Isle of Purbeck

Isle of Purbeck

The Isle of Purbeck, not a true island but a peninsula, is in the county of Dorset, England. It is bordered by the English Channel to the south and east, where steep cliffs fall to the sea; and by the marshy lands of the River Frome and Poole Harbour to the north. Its western boundary is less well defined, with some medieval sources placing it at Flowers Barrow above Worbarrow Bay [An inquisition taken at Corfe Castle in 1370 quotes a document that affirms "that the whole Isle of Purbeck is a warren of our lord the King and pertains to his said castle, and it extends from a path which is between Flouresberi and the wood of Wytewey and thence as far as Luggerford, from that to the bridge of Wareham, and so along the sea, in an easterly direction, to a place called the Castle of Stodland; thence by the sea-coast to the chapel of St Aldhalm, and from thence still by the sea-coast towards the west until it again reaches the aforesaid place of Flouresberi". Mentioned in cite book | last = Hyland | first = Paul | authorlink = Paul Hyland | title = Purbeck: The Ingrained Island | publisher = Victor Gollancz Ltd | date = 1978 | pages = 18 | isbn = 0-575-02440-2] . The most southerly point is " St Aldhelm's" or " St Alban's Head". It is suffering erosion problems along the coast.

The whole of the Isle of Purbeck lies within the local government district of Purbeck, which is named after it. However the district extends significantly further north and west than the traditional boundary of the Isle of Purbeck along the River Frome.


The geology of the Isle is complex. It has two coastlines, Discordant along the east and Concordant along the south. The northern part is Eocene clay (Barton beds), including significant deposits of Purbeck Ball Clay. Where the land rises to the sea there are several parallel strata of Jurassic rocks, including Portland limestone and the Purbeck beds. The latter include Purbeck Marble, a particularly hard limestone which is capable of being polished (although in geological terms it is not marble). A ridge of Cretaceous chalk runs along the peninsula creating the Purbeck Hills, part of the southern England Chalk Formation which includes Salisbury Plain, the Dorset Downs and the Isle of Wight. The cliffs here are some of the most spectacular in England, and of great geological interest, both for the rock types and variety of landforms, notably Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, and the coast is part of the Jurassic coast World Heritage Site because of the unique geology.

In the past quarrying of limestone was particularly concentrated around the western side of Swanage, the villages of Worth Matravers and Langton Matravers, and the cliffs along the coast between Swanage and St. Aldhelm's Head. The "caves" at Tilly Whim are former quarries, and Dancing Ledge, Seacombe and Winspit are other cliff-edge quarries. Stone was removed from the cliff quarries either by sea, or using horse carts to transport large blocks to Swanage. Many of England's most famous cathedrals are adorned with Purbeck marble, and much of London was rebuilt in Portland and Purbeck stone after the Great Fire of London.

By contrast, the principal ball clay workings were in the area between Corfe Castle and Wareham. Originally the clay was taken by pack horse to wharves on the River Frome and the south side of Poole Harbour. However in the first half of the 19th century the pack horses were replaced by horse drawn tramways. With the coming of the railway from Wareham to Swanage, most ball clay was dispatched by rail, often to the Potteries district of Staffordshire.

Quarrying still takes place in Purbeck, with both Purbeck Ball Clay and limestones being transported from the area by road. There are now no functioning quarries of Purbeck Marble.

Roman Period

A number of Romano-British sites have been discovered and studied on the Isle of Purbeck, including a villa at Bucknowle Farm near Corfe Castle, excavated between 1976 and 1991. [Excavations on the Roman Villa at Bucknowle Farm, Corfe Castle, Summary of Work 1976-84, Dorset County Museum]

The Isle

A large part of the district is now designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), but a portion of the coast around Worbarrow Bay is still, after over 50 years, in the hands of the Army, and has not yet been acquired.

Other places of note are:

* Swanage, at the southern end of the peninsula, is a seaside resort. At one time it was linked by a branch railway line from Wareham; this was closed in 1972, but has now reopened as the Swanage Railway, a heritage railway.
* Studland: This is a seaside village in its own sandy bay. Nearby, lying off-shore from The Foreland (also Handfast Point), are the chalk stacks named Old Harry Rocks: "Old Harry and his Wife".
*Poole Harbour is popular with yachtsmen; it contains Brownsea Island, the site of the first-ever Scout camp.
* Corfe Castle is in the centre of the Isle, with its picturesque village named after it.
* Langton Matravers, which was once the home of several boys preparatory schools until 2007 when the The Old Malthouse closed.
* Kimmeridge Bay, with its fossil-rich Jurassic shale cliffs, and site of the oldest continually working oil well in the world.


External links

* [ West, I., "The Geology of the Wessex Coast"]
* [ Photographs of the Isle of Purbeck]
* centred on Corfe Castle at Grid reference: SY 960 820.
* [ National Coastwatch Institution St Alban's Head Website]


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