This walk is a milestone for me, as it is the last walk on the South West Coast path, which ends (or starts, depending on which way you go) at South Haven Point, the southern side of the entrance to Poole Harbour.
However for this walk I am starting at the end, if you see what I mean, that is, at Poole Harbour. This is one of my favourite walks, I’ve done it a dozen or so times, but I never tire of it. Poole Harbour is in fact the second largest natural harbour in the world. Much of the harbour is however very shallow, with only a few deep channels (marked by buoys). Unlike many harbour and estuary areas, it does not have much in the way of industry around it, meaning you can really appreciate the natural beauty of it too. There is a port (with ferries to the Channel Islands and France) but it is not especially big.
I started the day near Christchurch and decided to drive down to Sandbanks to begin the walk, on the north side of Poole Harbour, which took around 45 minutes. This is because there is a chain ferry which regularly crosses the mouth of Poole harbour every day of the year (even Christmas Day). Driving to Sandbanks also avoids the need to cross on the ferry by car (which is much more expensive). The downside is that parking in Sandbanks can be a problem. There is a small car park by the ferry, but it has a maximum stay of 1 hour which is not much use. The nearest public car park that allows all day parking is around 15 minutes walk away and very expensive (£9.50 for 6 hours, at the time of writing). Happily the streets on the Sandbanks peninsula itself (where the B3369 goes on a 1-way loop around) have parking restrictions in that you must park in the marked bays, but the bays are free and allow all day parking. The downside is that as a consequence, they fill very quickly in the summer. Happily for me it, was not the summer, so I could find a space fairly quickly, only a couple of minutes walk to the ferry.
I wandered down to the ferry terminal, but the chain ferry was on the other side at the time. However the ferry to the National Trust owned Brownsea Island (one of several islands within Poole Harbour) was just loading up so I could watch that instead!
Despite being February, it was a pleasant sunny day and not that cold. I bought a ticket for the chain ferry – foot passengers are charged £1 for crossing from Sandbanks (North Haven Point) to Shell Bay (South Haven Point), but there is no charge in the other direction. The current toll for cars is £3.80. The ferry runs every 20 minutes unless there is high demand, in which case it leaves as soon as it is full and so typically runs more frequently than every 20 minutes.
This marks the beginning (or end) of the South West Coast path and there is a useful sign showing the way.
Thankfully, I am not going that far today! It is also home to a rather remote (and much photographed) telephone box.
Finally, as at the other end of the South West Coast Path there is also a marker sign to highlight this fact. It is quite nice, but I prefer the opening map at the other end (Minehead). I expect it is a popular place to take your photo next to at the end of the walk, but I’m afraid I didn’t (sorry to those who have asked for a photo!)
I rather enjoy the short ferry journey across the harbour mouth – it is such a contrast. On the north side of the harbour the coast is developed for almost 10 miles, with the towns of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch, it is quite a densely populated area. Yet when you cross on this short (no more than 5 minute) journey and you reach the south side of the harbour, it is almost totally undeveloped. There is a cafe and a boat yard, and a toilet block, but that is about it. The rest of this peninsula (the Studland Peninsula) is a mixture of coast, water and heathland. This is I’m sure due in no small part to the fact that it is owned by and protected by the National Trust. They have a hands off approach to management, so the coast here is essentially left to nature. Behind the coast therefore is a large area of heathland with a number of large lakes, the largest being the Little Sea. These were originally open to the sea, but silting up has left them lakes and are now a nature reserve. The coast path deposits you on the beach and the first 3 miles or so of this walk are along the beach (although there is an alternative route in the heath, if you prefer).
Here is the view back to the chain ferry I had just got off, unloading it’s load of people and vehicles.
Unless it is high tide though it is an easy walk along the harder sand near the shoreline. First there is a bit of a problem though.
A little stream flows out from the heathland and Little Sea onto the beach here. In summer it often dries up and you might not even know it is there. In the winter particularly after heavy rain (which there had been) it can become quite wide, as it had today.
Thankfully the water is shallow and the National Trust have also built a wooden bridge a little inland at the back of the beach you can use to cross if needed. I took that option today and it gives you a good view over the heath and lakes that are inland from here.
Back on the coast I decided for a change to follow the path along the edge of the dunes. You can see back to the millionaires playground that is Sandbanks and around Poole bay to Bournemouth now.
This first stretch of beach is known as Shell Bay presumably because shells are found here, but the beach is mostly sand rather than shells. Unusually (as I’ve never seen it before or since) the winter of 2013 had been very wet, causing another stream, this time without a bridge to flow out onto the beach. It had clearly washed a lot of mud off the heath, too.
I therefore headed further into the dunes to get around it. I was quite pleased with this picture of the dunes reflected in the still waters of this stream.
In fact the clouds made it look like that yacht is steam powered I thought! Sadly the water goes further into the dunes, so I had to go higher to get around it.
Thankfully I was soon round it and decided to stick to the beach from here on!
After the first half mile or so the coast (and coast path) goes around the corner and there is a sand spit that heads out here. At high tide it is covered so you don’t see it, but it has appeared on the most recent OS map and there are rocks along it – I wonder if it was something man made in the past?
Rounding the corner I am now on the magnificent Studland beach. This stretches for more than 2 miles and it is wonderful unspoilt.
Part of it however is a designated nudist beach. There was no one making use of this today though. The sign on the beach here warns you are reaching this area.
After a little over a mile of walking along this glorious beach I reach the main visitor facilities of the beach. As you would expect of the National Trust, these are fairly low key, you won’t find arcades here) and consist of a shop and information centre, cafe and toilets as well as a large car park. There are also some beach huts behind the beach here.
This is Knoll Beach and tends to be the most crowded, not that you can ever really describe the beach here as crowded. I continued south along the beach, past more beach huts. The beach gets narrower here and gets quite a bit of seaweed at times, but it was clear today. This is known as Middle Beach and is another lovely stretch of beach.
At the end there is a cafe (behind which is another car park) and at low tide it is possible to walk around the shore to the next beach, South Beach. Today though the tide was in so I stuck to the coast path which goes up steps at the end of this beach.
You briefly have to join the road here but then head up the bank to the top of the low cliffs. Here there is a concrete bunker, built in World War II. The beach here was used to practice for the D-Day beach landings in Normandy and Winston Churchhill no less once came to this bunker to view the preparations for himself.
Thankfully now in more peaceful times, we can enjoy the fine view of the beach that Winston had.
The coast path continued around the low cliffs for a short distance, where steps should take me down to South Beach. Sadly, as you can see, it was closed.
So I had to take a further diversion inland, passing a nice looking pub, the Bankes Arms. The coast path stuck to the road, but I took the path back to the beach, so I didn’t miss out South Beach.
Like the other beaches at Studland this is another fine beach. The chalk headland of Old Harry Rocks is ahead and near the south end of this beach the beach began to become shingle with some pebbles of white chalk mixed in. I was pleased to find there were also steps at the far end of the beach onto the coast path, so I didn’t have to head back.
Back on the top of the cliffs I could enjoy the view over South Beach and Studland.
The coast path ahead is very popular and like the stretch between Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove, it is a bit of a walkers motorway as many people walk it to see the impressive Old Harry rocks. The views from here though are limited in places by bushes on the left, although you still get good views over the shallow bay.
Ahead though the main attraction is the beautiful Old Harry Rocks. These chalk stacks mark the end of the chalk ridge of the Purbeck Hills and it is believed that millions of years ago, they joined up with the Needles on the Isle of Wight.
These rock stacks are much photographed and an arch is forming under one of them.
At the end there is a very narrow and precarious path out to them. I went so far, but I didn’t go as far as this chap. I’m sure he got a good photo, but look how narrow that path is, with a sheer drop on both sides. It was not for me!
Looking to the right there is another arch forming under the cliffs here too.
The path is now a pleasant and gentle walk along the fairly flat chalk cliffs approaching Ballard Point. You can soon get a good view back to the rocks at Foreland Point.
It is really beautiful here and photos like this have graced the cover of many magazines and books over the years. Looking ahead (and I struggled with the photos in the low sun here), are more rocky chalk stacks, where the cliffs have eroded.
Near Ballard Point another good path follows the top of the chalk ridge, the Purbeck Way leading to Corfe Castle. Another of my favourite walks in this area is what I call my Purbeck Coast to Coast walk. I start from East Lulworth and follow the path south to Arish Mell and take the steep climb up to the top of the ridge near Worbarrow Bay, then follow it inland all the way to Corfe Castle and onto Foreland Point and Old Harry Rocks. It is a long walk, but one I very much enjoy.
Anyway back to this walk, on reaching the corner the path climbs, but it also gives me my first glimpse down to Swanage Bay.
Looking out to sea I could also see the Condor Vitesse making it’s way out of Poole harbour heading for Guernsey.
The path continues to climb and once at the top you get an even better view. I’m going to swap to a photo I took in the summer here, because the sun was too low on this occasion to get a good photo.
The path then begins to descend down again, and can get very muddy, as it did today. Again I’m going to cheat and use a “summer” photo for this one!
The coast path winds it’s way down past gorse bushes and fields and eventually reaches the road in New Swanage. It then heads quite some distance inland around dull roads to get back to the coast. I don’t bother with that, my suggestion is you ignore it and go my way instead! Just before the houses you should see a path going down lots of steps to the beach. Take this instead. You end up around about here.
This is the lovely beach at Swanage, a blue flag beach in fact. You also get a lovely view back to the chalk cliffs I had been walking over. Heading along the beach there had clearly been a lot of cliff movement (perhaps this is why the official route does not go onto the beach here), with several landslips down onto the beach, taped off.
Good to know that tape was protecting me from any further falls! Further along there had been a further fall onto the top of this block of beach huts. You can see the palm tree (once in someones garden?) on top of the furthest away blocks. I now continued along the hard sands near the shore. There are wooden groynes on the beach here, but they are easy to step over.
Soon I left the beach and joined the promenade. Part way along there is a small stone pier with some seats on, which I walked to the end of for the view back along the beach.
It was nice to see so many people out enjoying the fine weather on the beach.
I continued along the promenade to the point I got to last time and continued further. This is not an especially long or demanding walk, so I decided to head inland to the station to check the bus times (the buses start from the front of the station). I happened to get there just as the steam train arrived from Corfe Castle.
I watched locomotive run around and headed back to the sea front. Since I had plenty of time and the sun was still out I decided to continue up to Durlston Head again. The route is initially along the coast to Peveril Point but this time I took to the shore.
The coast begins to climb again out of Swanage, giving a view over the town.
I thought it rather a shame someone had seen fit to add a modern sign above this lovely old Victorian stone sign.
The path up to Durlston Head is mostly through woodland, but there are glimpses back in places – here is the view back to Peveril Point and Ballard Point.
I passed the castle that is now the visitor centre.
Then headed along the road for a view down to the Lighthouse.
I therefore cut inland along one of the many paths that head north from here back to Swanage. I headed down to the bus station and managed to just catch the bus. By now it was nearly dark, and I was surprised to see that despite it being winter it was still a (part) open top bus. I sat outside in my coat despite the winter chill, to enjoy the view.
This bus heads back to Shell Bay and crosses the mouth of Poole Harbour on the chain ferry to Sandbanks and continues around to Bournemouth centre and on to the railway station. It is a useful link, but it must also rate as one of the least reliable buses in the country. This is mainly because it uses the chain ferry which when it gets busy stops running to a timetable, so it is not uncommon for the bus to arrive just as the ferry is dpearting! For this reason I would not recommend relying on a tight connection onto a train at Bournemouth station, as the bus is very often late. It is also very popular. In the summer months it is not uncommon for the bus to be so full it leaves people behind at Bournemouth Square (town centre) and I have been turned away from the bus on more than one occasion when getting on at Sandbanks. Thankfully getting on at Swanage, it is the start of the route. Despite these shortcomings, it must rate as one of the most scenic bus journeys in the country and the height of the bus means you can see over much of Studland Heath.
Another useful tip is if, like me, you are heading back to Sandbanks, buy a ticket only to the Shell Bay ferry and get off just before the bus goes onto the ferry. This makes the ticket around £2 cheaper because the bus has to pay a toll to use the ferry, reflected in the ticket cost to Sandbanks (bus tickets on this route are not cheap). By getting off on the south side of the ferry you can then travel on the chain ferry as a foot passenger for which there is no charge in this direction. In this case the driver could see the ferry was full but suggested if I run I might make it. Sadly I didn’t, but it was not long to wait for the next one. By the time I got across, it was dark, but I took a last photo of the ferry loading up for the return journey.
This is a great walk. It takes in what I rate as the best beach in Dorset, some stunning scenery, particularly the Old Harry Rocks and a pleasant small resort in Swanage. It is also not that demanding and I think makes a great start point for the South West Coast path.
I was sad to finish the South West Coast path but I know there are many more great walks to be head along the coast to come. What it does mean though is that route finding will become trickier. So far, I have had a good coast path for much of this walk, but I won’t have that luxury on many of the walks ahead. I can now add the South West Coast Path to the list of National Trails that I have completed (along with the North Downs Way, South Downs Way, Thames Path, Ridgeway and the Cotswold Way as well as parts of some of the other trails).
Here is details of the public transport needed for this walk.
Purbeck Breezer route 50 : Bournemouth Station – Bournemouth Centre – Westbourne – Canford Cliffs – Sandbanks Ferry – Shell Bay – Studland – Swanage. During winter, hourly Monday – Saturday and once every 2 hours on Sundays. In summer every 30 minutes, seven days a week.