The Isle of Purbeck is arguably best viewed from atop its rolling hills as they fall away into picturesque villages and farmland on one side, into the stunning and famous landform-dotted sea on another, and with views reaching across Poole Harbour at yet another.
Once you’re up in the hills, the scenery is different from every angle and with each step you take. You can head up into the Purbeck Hills from villages such as Corfe Castle for a quick scamper and some panoramic views, or hike along them to leave the world behind and get lost in nature.
The Purbeck Hills are a chalk ridge that was formed some 20 million years ago – part of the fold of land known as the Purbeck Monocline.
This ridgeway is around 15 miles long and runs from Handfast Point, where the famous Old Harry Rocks is located, cutting through the Isle of Purbeck, ending at Cow Corner and Arish Mel, close to Worbarrow Bay.
The chalk ridgeway is broken by the Ulwell Gap, as well as two gaps at Corfe Castle. The chalk hills are best viewed at either end where they meet the coast, providing some wonderful vistas.
Walking along the ridge is to walk back in time, with the lives of the people who were here before beneath your feet – the popular walking route between Corfe and the Ulwell Gap is rich with ancient burial mounds called barrows, most notably those of Ailwood Down.
Steeped in history and geology it’s no wonder this part of England has been drawing visitors and people relocating to live, as well as inspiring countless creatives, for generations.
Writing of Ballard Down, near Swanage in his novel Howard’s End E.M Forster praises the all-encompassing views:
‘If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe. Then system after system of our island would roll together under his feet.
‘Beneath him is the valley of the Frome, and all the wild lands that come tossing down from Dorchester, black and gold, to mirror their gorse in the expanses of Poole…
‘Bournemouth’s ignoble coast cowers to the right…Seen from the west, the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty. It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner–chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf…
‘…Like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England.’
The most popular walk along the ridgeway is from Corfe to Swanage, or vice versa – or there and back in a day. However, the entire length can be walked over the course of a few days.
Famous features of the Purbeck Hills
Old Harry Rocks
The chalk stacks and cliffs of Old Harry Rocks are a very special part of the Purbeck Hills and are what remains of the line of chalk hills that once connected to The Needles on the Isle of Wight before a huge sea-rise after the last ice age, which you can see on a clear day.
You can walk up here from Swanage. This walk encompasses the intriguing obelisk – a piece of the town’s Victorian history, and offers breathtaking views across Poole Harbour, over to the Isle of Wight and back over Swanage town and bay.
Another popular walk along the same section of the ridgeway is from Corfe, along the ridgeway to Ballard Down. If you’re staying in Swanage, why not hop on a Swanage Railway train and walk back from Corfe along the hills.
Corfe Castle gap & Nine Barrow Down
Further along is the ‘gap’ in the Purbeck Hills in which Corfe Castle was built – this gap, which Corfe is said to be named after, was the ideal place to defend this primary route through the hills. The cleft in the hills here is perhaps most distinctly viewed from the Kingston – Worth Matravers road, or – even better – with a local ale in the garden of Kingston’s The Scott Arms.
The walk from Ballard Down and Old Harry Rocks to Corfe Castle forms part of the route known as the Purbeck Way, along which are various Bronze Age burial mounds, such as Nine Barrow Down, which is an old burial plot of 18 round Bronze Age ‘bowl’ barrows, along with an earlier long barrow, located on Ailwood Down. Presumably the ‘nine’ in the name for these is a misnomer.
This path is popular with walkers and cyclists.
The Purbeck Hills extend into the British Army training area, which is accessible to the public most weekends and school holidays.
Nestled at the foot of some of these hills is the abandoned village that stopped in time during World War II, which has since been opened to the public to explore.
The hills toward Tyneham are also home to the National Trust-managed, quirky folly Grange Arch, which makes for a unique picnic spot.
The Lulworth Range walks can have a very secluded feel to them as they are relatively untouched by modern farming and development.
Keep to the waymarked signs for your safety.
The most westerly point of the Purbeck Hills brings you to the Iron Age hill fort of Flower’s Barrow, which overlooks the magnificent Worbarrow Bay and, in the distance, across to Portland.
A popular, yet moderately challenging, way of exploring Flower’s Barrow is to park at Tyneham and follow the South West Coast Path via Worbarrow Bay.
This walk has some stunning, panoramic views and a rugged feel to it.
There are various ways to explore the Purbeck Hills, whether that’s on foot, bicycle, horseback or even from the air. These local companies can take you out for a unique Purbeck Hills experience:
Take part in this ‘enhanced’ walking exercise, which uses poles to engage different parts of the body, whilst helping propel you along. Purbeck Nordic Walking offers training sessions and runs regular events and walks, such as their ‘Iconic Purbeck Walks’, such as the Corfe Castle Circular. This walk takes you up West Hill and gives stunning views over the castle, Corfe village and the Isle of Purbeck.
You can also book onto a taster session or technique class, which are held at various locations. Find out more on the Dorset Nordic Walking website:
Trek out on a horse from Studland Trekking Centre on their popular Corfe Castle Pub Day Ride.
The Castle Inn pub in Corfe Castle village will welcome you and the horses in the garden for a spot of lunch after your ride through Rempstone Forest to get there. The journey back to the stables takes you into the Purbeck Hills and across Nine Barrow Down.
Typical ride timings: 10am – 4pm.
Hang gliding and paragliding
Get a bird’s eye view of Purbeck from the Ballard Down site with the Wessex Hang Gliding & Paragliding Club.
The Wessex HGPG Club also has various other coastal and inland soaring sites dotted around Purbeck, including Kimmeridge, St Aldhelm’s Head, Nine Barrow Down and Knitson.
Check the Wessex HGPG website for status updates, coaching and membership:
Where to eat – food & drink facilities
Whether you’re exploring a small section of the Purbeck Hills or walking the whole ridgeway, you’ll want to stop for refreshments en route.
For picnic supplies
Corfe Castle Village Stores sells local produce as well as familiar favourites for everything you need for a picnic. Corfe Castle also has a bakery from which you can grab hot pasties, sausage rolls and bacon baps, as well as freshly-made sandwiches, pastries and sweet treats.
Restaurants, pubs and cafés
The Greyhound or the Castle Inn in Corfe will set you up with a hearty pub lunch, or stop for a light lunch or coffee and cake at The Pink Goat or the model village. The Model Village Tea Room is popular with cyclists as there is ample space in the forecourt to park your bike and have an al fresco cooked breakfast or afternoon tea.
If you’re walking the western end of the ridge, you’ll be nearby to both Church Knowle and Kimmeridge, where you can stop for a pub lunch in Church Knowle at the New Inn and a light lunch, cake or main meal at Clavell’s Restaurant in Kimmeridge.
A popular walk over the Hills is from Corfe to Swanage – you can catch a bus or take the steam train to Corfe, stock up on supplies from the village shop, and walk back to Swanage, where there is a range of places to eat throughout the town. The nearest eateries to Ballard Down (the final stretch of the Hills) include beach-side dining options the Watering Hole and The Cabin, as well as The Crow’s Nest pub.
Toilet facilities en route
As well as the pubs and café which are generally all very welcoming, there are public toilets along the way, the main ones of which are either in Swanage or Corfe Castle.
In Swanage, there are various loos, such as those situated in Main Beach car park, on Shore Road and behind the Swanage Museum – however the nearest ones to you coming from Ballard Down will be at Burlington Chine, Battlegate and North Beach car park.
You’ll find public toilets in Corfe at the foot of the castle, in West Street car park and at Norden Park & Ride.
Where to stay
The Purbeck Hills run past many villages in which you can find a range of accommodation as a base to explore Purbeck from – be aware, however, that the whole area is very popular in peak seasons, such as the summer months and spring school holidays, so booking in advance is advised.
There are also a number of campsites and caravan sites, such as Ulwell Holiday Park – just at the foot of Ballard Down, and nearby Herston, which offers camping, clamping and caravanning.
Camping and caravan sites
Ulwell Holiday Park
Ulwell Holiday Park has camping and touring pitches as well as caravan holiday homes to stay in. It also boasts an indoor swimming pool, children’s play area and on-site bar and restaurant.
- ℹ️ www.ulwellholidaypark.co.uk
- 📞 01929 422823
Herston Caravan & Campsite
Herston has a children’s play area, shower & toilet block and ‘mini market’ shop which sells daily essentials and seasonal produce such as BBQ packs.
There’s traditional tent pitches as well as on-site luxury bell tents.
Caravans and motorhomes are welcome.
Contact details and location
Check availability online or give the campsite a call.
- ℹ️ www.herstonyardsfarm.com
- 📞 01929 422932
- 📍 Herston Campsite is located down Washpond Lane in Swanage at Herston Yards Farm. Postcode: BH19 3DJ
You’ll also find campsites as you go westward along the route of the Purbeck Hills, such as in Harman’s Cross, at Steeple Leaze and the Smedmore House Caravan Club site.
You might also be interested in the YHA (Youth Hostel Association) in Swanage. It offers low-cost accommodation in a Victorian villa, which overlooks the bay.
Boasting 93 beds across rooms of between two and six beds per room, there’s also a self-catering kitchen and shared lounge area.
YHA Swanage is also available for exclusive hire – bring your friends, family and everyone else you know!
The youth hostel in Swanage is located a short walk from the town centre and beach.
- 📍 Cluny Crescent, Swanage (postcode BH19 2BS)
- 📥 firstname.lastname@example.org
- 📞 0345 371 9346
- ℹ️ www.yha.org.uk/hostel/yha-swanage
You’ll find a good range of holiday lets across Purbeck, catering for single travellers, couples, families, groups and people travelling to explore the area with their dog.
The best places to check are sites such as Corfe & Purbeck Holidays (ℹ️ www.corfeandpurbeckholidays.com ) and Dorset Coastal Cottages (ℹ️ www.dorsetcoastalcottages.com ), although airbnb and larger booking sites will also have plenty of options to browse.
Stay at one – or more! – of the hotels situated near the Purbeck Hills for the utmost comfort and style at the end of a day’s exploring.
The Pig on the Beach – Studland
If you want to start right from the very beginning of the ridgeway – from Old Harry Rocks – The Pig is a bit of eclectic luxury with stunning sea views.
The Pig is also a great base from which to explore the beaches of Studland Bay, which are popular for watersports and nature-lovers.
The Pines Hotel – Swanage
The Pines Hotel is toward the northern end of Swanage, so is ideal for exploring the Purbeck Hills from Ballard Down.
Prices start from around £95 for a single room to £369 for the special Purbeck Suite. There are also varied options for family rooms, many of which have sea views.
Whilst much of the accommodation here is dog-friendly, some rooms are kept dog-free.
Contact details for The Pines Hotel
The Pines is located on Burlington Road (postcode BH19 1LT). Visit their website or get in touch to check availability:
- ℹ️ pineshotel.co.uk
- 📞 01929 425211
You can also try the adjacent Grand Hotel and Purbeck House Hotel, although this is at the other end of town.
Mortons Manor – Corfe Castle
A Grade II-listed hotel in the heart of the village of Corfe Castle, and right beneath this stretch of the Purbeck Hills. The Manor House is interestingly designed in an ‘E’ shape in honour of Queen Elizabeth.
The hotel’s rooms are decorated in a fresh, classic style and the restaurant has been awarded two AA rosettes.
Mortons Manor is also a popular event venue, and caters for weddings and special occasions.
📞 01929 480988
The Bankes Arms – Corfe Castle
This pub and boutique hotel set in a 16th Century inn off the Square in Corfe is a stone’s throw from the ruin of Corfe Castle and you can watch the Swanage Railway steam train chug past beneath the Purbeck Hills from its beer garden.
📞 01929 288188
Limestone Hotel – Lulworth
A country house in the heart of West Lulworth with a relaxed atmosphere and traditional, yet modern styling.
The Limestone Restaurant prides itself on using the finest local ingredients where possible.
Guests over the age of seven are welcome here.
Swanage has a number of Bed and Breakfast options, as do the various villages and more rural localities in between.
Here are some of the top-rated B&Bs in the area handy for walking into the Purbeck Hills:
Arbour House Bed & Breakfast
Arbour house its a 4* family-friendly B&B in a beautifully-present Edwardian house in Walrond Road, Swanage (postcode: BH19 1PB)
Check availability and book online: www.arbourhouseswanage.co.uk
Contact numbers for Arbour House: 01929 761125 / 07986 644 677
Swanage Haven Boutique Guest House
A 5* grown-ups only B&B to the north of town, close to Swanage Beach and walks up to Ballard Down.
Find out more on Swanage Haven’s website: www.swanagehaven.com
Get in touch with the friendly team:
- 📞 01929 423088
- 📍 3 Victoria Road, Swanage BH19 1LY
With sweeping views across Hardy-esque farmland down to the sea of Kimmeridge Bay, Kimmeridge Farmhouse is set on a working farm offering three double bedrooms and buffet or cooked breakfasts.
There are walking trails to the South West Coast Path and the Purbeck Hills directly from the farm.
The best way to get in touch with the team is via phone: 01929 480990
Rudds of Lulworth
You can’t get much closer to Lulworth Cove than Rudd’s – take a dip in the sea or in their outdoor pool during your stay.
This 4* boutique B&B has eleven rooms and bar and restaurant.
Rudds is suitable for guests over the age of 16, and doesn’t accept dogs.
Call or email to book a room:
- 📥 email@example.com
- 📞 01929 400552
- ℹ️ www.ruddslulworth.co.uk