Ruined castles, chalky grasslands, and dramatic cliffs await on the Isle of Purbeck. Bordered by water on three sides, this glorious peninsula is home to some of the top attractions in Dorset, including some of the most important spots on the famous Jurassic Coast.
Explore ancient buildings, like the impressive ruins of Corfe Castle, perched on a hilltop with staggering views of the rolling countryside. Hit the dreamy, white-sand beaches at Studland, with their whispering, grass-topped dunes and sparkling waters. Ramble along the clifftops, or in the heathland and moors of the various nature reserves. The whole Isle falls within the realm of the Dorset AONB, so is packed with stunning natural sights to entice visitors.
First, a little about me. I grew up down the coast in Weymouth, and spent much of my life traipsing across Purbeck’s beauty spots. When I passed my driving test last year, it was one of the first places I headed on a mini road trip. The winding country lanes and sweeping vistas of the Purbeck Hills make this one of the most beautiful regions of Dorset, and they just keep drawing me back. So this is well and truly a local’s guide to the Isle of Purbeck! I’ve packed it with everything I know, in order to help you plan the perfect visit. Enjoy…
- Where is the Isle of Purbeck?
- Getting There and Around
- Top Places to Visit in the Isle of Purbeck
- Things to Do on the Isle of Purbeck
- Walking and Hiking on the Isle of Purbeck
- Where to Stay on the Isle of Purbeck
Where is the Isle of Purbeck?
Despite the name, the Isle of Purbeck isn’t an island at all. It’s actually a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, but still very much attached to the mainland. The name is thought to come from the barren heaths between Wareham and the coast, which cut off the peninsula so effectively that it felt like an island. The “Isle” sits on the southwest coast of England in Dorset, with the English Channel bordering two sides, while its northeastern border is formed by Poole Harbour and the marshes of the River Frome.
The land-based western border is harder to define. Especially because there’s also a district of Dorset named Purbeck, which is much larger than the Isle itself. However, the earliest Medieval references to the “Isle” place the border above Worbarrow Bay. If you trace a curved line from Wareham down to the coast, it falls somewhere around here, as shown on the rough map above. To avoid any confusion – this post is specifically about the Isle, not the larger district, of Purbeck!
Getting There and Around
The easiest way to travel to the Isle of Purbeck is by car. Coming from London, you can follow the M3 and the M27 towards Bournemouth and Poole. Skirt these towns and press on to Wareham, before turning into the “Isle” and heading to your final destination. Having your own car also makes exploring the area much easier – although there is public transport if you need it.
A fun and scenic alternative route is to take the car ferry from Sandbanks in Bournemouth, across the mouth of Poole Harbour, to Studland on the northeastern edge of the peninsula. It’s a short crossing, but can add a sense of adventure to your trip to the Isle.
FYI – if you’re using Google maps or similar to find your destination, bear in mind that internet signal isn’t always the best on this peninsula.
Train and Public Transport
There are no modern train lines on the Isle of Purbeck. The closest train stations are at Poole and Wareham, both of which sit on the direct line to/from London. From either station, you can take a Purbeck Breezer bus to most major destinations on the Isle. This bus service is also the best way to explore the peninsula if you don’t have a car. There are several services, and between them, most of the area is Isle. You can now pay with a contactless card, so that makes the bus service even easier to use!
Top Places to Visit in the Isle of Purbeck
The Isle of Purbeck is pretty large, and there are dozens of incredible sights, so it’s hard to know where to start. I’ve broken it down into the top places to visit, marked in purple on the above map, followed by the very best things to see and do – which you’ll find in the next section of this travel guide.
Swanage is an idyllic seaside town on the eastern edge of the Isle of Purbeck, clustered along a wide bay with a long, sandy beach. It’s also the most easterly town on the Jurassic Coast, so it makes an ideal base for exploring this section of coastline. As a result, Swanage is popular both as a day trip destination and as a place to stay.
Surrounded by rich natural offerings like Durlston Nature Reserve and the dreamy Studland Bay, Swanage would make a great place to base youself for a trip to the Isle of Purbeck. The town itself is a bustling destination packed with great boutique shops, cafes, and pubs. Not to mention the charming steam railway (more on that later). Check out my post on the best things to do in Swanage to help you get started!
Perched on a low peak amidst the rolling Purbeck hills, the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle are one of the most iconic sights in Dorset. This is definitely a must-visit if you’re exploring the Isle. The castle was built over one thousand years ago, and was destroyed during the English Civil War in 1646. Today, it stands as a testament to one of the most important moments in English history.
The rich history includes plenty of grisly tales and, of course, spooky ghost stories! The neighbouring village of the same name is one of the most attractive villages in Dorset, and is packed with quaint stone cottages and cute cafes. So you can stop in for a cream tea once you’re done exploring the castle! There’s also a Model Village, and several boutique shops and galleries. Don’t miss the Boilerhouse Gallery or the Gallery at 41 for great local artwork.
Old Harry Rocks
Old Harry Rocks stretch out into the sea at the easternmost point of the Jurassic Coast. This row of chalk rock stacks are part of the same chalk band as The Needles on the Isle of Wight, thus showing that all this land was connected millions of years ago. The band eroded over the ages, and now all that remains are a few stacks at either end.
Local legend holds that the rocks are named after Harry Payne, a pirate from nearby Poole. The smaller stack next to him is usually known as Harry’s Wife. The rocks are still being eroded even today, and in 1896 Old Harry’s first wife fell into the sea. Thankfully, erosion has since replaced her with another small stack, so that wily pirate got a new young wife to replace his original!
A wide stretch of white sand skirts the sweeping bay of Studland. With rolling dunes topped with swaying beach grass, the beaches here are some of the wildest and most beautiful in all of Dorset, if not the whole south coast! Studland Bay is also a National Trust nature reserve, home to several wildlife environments, including a vast lowland heath. So it truly feels like a wilderness at times! During summer, the heathland is covered with purple heather and yellow gorse, creating a glorious backdrop for the equally stunning beaches.
Kimmeridge Bay is one of the major coastal hotspots along the southwestern edge of the Isle of Purbeck. It’s a wide, sheltered bay where rocky shelves fill with dozens of rockpools during low tide. The bay sits within a marine Special Area of Conservation, so all the protected nature means this is one of the best locations in Dorset for snorkelling. And, of course, exploring the rock pools! Don’t miss a trip to the Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Wild Seas Centre to learn more about the local wild and marine life!
On a cliff overlooking the bay stands Clavell Tower, also known as Kimmeridge Tower. This Grade II listed Tuscan-style tower was built in 1830 as a “folly” (a decorative building which looks as if it has a purpose, but doesn’t really). Not only does the tower offer some excellent views of the bay from its vantage point, but it can also be booked through the Landmark Trust for a very unique accommodation option. There’s a pretty long waiting list, though!
The abandoned village of Tyneham has a fascinating story. During the Second World War, the British Military purchased the land to use it for training purposes. Many residents said that they were promised their homes would be returned after the war, but this never happened. The houses fell into disrepair and many were partly destroyed. Some, such as the church and schoolhouse, have been restored and furnished to look as they would have done before the war. The village can be explored freely, and the restored buildings offer a fascinating glimpse of what rural village life was like in the 1930s and 40s.
Today, the military still owns the surrounding area, so it can only be visited at specific times. This is normally weekends and public holidays. But you should always check official access times on the government site here before travelling.
The Blue Pool
At the heart of the Isle of Purbeck sits one of Dorset’s lesser-known attractions. The Blue Pool is an old clay pit which has been flooded with water, forming a lake where the water is said to change colour by magic. Fine clay suspended in the water diffracts light in different ways, causing the colour of the pool to vary as a result. Sometimes the lake seems blue, at others, it’s green or turquoise. It’s a beautiful and peaceful spot for a walk that doesn’t usually have too many other visitors.
Chapman’s Pool is a small cove near Worth Matravers, on the southern coast of the Isle. The view from Houns Tout, overlooking the pool, is well worth the climb and forms part of one of the best coastal walks in Dorset. Down inside the cove, the beach is wild and rugged, backed by high limestone cliffs. It’s often fairly empty because the one mile walk down from the carpark is enough to put off most visitors!
Arne – RSPB Nature Reserve
The RSPB nature reserve at Arne, overlooking Poole Harbour, is one of the most beautiful parts of the peninsula. The landscapes are quintessential Dorset countryside, filled with heather, gorse, and ferns. More importantly, the protected reserve is home to an abundance of bird and wildlife. There are birdwatching hides for spotting the many species of birds which call the area home, including ospreys and woodpeckers. Arne is also one of the few places in England where it’s possible to see sika deer in the wild. You don’t even need binoculars to view them, as the deer are very common often come pretty close.
The other major town on the Isle of Purbeck is Wareham, which sits in the northeastern corner, close to where the peninsula meets the land. It’s a pretty, market town on the banks of the River Frome, boasting a long and interesting history. Wareham is one of the few remaining Saxon walled towns in England, so there’s over 2,000 years of history to discover within its walls. There are also plenty of modern attractions, with loads of great eateries, boutique shops, and galleries. Plus there are regular markets, as well as loads of fab events and festivals throughout the year. So there’s always something new to discover!
Durlston Country Park
Durlston Country Park is an expansive nature reserve overlooking Swanage Bay. Expect stunning views of the bay and along the Jurassic Coast, as well as a landscape rich with local wildlife. Dolphin pods are often spotted just off the coast, while the wildflower-filled fields of the reserve are home to 33 species of breeding butterflies. There are plenty of signposted walking trails, as well as a visitor centre and cafe in the restored Durlston Castle. The reserve is also home to The Great Globe: a huge stone globe built from 40 tons of Portland limestone.
Other Nature Reserves on the Isle of Purbeck
- Studland and Godlinston Heath Nature Reserve
- Kilwood Nature Reserve
- Stonehill Down Nature Reserve
- RSPB Stoborough Heath
Things to Do on the Isle of Purbeck
Swanage Steam Railway
Swanage Railway is a heritage steam railway running across the Isle of Purbeck. Several antique steam trains run services from the beautifully restored historic station in Swanage town centre to a handful of stations across the Isle. A trip on this gorgeous steam railway is a must when visiting the area!
If you’re staying in Swanage, you can use the railway to head to Corfe Castle for an unusual day out. Or, park at Norden and take a steam train to the seaside for the ultimate vintage experience. Along the way, you’ll enjoy stunning views of Corfe Castle and rolling farmland. Swanage Railway also run regular special events, such as dining experiences, so check their website to see what’s on.
Explore the Coastal Highlights
Being surrounded by water on three sides means the Isle of Purbeck has no shortage of coastal attractions. I’ve already mentioned a couple above, such as Old Harry Rocks. But below I’ve shared a few more stars of the Purbeck coastline – perfect for a clifftop walk or two!
Dancing Ledge – a flat rock ledge at the base of a small cliff. At certain tides, the bobbing waves make the ledge look as though it’s dancing.
Swyre Head – the highest point of the Purbeck Hills.
Worbarrow Bay – a wide and picturesque bay which can be reached by a 1-mile walk from the carpark at Tyneham.
St Aldhelm’s Head – also called St Alban’s Head, this rocky headland is the southernmost part of the Purbeck peninsula.
Winspit Quarry – one of many stone quarries leftover from the days when local Portland and Purbeck limestone was seriously sought after. Inside are several man-made caverns, home to colonies of bats.
Explore the Barrows
History in the Isle of Purbeck dates back thousands of years, so there are several Iron Age, Roman and Saxon archaeological sites to explore. There are also several “barrows”; stone-age burial mounds, such as:
- Nine Barrow Down – a ridge along the north side of the Purbeck Hills which is home to nine stone age burial mounds.
- Flowers Barrow – an Iron Age hill fort built around 2,500 years ago.
Tour the Pretty Villages
There are dozens of picturesque villages dotted amongst the rolling hills of the Isle of Purbeck. You could easily while away a whole day wandering exploring them all. Get ready for idyllic thatched-roof cottages, ancient churches, and plenty of cute tea rooms and boutique shops at any one of these beauties…
- Church Knowle
- Corfe Castle
- Harmans Cross
- Langton Matravers
- Worth Matravers
If you fancy a round of golf, there are several courses to choose from on the Isle of Purbeck.
- Beach Gardens Putting Green
- Isle of Purbeck Golf Club
- Swanage Golf Games
All those wild and rugged cliffs mean that the Purbeck coastline has some of the best climbing routes in Europe! There’s a whole range of climbs, to suit all levels and abilities. Experienced climbers can buy the OS Outdoor Leisure 15 ordinance survey map to find some routes to suit them. Guillemot Ledge, Subluminal, Winspit, and Dancing Ledge are some of the more popular climbing spots.
If you’re new to climbing and fancy giving it a try while you’re in the area, there are several companies who offer lessons and guided climbing trips around Purbeck. For example, Cumulus Outdoors offer climbing and abseiling, as well as coasteering, watersports, and loads more. Jurassic Watersports also offer climbing and coasteering along the Jurassic Coast.
The Isle of Purbeck is perfect for watersports. After all, it’s surrounded by water – so there’s no shortage of places to enjoy the sea! Try your hand at kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, take a fishing trip, or get a little more adventurous with power kiting or windsurfing.
- Fore / Adventure – formerly the Studland Sea School, Fore / Adventure host a variety of activities including kayaking and snorkelling. They also offer some adventurous land-based activities such as foraging and bushcraft.
- Land & Wave – dozens of adventurous activities offered including coasteering, paddle boarding, and kayaking.
- Swanage Sea Fishing – sea-fishing trips for all levels. Novice anglers and families with children are welcome!
- H2O Adventures – kayaking and canoeing on the Jurassic Coast and Poole Harbour.
- Divers Down – Britain’s oldest dive school, established in 1958. They offer guided dive tours, as well as courses so you can qualify for your PADI.
Walking and Hiking on the Isle of Purbeck
There are dozens of amazing walks to choose from around the Isle of Purbeck. Hit the nature reserves mentioned above, traverse the heathland around the Purbeck Hills, or head to the coast for rugged cliff-top walks. Before your trip, grab yourself a copy of the local ordinance survey map and you can take your pick from any of the routes. Below, I’ve listed a few of the most popular walking routes around the Isle to get you started…
South West Coast Path – the South West Coast Path stretches for 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset, all around the coast, ending at Poole Harbour in Dorset. So the Isle of Purbeck is one of the very last sections of the route. If you fancy a challenge, you could follow the trail all the way around the edge of the peninsula.
Old Harry Rocks Circular – a 3.5 mile route from the South Beach Car Park at Studland to Old Harry Rocks.
Corfe Castle Walk – an easy 2 mile walk around Corfe castle and Norden station.
St Aldhelm’s Head Walk – a 4.1 mile route to the most southerly part of the peninsula.
Dancing Ledge Circular – a 3.5 mile route from Langtom Matravers, through Scratch Arse Ware (yes, that’s a real place), to Dancing Ledge.
Kimmeridge Bay Circular – 5.2 mile hiking route explorign the coast and countryside around Kimmeridge Bay.
Where to Stay on the Isle of Purbeck
The two largest towns on the Isle of Purbeck are Wareham and Swanage. Both are popular places to stay on the Isle, as they make good bases to get out and explore the surrounding area, but you’ll still have all the attractions and conveniences of staying in a town. If you’d prefer to get away from everything, there are plenty of hotels, campsites, and self-catering cottages dotted around the peninsula as well. Below, I’ve listed some of the top-rated accommodation in the local area…
- Norden Farm Campsite
- Downshay Farm
- Woodyhyde Campsite
- Knoll Farm Campsite
- Ulwell Holiday Park
- Herston Caravan & Camp Site
- Coastal Heights Camping at Swanage Coastal Park
- The PIG at the Beach, Studland
- Mortons House Hotel, Corfe Castle
- The Pines Hotel, Swanage
- Grand Hotel Swanage
- The Priory Hotel, Wareham
- Purbeck House Hotel & Louisa Lodge, Swanage