Swanage lies at the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast and is one of the area’s most charming towns. It also makes a superb base from which to explore the wild wonders of the Isle of Purbeck.
We sat down with Garry Hayman, Hostel Manager of YHA Swanage, who gave us an insight into the building’s fascinating history, as well as his favourite circular walks in the region.
YHA Swanage are a Jurassic Coast Trust Business Partner, helping us to protect and educate people about the World Heritage Site. 2020 is YHA’s 90th anniversary, and they are celebrating by raising £250,000 to offer activity breaks to over 900 disadvantaged children. To help fundraise, Garry will be walking the whole Jurassic Coast in September.
YHA Swanage – Something for Everyone
YHA Swanage plays host to a wide variety of visitors, including many school and university groups. Swanage Bay is often used as a Geography GCSE case study, whilst the incredible geodiversity of the town and its surrounding areas make it a brilliant place to study geology.
The hostel is also frequently visited by families who wish to base themselves in Swanage and explore the wider Purbeck region. Occasionally, fossil panning is on offer as an activity for families during school holidays.
The hostel building holds a fascinating history in its own right. It was built in 1870 by Sir James Anderson, a renowned sea captain of the time. His ship, the SS Great Eastern, was responsible for laying telephone cables between the USA and Ireland, ushering in the era of trans-Altantic communications. The building was later used as a convalescent hospital during World War I, before becoming a YHA hostel in 1949.
Top Circular Walks in Purbeck
Garry recommends these fabulous walks in and around Swanage:
1. Worth Matravers and Local Quarries
This little village in Purbeck is well worth a visit. There’s the famous Square & Compass pub, home to a mini fossil museum and offering sumptuous views across the Purbeck countryside. From here, it’s a short walk to the Priests Way, an old countryside path that was once used by the local Reverend to attend church services.
These days, it’s looked after by the National Trust and leads to Keates Quarry, one of the Jurassic Coast’s great hidden gems. This quarry is home to a fantastic set of sauropod footprints, giving a glimpse of what this land was like in the late Jurassic period, 145 million years ago. The footprints were discovered by local quarrymen in the 1990s, and were carefully prepared over a number of years, only recently opening to the public.
Continuing on the Priests Way, you can head south on the footpath towards the sea, where eventually you’ll come to Dancing Ledge. This fascinating coastal site was once used to transport Purbeck stone by ship. It gets its name from the optical illusion caused when the waves pound against the cliff, washing over the rock surface and making it look like it’s “dancing”.
From here, head west on the coast path, past Seacombe Quarry (another of Purbeck’s historic quarrying sites) to reach the eerie Winspit Caves. The man-made caves here are brilliant to explore – look closely and you can see ammonites on the roof! That’s because all this rock was laid down in the Jurassic period, when this part of the world was underwater, patrolled by all manner of ancient sea creatures.
From here, you can easily head back up the hill to Worth Matravers, for a relaxing pasty and pint at The Square and Compass.
2. Chapman’s Pool and St Aldhelm’s Head
Another walk starting from Worth Matravers, this time head in the opposite direction (west) till you reach the car park at Renscombe. From here you can cut across the countryside path to link up with the South West Coast Path (see the walk on SWCP’s website for more details).
If you’re in the mood for adventure, carry on down the sloping steps to Chapman’s Pool, one of Purbeck’s lovely lesser-known beaches. This protected cove makes a great swimming spot on a good day!
If you’d rather save your knees and continue your walk, you can enjoy the spectacular views of Chapman’s Pool from above, then head south on the coast path towards St Aldhelm’s Head. This is Purbeck’s most southerly point, and features a Grade I-listed Norman chapel which dates back to the 13th century.
From here, continue east along the coast path to Winspit Caves (see previous walk), from where you can easily head back to the village.
3. Old Harry Rocks and Fort Henry
This fabulous walk from Studland, located just north of Swanage, combines both natural and human history. Start from the car park near the Bankes Arms in Studland, and head along the coast path to Old Harry Rocks.
This must-see collection of white chalk sea stacks represents the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast. The accompanying grassland is known as Ballard Down and offers spectacular views across the Purbeck countryside and down to Swanage.
From here, head back the way you came but instead of turning back to the car park at Studland, stay on the coast path until you come to the end of South Beach. Here you’ll find the Fort Henry bunker, an important World War II historical site, erected to protect Studland Bay against possible invasion.
It was built in 1943 by a group of Canadian Royal Engineers, who named it after their home base in Ontario. A year after it was built, it was visited by many of the Allies’ “heavy hitters” (including Churchill, Eisenhower and King George VI) for a trial run in advance of the D-Day Landings. Read more about this fascinating operation and why Studland was picked as the site.
After you’ve had your dose of history, you can carry on to Studland’s beautiful beaches, or retire to one of the local establishments for some well-earned refreshment!
4. Durlston Country Park
If you’re staying in Swanage and looking for a walk closer to home, be sure to visit Durlston Country Park. This 320-acre National Nature Reserve makes a beautiful spot to explore on a sunny day, and is a haven for wildlife, with myriad species of butterfly, birds and moths being recorded.
The approach to the castle (loosely named as it was built in the 19th century to be used as a restaurant!) at the park’s centre features an “Earth Timeline” walk, giving a sense of perspective on the development of species on the planet. See if you can spot where humans appear in the timeline – it’s rather near the entrance!
Inside the castle, you’ll find a lovely café (whose walls record all the species recorded at the park), as well as a gallery space that plays host to regularly rotating exhibitions. A short walk down from the castle is The Globe, built by local landowner and “father of Durlston” George Burt in 1880, and featuring an engraved version of a world map as it was known at the time.
There’s also a lighthouse at nearby Anvil Point, (just head west from the Globe) dating to the same era.