Hidden Gems of Dorset

As I settle into this new, strange, quieter life here in Dorset, I've found myself hungrily searching for hidden gems; coves, caves and cliffs, picturesque villages with thatched cottages, and remote beaches. I think it's been especially important to explore during a lockdown - alone, of course - to prevent from going completely stir crazy.

I've compiled a few of Dorset's most fascinating places, filled with history and culture.

1. The Dancing Ledge, Purbeck

One of my favourite places in Dorset, the peninsular isle of Purbeck is full of beautiful coves, smugglers caves, and idyllic beaches. And, of all the places in Purbeck, I think the Dancing Ledge may well be my favourite of all. Close to the village of Langton Matravers, the 'Dancing Ledge' can be found on the disused site of a coastal quarry, used from the 18th century until the 20th. 

Dancing Ledge is so-called because at certain stages of the tide when the waves wash over the horizontal surface, the ridges and hollows of the uneven surface cause the water to bob about, making the ledge appear to dance.

Renowned as a wild swimming spot, a small swimming pool was carved out of the rock in the 1930s, allegedly for use by a local school. Filled with seawater at high tide, and little more than a large rock pool, it's impractical for swimming laps, but just imagine, lounging in a rock pool, looking out at the sea, on a beautiful, blue-skied day. Can you imagine anything more picturesque?

*Fun fact*, Langton Matravers since-closed prep school, Dunford, educated author Ian Fleming as a boy, and a swim from the dancing ledge was a morning ritual for all students. Apparently, he had a miserable time at Dunford.

2. Chapman's Pool, Purbeck

The entire southern coast is teeming with beautiful, semi-circular coves, most famously Lulworth Cove, but lesser known is the almost as beautiful, but far less touristic, Chapman's Pool, just a short distance away. Another Purbeck gem, the cove can be found to the west of the village of Worth Matravers and tucked to the west of St. Aldhelm's Head. It's a wonderfully secluded little spot, with a picturesque beach, hundreds of fossils hidden amongst the pebbles and within the cliffs, clear blue seas, and very little else. A 19th-century lifeboat house is now used as a fishing hut, but otherwise, the nearest buildings almost a mile away.

3. Tyneham Village

Tyneham Village is one of Dorset's most interesting historic gems and often overlooked by tourists.

The village of Tynehame has lay deserted for over 60 years. Before that, it was an idyllic countryside village, located only a couple of miles from the sea and the delightfully picturesque Worbarrow Bay, with its own church, school, rectory, several farms, and lots of cottages, as well as the grand mansion, Tyneham House, or the Great House, as it was also known.

So what happened in this quaint little village to cause its inhabitants to leave?

Well, the villagers didn’t want to leave. Many of the resident families had lived there for generations after all. Unfortunately, the onset of World War II forced the abandonment of the village, due to it’s proximity to the Lulworth firing ranges, and the government's resulting claiming of Tyneham village and much of it’s surrounding land as a place to train the allied forces. The villagers were told they must temporarily leave their homes for the greater good. Once the war was over, they would be allowed to return to their homes and continues on with their lives.

However, despite a number of petitions and campaigns, the original residents were never granted permission to return to their homes. Tyneham has, therefore, remained as if frozen in time for the last 77 years.

While the village is still within the army ranges, it is open on weekends, and public holidays, and is a wonderful place in which to catch a glimpse into the past of how life used to be, in days gone by.

4. Tout Quarry Sculpture Park, Portland

What to do with an abandoned quarry? At Dancing Ledge, they carve out a pool for a school's swimming lessons. At Tout Quarry, on the Isle of Portland, however, they made the most of the disused space in quite a different way.

Since 1983, Tout Quarry has housed a sculpture park of over 60 statues, such as Anthony Gormley’s ‘Still Falling’ sculpture. Beginning with artists' residencies, well known and emerging artists created both temporary and permanent work in response to the labyrinths and gullies of quarry workings within the 40-acre site – giving back to the Quarry where in the past so much had been taken away for buildings in London and around the world. These artists' residencies continue to this day.

Each sculpture is scattered through the maze of meandering paths, and visitors scramble over boulders and squeeze through mini-valleys to find the little works of art spread across the grounds.

Add to that the stunning views of the Jurrasic Coast, this is the perfect place if you're looking for a slightly more eccentric day out.

5. Kimmeridge, Purbeck

Renowned as the best rock pooling and safest snorkeling site in Dorset, Kimmeridge Bay lies within the historic Jurassic Coast, and near to the namesake village of Kimmeridge.

Above the Bay sits Clavell Tower, a folly now used for holiday accommodation, and a point of inspiration for both P.D. James and Enid Blyton. Despite the steep walk up to the tower, it's worth the effort, as you are rewarded with spectacular views over the Bay.

An area popular with surfers and windsurfers, and renowned for the sea breezes and surf created by the rock ledges underneath the waves, Kimmeridge Bay is suitable for entertaining adults and children alike. The Wild Seas Centre encourages all ages to explore the bay, admire its diverse range of wildlife, and explore its rock pools. Entry is free, and the centre displays a range of exhibitions, as well as a small aquarium. They also run various events throughout the year which are great for children and families - try eco-friendly crabbing or a rockpool ramble.

As for facilities, there are toilets and showers located in the slip-way car park. The main car park overlooks the Bay. Both are accessed via a toll road and charges may apply.

6. Cerne Abbas Giant

Standing at a towering 180ft, the Cerne Abbas Giant is Britain's largest, and perhaps most well-known chalk figure. Nevertheless, despite its fame, its origins are unknown, though there are countless theories.

Earliest mentions of the giant date back to the 17th century, though many believe it to be Celtic. While some believe the giant to be a depiction of a Romano/British figure of Hercules, others claim he depicts a Saxon deity. Another theory is that the giant, if indeed dating to the 17th century, was created as an act of political satire, possibly in mockery of Oliver Cromwell.

Whoever the giant is supposed to be, and no matter when he was created, either way, the giant has become an important part of local culture and folklore, often associates it with fertility. Traditionally, a maypole is erected on May Day, on the flat earthworks directly above the giant, and childless couples dance around the maypole to promote fertility, while allegedly having sex on the giant will guarantee pregnancy. While a maypole is still erected and danced around atop the earthworks, I'm not sure how much of the fertility superstition remains.

While the best viewpoint is obviously from the air (excellent, if you have a drone), the best alternative viewpoint can be found at the aptly named 'Giant's View', otherwise known as the Cerne Giant Viewpoint; a lay-by and car park on Duck Street, just off the A352.

7. Wimborne Minster Model Town

Open since 1951, Wimborne Minster Model Town is one of the largest and longest-running model villages in the country. The 1/10th scale model buildings are designed to capture the essence of a typical Rural English Market Town of the 1950s, including an interactive Hornby Model Trains, based on Thomas the tank engine.
With over 100 shop fronts, Wimborne Minster Model Town has proven one of Dorset's most popular attractions for 70 years; especially for younger visitors.

Though currently closed due to Covid-19, the model village is usually open from late March until late October each year. Facilities include Tea Rooms and a Gift Shop.

8. Blue Pool, Wareham

Despite its beauty, this hidden paradise is little known, compared to many of the gems listed here.

The Blue Pool, found within Furzebrook nature reserve, constantly varies in colour, as the fine clay within the water diffracts light in different ways, producing a spectrum of colour, ranging from green to turquoise to blue.

Set in a deep clay bowl, steps lead down to the water's edge or up to views of the Purbeck Hills, though there is also a route suitable for wheelchair users. The Pool is surrounded by 25 acres of heath, woodland and gorse interlaced with sandy paths that seem to take you to another world.

A cafe opened in the 1930s, swiftly followed by a museum and gift shop. In 1985 the estate was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Children can enjoy the Trails around the red route looking for Magic Fairy Doors or spotting the model squirrels in the trees. When they have completed their hunt form they can collect a certificate from the Teahouse.

9. Little Bredy Waterfall & Walled Gardens, Bride Valley

Little Bredy is an idyllic village of chocolate box, thatched-roof cottages, at the head of the Bride Valley. The River Bride tumbles down a waterfall from its spring, fed by a lake in the grounds of Bridehead, a mansion at the centre of the village estate. This picturesque spot is well worth visiting for its gorgeous, serene setting. Cars are not allowed through part of the village creating a peaceful, old fashioned ambiance.

From the road through the village, you can walk through the churchyard to the sparkling lake and waterfall. Little Bredy Walled Gardens, consisting of the ‘Lost’ Victorian walled kitchen and flower gardens belonging to the village estate, can be found just a short distance from the waterfall.

A small entry fee applies but parking is free.

10. Devil's Nine Stones, Winterbourne Abbas

Dorset is littered with several historic stone circle sites, and while I could, therefore, have included many on this list, the Devil's Nine Stones (otherwise known as Nine Ladies, or Lady Williams and her Dog), is arguably the most impressive, and in the best condition.

Located within the village of Winterbourne Abbey, and believed to have been erected during the Bronze Age, the purpose of the Nine Stones is, as with all stone circles, unknown.

Fans of Outlander or those interested in paganism, druidism, or early British history would especially find this site interesting. Often when visiting, offerings of sculptures of other objects can be found alongside the stones.

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