside from checking current government advice before heading out, we recommend the following to ensure that you’re respecting local communities and doing all you can to minimise the spread of Covid-19;
- Avoid busy spots. We choose to park in a quiet location and to follow a less well-known route. Be respectful of local people if parking in residential areas and check if public car parks are open before heading out – not all are at present
- Start early. This way we had paths largely to ourselves for the first few hours
- Assume that you’ll find no conveniences or places to stop and eat en-route. We brought enough food and drink with us for the day and know how to leave no trace if we need to nip in the bushes
- Bring supplies to keep your hands clean. This meant wet wipes for hand-washing and a buff to help open gates and the like to avoid touching surfaces
- Respect social-distancing anywhere that is busier
- Ensure you follow the countryside code as ever – leave no trace, respect wildlife and communities
Don’t forget to check the latest guidelines and restrictions on the UK Government site here.
Sadly we did see some examples of these guidelines not being followed – in particular a lot of discarded wet wipes where we think people were popping in the bushes where no toilet facilities were available. Please do NOT do this – either be prepared to take all waste with you or stick to shorter routes closer to home.
The route of the Purbeck Way
The Purbeck way is a long-distance path starting in the pretty market town of Wareham. It leads from here to picturesque Corfe Castle, where the path begins a circular journey around the Isle of Purbeck. It takes in iconic views of Old Harry Rocks, meanders through the charming seaside town of Swanage and includes a generous stretch of the South West Coastal Path towards Chapman’s Pool. Returning to Corfe Castle from the coast through rolling farmland, you the follow the first stretch of the route back from Corfe to Wareham to complete the path.
Going rogue as always, we decided to start and finish our walk in Corfe. Taking out a few miles between Wareham and Corfe and back again reduced the overall distance to 20 miles, something we felt comfortable tackling in a day. We also chose an anti-clockwise direction – not for any particular reason, but just because we fancied it.
So it begins
We started bright and early and set out from Corfe in a south-westerly direction towards Chapman’s Pool, our first Staging Post. Once you’re out of the village in the right direction, it’s relatively easy to pick up signposts for the path, making navigation a breeze.
The first few miles skim across idyllic farmland. As the majestic hulk of Corfe Castle shrinks on the horizon, the meandering path is lined with beautiful rambling hedgerows. For the first hour or so, we saw hardly a soul until we reached the picturesque village of Worth Matravers. A jumble of creamy coloured stone cottages in a sea of meadows, it’s an enviable spot where you can catch your first sea views. Another mile or so through farmland brought us up onto the cliffs and onto the South West coastal path near Chapman’s Pool.
Along the coast
Here the Purbeck Way merges with the South West Coast Path. Both routes share the same path for the next ten miles, and it’s a chance to take in the magnificent Dorset coast at it’s very best.
This first stretch is my favourite. Blissfully quiet when we arrived, we hugged the rugged coastline on the narrow path from Chapman’s Pool to Dancing Ledge. Here the rolling downland is broken by a huge rocky shelf that extends into the sea, a popular picnic and swimming spot for more adventurous Jurassic coast explorers. Beyond Dancing Ledge our companions for a short while were only a herd of cattle and a few wild deer.
It’s exhaustingly pretty along here, with the deep blue water quietly rumbling away on one side, and flowering downland to the other. After a while our next landmark came into sight – Anvil Point and it’s nostalgic lighthouse. Here the path started to get a little busier as we were not so far from Swanage, but there was still plenty to see and space of our own as the coastline takes a turn.
A few more minutes walking brings you to Durlston Country Park, where Durslston Castle and the Great Globe statue punctuate the coastline. You’re on National Trust territory here, and the South West Coastal Path (and Purbeck Way) metamorphose from a narrow, rocky path into a wider marked trail. As you reach the fringes of Swanage, a mile of gently undulating paths brings you into town.
A stop in Swanage
I was a little apprehensive of stopping in Swanage given current social distancing guidelines. But thankfully it was quieter than usual, with folks largely respectful of the current situation.
I’m rather fond of the town, a Victorian seaside resort with fabulous beach and winding narrow streets. It’s got a little more character to it than many British seaside towns, and I’m lucky to have been introduced to it’s charms over the years by good friends with local connections. They’ve shown me the all the best chip shops, traditional pubs and fossil-filled spots, for which I’m very grateful.
It can be heaving on a sunny summer day, but it seemed like it was mostly locals about. We opted for a quiet spot in the park behind the beachfront to picnic, where we had plenty of space of our own but could still watch the intrepid paddle boarders braving the waves.
That said, we didn’t forgo any guilty pleasures. Whilst we didn’t have any expectations of a pub lunch, I was thrilled to find my absolute favourite chippie on the seafront was open with sensible social distancing measures in place. I couldn’t resist, and suddenly a huge portion of fresh-cut chips dowsed in salt and vinegar became a part of our lunch.
If you’re ever hungry in Swanage, I can’t recommend traditional chippie The Fish Plaice enough. Try their specials featuring the day’s catch straight off Swanage harbour and ridiculously good home-made fishcakes.
On to Old Harry
Full of carbs, we headed out of town and up on to Ballard Down. As the path rises up and out of town, you’re treated to some stunning views of the beachfront below and the town nestled in the natural harbour. Still following the route of both the Purbeck Way and South West Coastal Path, next we head to one of the Isle of Purbeck’s most famous viewpoints.
Beyond lies Old Harry’s Rocks, favourite landmark of many a geography text book, but for good reason. This magnificent chalk stack is one of the most recognisable spots on the Dorset coast, and rather embarrassingly I’d never seen it up close and personal. It was worth the walk, but admittedly we didn’t spend much time here. In the early afternoon as folks enjoyed picnics up here it felt a little too busy to really enjoy. Thankfully from here the route took us a little off the beaten path, and with a few glimpses of the beautiful beach at Studland on the way, led us back to empty paths.
The last leg
As we skirted Studland village, the Purbeck Way starts to head home away from the coastal path. There’s a short stretch of rural road before you arrive back on the downs. To your left, the land sweeps down towards Swanage bay and on the right towards Poole Harbour, the water glittering in the afternoon sunshine.
The last few miles back to Corfe are along the ridge of Nine Barrow Down, named (perhaps unsurprisingly) for it’s Iron Age barrows. You’ll see them popping up here and there. As the sea view recedes behind you, new ones of rural Dorset open up and eventually the castle looms into sight. A welcome sight for tired legs and feet. Finally it’s a quick descent down into the village centre as the walk comes to a close.
Should I walk the Purbeck Way?
If you enjoy challenging day walks, then absolutely yes!
This was a real gem that took in an enormous variety of landmarks, landscapes and geographical features in just one day. And unlike tackling the South West Coastal Path, it’s a circular route that means there is no doubling back or need to take public transport part of the way.
If twenty miles in one go doesn’t sound such fun to you, never fear. Consider taking advantage of the Steam Railway that runs between Corfe Castle and Swanage for part of the year. You could begin in Corfe with a charmingly old-fashioned ride down to the coast, then walk in either direction – to Chapman’s Pool or Studland before heading inland. Alternatively start out as we did, but take the train back from Swanage.
It’s adaptable, varied and beautiful route I will happily return too. Possibly when the seasons change, or in a clockwise direction just for fun.
The Purbeck Way is one of Dorset’s less well-known paths, but it really shouldn’t be. On a glorious May day, it’s outstanding.
If you’re looking for more ideas for challenging day walks in the south of England, check out my post on walking the Clarendon Way in a day.