A Brief History of Durlston
Durlston is a spectacular place for geology. The rocks within Durlston Bay provide the best record through the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods (140 to 130 million years ago) in Britain. The oldest rocks, the Portland Limestone, form the headland and were laid down in a shallow sea. Above them lie the famous Purbeck Beds, formed in shallow lagoons and swamps surrounded by arid salt flats. Dinosaurs walked across this ancient landscape, leaving behind their footprints.
The rocks are world-famous for fossils, but many are strange or minute. Durlston Bay is the best source of reptiles and mammals of this age anywhere in the world! The fossils include turtles, crocodiles, lizards, flying reptiles together with the dinosaur footprints. The mammal fossils are tiny but none the less important. Some eighteen species have been described from tiny bone fragments and teeth.
Following the eras of deposition, huge movements of the Earth's surface and the collision of tectonic plates resulted in the formation of the Purbeck Anticline. The local rock strata were folded into an arch shape, tilting away from the horizontal, as evidenced in Durlston Bay. The end of the Ice Ages, (the last one 10,000 years ago), resulted in rising sea levels, and the consequent erosion led to the formation of the coastline we see today.
More about Geology
Working the Coast: Earth, Sea and Stone
Durlston has a long history of human influence, possibly going back to the Stone Age. However, although the name Durlston is thought to be derived from the Saxon, there is no direct evidence of human activity until the agricultural systems of the Medieval period. The early farmers probably cleared much of the original woodland from the site for their crops and animals, and began the transition to the open grassland landscape which we find today.
Quarrying has been carried out in Purbeck since Roman times, and the Purbeck stone industry probably reached a peak around 1800. The Durlston landscape still shows the characteristic 'humps and hollows' produced by the mine shafts and spoil heaps (known as scarbanks). Portland Stone was quarried from cliff quarries such as Tilly Whim 'caves', which closed early in 19th Century, following fall in demand.
Other historical features in the Durlston landscape include the remains of a Napoleonic-era telegraph station on the top of Round Down which had been erected around 1795.
The area was farmed and quarried for centuries and, even as late as 1840, a considerable amount of the Medieval strip systems still existed. Much of the area was open sheep pasture but crops were grown in the enclosed fields.
A Victorian Enterprise
Durlston was owned and farmed by various farmers and landowners but, in 1863, George Burt purchased a significant part of Durlston and a new era began. George Burt was born in 1816, and worked locally as a stone mason before moving to London, at the age of 19, to work for his uncle John Mowlem. Using his wealth, Burt played a major part in the plans to transform Swanage from an 'old world village' to a fashionable seaside spa.
It was not until George Burt retired in 1886, that he turned his energies to developing further his estate with the newly commissioned Durlston Head Castle as its centrepiece. The Castle was constructed by a local builder, William Masters Hardy, and despite its traditional appearance, an iron frame lies behind its stone cladding.
The Castle has always been used as a restaurant of sorts but, in 1890, the upper floor was used briefly as a signal station by Lloyds of London.
Fired by a Victorian zeal for learning and the natural world, George Burt set about transforming the rest of his estate. The most spectacular of his many creations was the Great Globe. George Burt's developments were not confined to building work. His estate was landscaped and planted with a variety of plants from around the world and it is worth noting that 50 men were employed to maintain Burt's ' New Elysian landscape'.
George Burt's plans for his estate were not entirely altruistic. Various plans were laid for a major residential development at Durlston and 88 plots of freehold building land were offered in 1891. Such schemes continued well into the 1920s but met with little success.
The Victorian era was also a great age of fossil collecting. Durlston Bay, already famous for its geology, attracted the interest of W.R. Brodie whose initial finds in 1854 led to the large scale excavations by Samuel Beckles in 1857. According to the London Illustrated News he found ' 27 species of marsupial mammal about 16 of which are totally new to science'.
The arrival of the railway in Swanage in 1885, and later transport developments including a steady growth in car ownership, saw Durlston becoming increasingly accessible to visitors. The sea views, Tilly Whim Caves, Durlston Castle and Great Globe were then, as now, major attractions.
Legacy of War
During the thirties, several English artists took inspiration from Durlston, and Shell, under their manager Jack Beddington, proved enthusiastic patrons: Graham Sutherland illustrated the Great Globe in a 1932 Shell advertising poster.
The Second World War saw further developments at Durlston: an ‘OBOE’ radar station (RAF Tilly Whim) was established to act as part of the system for guiding pathfinder bombers. RAF Durlston Head was added in 1944.
After the war, the RAF huts were used for emergency housing and up to 24 families lived here in until 1954. The huts were finally demolished in 1974.
Country Park and Nature Reserve
The Park was created in 1973. The first Warden, Ron Skipworth was appointed in 1974 and the Visitor Centre was built in 1975.
Since then 30+ years of careful management, have seen Durlston retain its natural assets, while offering ever improving facilities for visitors.
Share Your Memories of Durlston
Help us to piece together the history of the Park and Durlston Castle in particular. Write to us with your recollections and send any photos / drawings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further reading: The History of the Country Park, David Lambert