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History of Durlston

Find out how Durlston has changed over time - from ancient geological beginnings to modern day country park and National Nature Reserve.



Jurassic Geology

Durlston forms a gateway to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. From here, you can ‘walk back through time’ through 185 million years of geological history. Let’s take a step back to the very beginning of Durlston’s past, to a time when the rocks below Durlston were being formed and occasionally trampled by dinosaurs, crocodiles, and even our earliest mammalian ancestors…

The landscape at Durlston was first formed in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods around 130-140 million years ago. The oldest rocks are Portland limestone which were laid down in a shallow sea; today forming the lower layers and Durlston Head. Above the Portland Limestone lies the famous Purbeck Beds, formed in shallow lagoons and swamps, surrounded by arid salt flats. 

These rocks are world-famous for fossils, with Durlston Bay known as one of the best sources of early reptiles and mammals. The fossils include turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and flying reptiles. The mammal fossils are tiny, but nonetheless important. Some eighteen species have been described from tiny bone fragments and teeth.  Dinosaur footprints are also found in these rocks - much more often than dinosaur bones. This is because even though each dinosaur only had two or four legs, each of them would have created many thousands of footprints.Crocodile fossil

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 Age, (around 10,000 years ago), resulted in rising sea levels, and the consequent erosion led to the formation of the Solent and the coastline today. 

The Jurassic Coast World Heritage site was designated in 2001 and stretches 95 miles between Old Harry Rocks, Studland, and Orcombe Point at Exmouth in East Devon. It is one of only two natural World Heritage Sites in the UK and was designated by UNESCO for its outstanding universal value of its rock, fossils, and landforms. 

For more information please read our Geology page or visit the Castle to explore the Timeline and experience ‘The Rock’ interpretation room. 

Durlston Bay

Fishing and Quarrying

Durlston has a long history of human influence, and is a story that is intertwined with that of Swanage; without the quarrying industry, Swanage would have possibly remained a small fishing port, and without the development of the town, Durlston may never have developed into the popular Country Park we know today…

Following the last ice age, tree species colonised Britain from Europe, and a woodland habitat dominated the landscape, including that at Durlston. It is probable that through Neolithic times, early humans could have started using this landscape, cutting the trees and beginning a transition to the open grassland habitat found today. The earliest direct evidence of human activity comes much later, in the medieval period, when farmers divided the landscape into a strip system to cultivate crops and graze livestock. There is extensive evidence of strip fields and boundaries from this time and several mere stones also have survived. 

Alongside centuries of farming practices, quarrying has been carried out in Purbeck since the Romans, with the Purbeck Stone industry peaking around 1800. The landscape at Durlston still shows the characteristic 'humps and hollows' produced by the mine shafts and spoil heaps from quarrying Purbeck Stone. Portland Stone was quarried horizontally into the cliffs such as Tilly Whim caves. The stone was shaped on-site, before being lowered into boats, and transported to the ‘bankers’ stone yards on Swanage Quay. The Portland Stone usually went on to be shipped to London, where it was notably used in the construction of many famous landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. It was also used to fortify the south coast during the Napoleonic Wars. 

Also at this time, a telegraph station was erected at Round Down around 1795, as part of a chain of signal stations along the south coast of England. These early telegraphs could convey pre-arranged information (such as enemy ships) by signalling with ball and flags, and later semaphore. It remained in use until the mid-19th century, and although only the foundations are now visible, it is an important element of the site’s role in defence of the south coast.

The seas off the coast of Durlston were once notorious for shipwrecks, which lead to many demands for action. As a result, in 1881 the construction of Anvil Point Lighthouse was completed to warn ships of the headland and provide a waypoint for vessels passing through the channel. It still operates to this day, but became fully automated in 1991.

It is unknown when the name ‘Durlston’ first came into use, one theory suggests it originates from ‘Thirl’ meaning hole, with ‘Thirlstone’ or ‘Thurlestone’ and ‘Durlstone’ (earlier names for the area) referring to a natural rock arch. There is a rock stack at Durlston Head which may have once been connected as an arch like this, and similar in appearance to Thurlestone Rock (Salcombe, Devon) and Durdle Door (Lulworth, Dorset). 

Tilly Whim Quarry


George Burt: The 'King of Swanage'

George Burt - the ‘King of Swanage’ played a major role in transforming Swanage from an isolated village where ‘everyone who was not a boatman was a quarrier’ to a fashionable Victorian seaside resort, and developed a large part of the estate at Durlston with the vision for people to ‘Look Round and Read Great Nature’s Open Book’

Born in 1816, George Burt worked as a boy in the Swanage quarries. Having trained as a stonemason, he moved to London at the age of 19 to work for his uncle, John Mowlem, who appreciated his nephew's ‘good business qualities, shrewdness, fine character and energy of nature’.  Mowlem won his first big contract to repave Blackfriars Bridge in 1840, and from there he expanded the business, working mainly with granite, buying quarries in Guernsey and Scotland. In 1844 George Burt became a partner in the company, and later took over management, following his Uncle’s retirement in 1845.

Burt and the firm prospered and he rose to become Sheriff of London and a wealthy man. In his later years, he turned his attention back to Swanage, developing the water, sewage, and gas works in the town. He started a paddle steamer service from Bournemouth, and funded the new Swanage railway, which brought many tourists to the town. 

Burt’s gentrification of Swanage included the salvage of many architectural features from his projects in London, which he brought to Swanage on the returning stone boats as ballast. Many of these artefacts can still be found; such as the Wellington Clock Tower which once stood at the end of London Bridge, or the 17th century facade of the Cheapside Mercer’s Hall which now adorns the front of the Town Hall in Swanage. At Durlston, the granite pillars at Tilly Whim once guarded the entrance to Pentonville Prison, the large Tuscan column outside the gallery once supported Billingsgate Market, and there is an abundance of cast iron bollards, many of them embossed with the names of London parishes, which can found across the park. 

It was in 1863 that George Burt purchased an estate at Durlston described as ‘a semi-industrial landscape, combining rough pasture and treeless downland, pitted with old stone workings’. Fired by a zeal for learning and the natural world, Burt set about transforming his estate, drawing holidaymakers up from the town with his unique creations around the park. He commissioned the Great Globe in 1887 and completed the Castle in 1891, it was originally built as a restaurant and formed the centre-piece of his estate. He blasted an entrance to the Tilly Whim Caves and added numerous seats and stone inscriptions around the park; displaying waymarks, poetry and facts. 

Burt was keen to promote the health benefits of a holiday in Swanage - ‘Purity of water and air are two undeniable facts associated with Swanage’. In 1881 a large Herring was hung in the meteorological station at Durlston Park. It was taken down three years later and found to be ‘without the least decomposition - Mr Burt will show it to anyone with pleasure’. 

Burt’s plans were not entirely altruistic, he also created plans for a major residential development at Durlston and these efforts to draw visitors were also likely an attempt to attract potential buyers to his building plots.

Fortunately most of the plots never sold, but he did create many walks through the Pleasure Grounds which were described as being 'surrounded by foliage and tropical plants of the most luxurious description' and later of Sunnydale; ‘shrubs, planted there are growing most luxuriantly, and require continual thinning; high above the Fuschias … waves the lordly Pampas Grass'. At one time he had ‘an army’ of 50 well-paid men employed to maintain the estate. These plantings later developed into the woodland today, with Burt’s Isle of Wight road later becoming known as the ‘Pine-cliff Walk’ Many of the plants have been lost over the years but some exotic remnants can still be found.

Overlooking the Aviaries there is a stone bench inscribed ‘Geo Burt 1887’,  known as the Egyptian Seat.  It is thought to have been inspired by a trip that George Burt took to Egypt in 1877, where he repeatedly took to the Great Pyramids with a hammer and chisel to take his own specimens. He writes about his trip in a privately published diary; “The astonishment depicted on their faces was very soon changed, however, into an expression of excessive annoyance, and I do not think that they were at all pleased with me bringing the piece away with me”. 

The famous writer Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma met with George Burt at the Castle in 1892. Hardy wrote about it in his journal ‘We were introduced to old Mr. B_, ‘The King of Swanage’. He had a good profile, but was rougher of speech than I should have expected after his years in London – being the ordinary type of Dorset man, self-made by trade’. The couple had previously stayed in Swanage 1875-76 where Hard wrote ‘The Hand of Ethelberta’. His diary reports that they ‘walked daily on the cliffs (at Durlston)’ and “Evening. Just after sunset. Sitting with E. on a stone bench under the wall below the refreshment cottage…The sounds are two and only two. On the left, Durlston Head roaring high and low like a giant asleep. On the right, a Thrush. Above the bird hangs the new moon and a steady planet."

George Burt

A Victorian Legacy

The decades that followed George Burt’s era saw the estate change hands through various private owners who did not pursue Burt’s vision for the site and faced difficult decisions between funding and access that did not always prove popular amongst visitors… 

George Burt died in 1894, and despite allocating enough money in his will for the development to continue, the project stalled, and his legacy was left in the landscape. In 1905 Charles Harper wrote: ‘The curiosities of Durlston Head and the projected suburb of the Durlston Park estate are alike the creation of the amazing Burt, in whose nature eccentricity and business capacity, and the instincts of pedagogue, the philanthropist and the money-maker seem to have been strangely mixed’.

The whole 236 acre estate was put up for sale by auction in 1919. The sale particulars describe 'Wooded Slopes and Dingle of Natural Formation, admirably placed and arranged for forming an Open Air Theatre and for other purposes of amusement and recreation from which a large revenue might be confidently expected’. In one local newspaper,  the auctioneer suggested that the undeveloped site may be developed as a golf course and as such the site was offered for sale as a whole. Initially failing to draw much interest, individual lots were subsequently offered and sold separately. 

In 1922 Swanage Urban District Council (SUDC) were offered most of the land for the sum of £3,750 for preservation as an open space, but questions of rights of way, footpaths and their upkeep were raised by both sides. In a letter to SUDC, Edwin Burt proposes enclosing Durlston Castle property, including all private footpaths, and that from the Castle to Tilly Whim Caves: 'Afterwards to lay out the grounds in a suitable manner, for the public enjoyment, upon payment of a reasonable fee’.

The letter goes on to explain Edwin's reason for wanting to close the estate and charge an entrance fee 'the fact that of late years the great and costly damage that has been done by the public together with the enormous extra burden of taxation and cost of labour, and again the danger to the public, with the walls that have been wilfully overthrown directly I have replaced them... I feel that the only way today to save my Grandfather's good works and to teach the public to respect noble gifts given to them for their pleasure, is to make them contribute to the damage they have done, and to contribute to the upkeep costs of maintenance, cleansing and wilful damage'. 

In the years following this letter, Edwin closed the Castle for a period of time, before opening the Castle Tearooms occupying a long annex beside the building overlooking the Globe. Turnstiles were installed, charging for access to the Globe and the Tilly Whim Caves, and public conveniences were built outside the Castle. These changes were not popular; in 1927 one visitor wrote ‘Then we arrive at a hideous place that could have been built by a humourist. It is a castle that offers you tea and popular prices… Tired as I was when I finished the steep ascent, I would rather die of thirst than patronise it’. 

Maps of the park in the 1920s reveal the lower part of the woodland and ‘Pleasure Grounds’ have been developed into Tennis Courts where the existing Aviary Glade is today.  A ‘Cliff Promenade’ stretches between the Belle Vue restaurant and the Isle of Wight road, with the Undercliff path still in place between the remaining Zig-zag path (north of the landslip) and the Bridge at the Dell and Caravan Terrace. New small plantations of trees have been established around the Castle woodland, whilst existing glades have become more enclosed and infilled by the plantations. 

During 1935-36 Edwin Burt sold the Castle, and the land now forming the Country Park, to Durlston Castle & Askers, Ltd. In 1936 the issue of rights of way was once again raised, this time by members of the public concerned that the Durlston Castle Company was reducing access and charging for car parking. Car parking and vehicular access to the Lighthouse, was an ongoing issue at Durlston until the early 1980s.

During the thirties, several English artists took inspiration from Durlston. This included Shell, who under their manager Jack Beddington, commissioned an illustration of the Great Globe for an advertisement in 1932 by the artist Graham Sutherland.

Durlston Bay

Durlston at War

During World War II (1939-1945) the development of aircraft detecting radar in the Isle of Purbeck helped win the Battle of Britain and played an important role in the success of the UK and its allies. One of these radar stations was built at Durlston and contributed towards the effort that won the war….

Between 1940-1942 the Royal Air Force Telecoms Research Establishment was based in Purbeck, and an 'OBOE' radar station was built at Durlston (named RAF Tilly Whim). It operated as one of a pair to guide RAF Pathfinder Squadrons and help bomber aircraft to pinpoint targets on the continent. Fighter aircraft could then be scrambled and guided to intercept them. This played an important role for the D-Day landings in 1944. The site of the station is now occupied by the Learning Centre and car parks. 

RAF Durlston Head (Presumably based at the Castle) is recorded as coming into being in May 1944 as a section of RAF Tilly Whim, and was part of the ‘J’ watch organisation monitoring enemy jamming operations. It was closed on 1st January 1945. 

After WWII, the huts of RAF Tilly Whim were converted into emergency housing. In total 24 residences were created, each with Baby Belling electric cookers, Elsan chemical toilets (emptied three times per week) and metal food safes. The rent for No. 1 Tilly Whim, a two-bedroom hut, was 12s 4d per week. This emergency accommodation was not seen as a particularly desirable option; in a letter to the Town Council, one family requested ‘we are prepared to accept anything, even Tilly Whim Huts’. The Huts were lived in until 1957 and were demolished in 1974. 



Camels, Cream Teas and Controversy

Through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, populations boomed and visitors increased. Subsequent litter, trampling, camping, and parking were unregulated and decisions concerning the parks management controversial. 

At this time, the estate was owned by Russell Parsons who also owned an amusement arcade in the town. The ‘Durlston Park Controversy’ was discussed extensively in local papers and came to a head in 1947 when Parsons proposed an admittance fee to walk the Zig-zag/Pine-cliff path. He had erected a sign proposing a 6d toll ‘to defray the large costs involved and the costs of upkeep’. Barriers and fences had been affixed across sections of the Cliff Promenade to prevent access, with a turnstile installed at Zig-Zag. 

The proposal was met with outrage. One particularly distraught visitor writes ‘Wake up Swanage, the enemy is at the gate! We have seen first the Great Globe, then the Caves, which were originally free amenities, have become sixpenny side shows. Now it is George Burt’s superb Pine Walk that is to be annexed. Six years ago Swanage was threatened by invasion. Today your enemy is within.’ 

Mr Parsons defended his decision: ‘The only way in which expenses can be recovered is by calling on those who use the property to make a small payment. It must be apparent to every intelligent person that to restore and maintain such an estate it must be made revenue producing’.

There were subsequent calls for Swanage Council to take action and purchase the land, with petitions raised under the belief that the park should be publicly and not privately owned. Many people were disappointed that the opportunity had previously been passed up, when Burt’s executors had originally offered the land. Now there was talk of the land being offered to Swanage Council once again; however these discussions did not proceed further, and Mr Parsons continued to own the land for many decades.

He transformed the tennis courts at Sunnydale into a menagerie and aviary, giving its name today. At this time a variety of animals could be seen here, including many exotic birds, small mammals and reptiles, and most notably a gibbon called Sheila! A child’s logbook from this time records many different varieties of Pheasant, Parrots, Chickens, Guinea Fowl, Guinea Pigs, Rabbits, Grass Snakes, and a Python. Parsons also let out caravans around the park, including at Sunnydale, Long Meadow, and across the Dell bridge from the castle - giving it the name Caravan Terrace. 

Further curiosities of Durlston could be found at the cliff-top restaurant on Belle Vue Road. As part of George Burt’s grand plans, ‘La Belle Vue’ was built in 1870 at the entrance to the Durlston Park Estate. However one of it’s more notable owners was Ruth Burridge who renamed it the ‘Tilly Whim Inn’ in 1955. She was quite an eccentric landlady, who’s energetic character drew many visitors to the pub, including writer Enid Blyton and actor Wilfrid Brambel. At various times this included a parrot, a llama, and a donkey, although Ruth was best known for her pet camel called Achmed, whom she used to ride into the town. When the time came for Achmad to go, he was duly replaced by a London Cab painted as a brick wall. The cab ran a shuttle service from the town. Unfortunately the pub burnt down in 1972 and was replaced by a block of flats named Purbeck Heights. 

By 1968 the Ordnance Map reveals the Undercliff path had succumbed to landslips, with the except for a small section beside the Castle. The Great Globe was masked by a concrete wall and wire fence to prevent people seeing it except by payment at the Castle. Photos show that the plantations are dominated by pine trees and to the west of the Castle, the plantations had spread to fill the whole of both enclosures. Houses had spread south from Sunnydale into the estate grounds. Peacock

Caravan Terrace

Birth of the Country Park

Durlston became Dorset’s first Country Park, to be managed under the ethos of ‘Conservation for Public Enjoyment’

Durlston became a Country Park in 1973 following a partnership between Dorset County Council who had acquired 120 acres, Swanage Council who had 118 acres, and Durlston Park Ltd who held 28 acres. Local newspapers reported it as ‘one of the most controversial issues in the town of recent years’ with ‘the overwhelming feeling of hostility towards the scheme’. The major problems being discussed were traffic, camping, and litter - all of which were unmanaged at the time. Some local people were concerned that the proposal would encourage even more people to use and abuse the park, whereas the planners argued the proposals were not an attempt to develop ‘a major intensive recreational facility’ but ‘a realistic attempt to bring in management measures to save the area and provide for its proper use by the public’. 

In 1973 Dorset County Council acquired the freehold of Durlston Head Castle and the plans went ahead to establish the first Country park in Dorset. In total almost 300 acres were taken under protective management under the policy of ‘conservation for public enjoyment’ which remains the ethos of the Park’s management to this day.  

The first Warden for the park, Ron Skipworth, was appointed in 1974. In the first years, some significant changes were made around the park such as the construction of a Visitor Centre, Warden’s Cottage, and car parks around 1975. Furthermore, the derelict Nissan huts and radar station were demolished in 1974, alongside the wall at the Great Globe which had been constructed to prevent visitors viewing it unless they paid a fee.  

Also at this time, a programme of habitat management work was established, and the Rangers began writing a daily diary which reported wildlife recorded at the park that day, usually in the morning, with the weather detailed as well. In 1980 the first two transects for recording butterflies at Durlston were established and surveyed weekly between April and September. Both the daily diaries and butterfly surveys are still recorded to this day, providing an impressive amount of data and insight into the wildlife at Durlston for over 40 years. 

By this time the Castle was in a state of disrepair. The unrestricted driving of cars over the site which had damaged the grasslands, was stopped, as was public vehicular access to the Lighthouse. Numerous tenants took the Castle as a restaurant on a full repairing lease, but little work was done to prevent deterioration. Durlston Castle became a listed building in 1983, but not before significant changes had been made to the building such as the installation of UPVC windows. In 1982 the former stable block was converted into a cafeteria and shop area, which later became the Lookout Cafe. Many local people will remember the late night parties which were held at the Durlston Castle through the 80’s and 90’s, with lock-ins expected most Friday and Saturday nights.

The ‘Friends of Durlston’ community group was established in 1988 to ‘provide a focus for the goodwill and support that exists for the park’ and continues to support the park and Ranger team today.


Buildings being built

The 'old' Visitor Centre

Present and Future...

The new millennium provided exciting new opportunities to develop Durlston. Through the hard-work and initiative of the Ranger team, two Lottery Fund bids have been granted providing an exceptional visitor facility and accessible enjoyable landscape, developing the site into the award-winning Country Park and National Nature Reserve we know today…

The 99-year lease for Durlston Castle came up for sale in 2003 and was subsequently acquired by Dorset County Council.  The building was literally falling apart, with wet and dry rot throughout, and serious structural problems. It required urgent restoration work to save it from complete disrepair. 

Over the following years, the Rangers put together a funding bid to restore the Castle. The project aimed to preserve its heritage, and transform the building into a Visitor Centre, Cafe, and Gallery; generating income and providing a community resource to engage visitors with the park. The bid was completed in 2008 and the National Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant of £3.2m was awarded towards it’s restoration as part of the project.

The newly restored Castle opened to the public in 2011 and is free to all visitors. It hosts a café and shop with lifts across all four levels. The Visitor Centre has daily and monthly displays which reflect the ever-changing landscape at Durlston. Major interpretation works include ‘The Rock’ fossil room and ‘Timeline’ path from the car parks. The Fine Foundation Gallery regularly hosts art exhibitions, performances, weddings, and concerts.

Shortly after the completion of the Castle Project, the Rangers began planning and writing a bid for a new National Heritage Lottery fund project, the Durlston ‘Pleasure Grounds Project’ which aims to restore and enhance the wider Victorian landscape for people, wildlife, and heritage. The £1m bid was granted in August 2018 and the four-year project began soon afterwards. The project has involved restoration of many Victorian features, resurfacing of footpaths, improvements to woodland habitat management, creation of a play trail, and opening of the Durlston Shed accessible volunteer base. You can learn more about the project on the webpage here. 

In 2008 Durlston was awarded designation as a National Nature Reserve by Natural England, in recognition of the national importance of Durlston for wildlife. 

Today Durlston Country Park continues to be managed under the ethos ‘conservation for public enjoyment’ with a focus on accessibility for all. The park receives over 250,000 visitors per year and is used for education and recreation; including running, walking, dog-walking, wildlife-watching, climbing and family fun, across 300 public events per year. A team of Rangers look after the park, maintaining access, habitats, and heritage across the site (which now totals 320 acres) and provide visitor services, events, education, wellbeing activities and much more with support from around 15,000 hours of volunteer time per year. The park has been financially self-sustaining (including all staff costs) since 2011, demonstrating how effective investment and management can create a financially sustainable asset, which not only pays back into the public sector, but also funds conservation of greenspace, nature, and wildlife.  

Durlston Castle under renovation

Repainting the Victorian plaques

Durlston Castle in the Snow 1901

The Globe and Edwardian visitors

1920s walkers on the coast path