These caves are what is left over after the area was used to quarry Purbeck stone in the 1800s.
Once open to the public, they are now closed due to safety reasons, but you can see parts of the Tilly Whim caves from afar and learn about their history at Durlston Country Park where they are situated.
The now fenced off tourist entrance to the cave tunnels can be found along the cliff walk in the park, and the best view of this piece of local history is from the path up toward the Anvil Point lighthouse, where you can look back to see two square-shaped cave entrances and the flat rock ledge above the sea in front of them.
Now untouched by human activity, the Tilly Whim caves have become important sanctuaries for colonies of seabirds and bats.
The area has long been appreciated for its dramatic scenery:
‘A tremendous sea at times breaks upon the rocks near Durleston Point and Tilly Whim. A visitor on a bright summer’s day, looking upon the tranquil waters idly lapping on the stones below, can scarcely conceive the majesty of the surroundings when, roused by the frenzy of the gale, the sea casts its spray more than two hundred feet into the air.’
(Arthur Atkison, Bright’s Illustrated Guide to Bournemouth, 1896)
Whilst you can view the caves from a distance, it is vital that visitors take note of the relevant safety information displayed around the site of the Tilly Whim caves.
The caves were closed to the public in 1976 due to safety reasons. The entrance is fenced off and there are warning signs around the caves.
Stepped access allows you to walk down past the caves and on up toward the lighthouse on Anvil Point – keep to these to reduce the risk of slipping on any loose stones or mud and to help reduce erosion in the area.
Swimming in the sea around any part of these cliffs at Durlston is not possible – there are sheer drops from a vast height, strong tides and rip currents, and no shoreline. The Tilly Whim caves have also sadly seen the death of a woman who was swimming and became caught in them in 2013.
The Tilly Whim caves began life as a local quarry for the extraction of Purbeck stone from the beginning of the 18th Century – a key industry in the area at the time, the strong limestone being heavily utilised for fortifications along the south coast during the Napoleonic wars, as well as in cathedrals throughout England (most notably parts of St Paul’s Cathedral following the 1666 Great Fire of London) and, of course, in local building.
A contraption called a ‘whim’ (a basic wooden crane), or derrick, was used to lower the stone on to waiting ships below the quarry, where it would be transported by sea to Swanage and beyond. Often these were simply Purbeck stone blocks for onward use at stone yards, however some quarrymen were also skilled stonemasons and worked on designs such as sinks in situ at Tilly Whim.
It’s thought the caves’ name derives from this wooden crane, coupled with the name quarry owner, or possibly the nearby Tilly Mead field.
Purbeck stone quarrs
There were also smaller, family-owned quarries in Purbeck, known as ‘quarrs’.
This fascinating example of a Purbeck stone quarr at Durlston (situated along the tarmac path from the Learning Centre toward the lighthouse) shows that the entrance to the quarry shaft was dug into the hillside so that prime Purbeck limestone could be more easily reached.
The endeavour was not without risk, however, as the heavy stone had to be hauled from beneath the ground, usually by a donkey winched to a capstan – a fairly rudimentary process, which could result in stone falling and injuring or killing anyone underground.
Efforts were made to ensure workers’ safety (both men and boys) through the constructing of supporting stone columns, however the roofs were known to collapse both here and at other quarry sites along the coastline, making quarrying an often dangerous business.
The tunnels and caves of Tilly Whim, along with other quarries on the Purbeck coastline, were also used by smugglers in which to hide contraband in.
In the 1896 edition of Bright’s Illustrated Guide to Bournemouth by Arthur Atkinson there is an intriguing snippet about smuggling activity here in Swanage:
‘Complaints having been made again and again by the good people of Poole of the smuggling constantly carried on here, the Government were at last compelled to take up the matter with vigour, an attack was made on the smugglers in their stronghold in 1747, when many of the ringleaders were made prisoners, and six were hanged the following year.’
With a decline in demand, the caves ceased being used for quarrying in 1812. However, stone is still quarried today at various sites in Purbeck.
In the 19th Century, the Tilly Whim caves received a new lease of life in 1887, when Swanage businessman and the brains behind the Victorian Durlston Estate opened them up as a tourist attraction.
However, following regular rock falls, they were deemed extremely dangerous and were closed to the public for good in 1976.
More caves and quarry sites in Purbeck
With quarrying being such an important part of the area’s history, there are many other places to see this part of Purbeck‘s past in the landscape.
As with all areas of the coastline, caution should be taken when exploring.
- Winspit – The area around the caves and quarry tunnels at Winspit are explored at visitors’ risk. They were famously used as a filming location for classic Doctor Who episodes and some caves are permanently closed off for the protection of rare bat colonies
- Dancing Ledge – The more challenging to reach Dancing Ledge has a tidal bathing pool in the rocky ledge beneath its quarry caves, many of which are now closed off. The area is now used for organised rock climbing and coasteering activities and is recommended for experienced walkers
- Keate’s Quarry – Near to the villages of Worth Matravers and Langton Matravers are the Spyway dinosaur footprints at Keate’s Quarry – around 100 brachiosaur footprints have been unearthed here