Kimmeridge, Kingston and Clavell Tower

OS Map: OL15 Explorer map of Purbeck and South Dorset

Parking: Quarry car park above Kimmeridge village


Public transport: There is a very limited bus service from Swanage to Kimmeridge, which runs on a Thursday only but it returns too early to give you time to walk the full route. If you’re travelling via public transport, a better option would be to take the Purbeck Breezer to Kingston and start the walk from there.


Refreshments: As detailed above, the Scott Arms at Kingston and Clavell’s Restaurant are the only two available options on this route. You might find an ice cream van at Kimmeridge Bay in summer.


Duration: I would allow a good six hours if you plan to make a few stops en route. The total distance is about 9.5 miles with a fair bit of ascent up to Swyre Head and along the coast path section.

N didn’t take too much persuading and so we headed for Purbeck once again, and to Kimmeridge Bay for another of our favourite longish walks. This one, if timed well, provides two good food opportunities: a pub lunch at the Scott Arms at Kingston and a cream tea at Clavell’s Restaurant in Kimmeridge village. It’s ok, you’ll have earned it.


We start at the quarry car park above Kimmeridge village and turn right and right again to find the steep, stony path that takes you up towards Swyre Head. It doesn’t take long for us to gain some height and for the sweeping view of Kimmeridge Bay to open up on our right, while Corfe Castle and Poole Harbour wink at us on the left. There’s lots to look at and our progress is almost always hampered by my inclination to stop and take photos every few hundred steps.

The White House on the edge of Kimmeridge Bay


While the folly of Clavell Tower is a notable landmark, my eye is invariably drawn to the White House that sits on its own in the middle of the bay. It was here that my love affair with the Dorset coast first began to take hold although I can tell you hand on heart that I absolutely didn’t realise it at the time. I stayed in this house when I was about 20 and on my first holiday with N’s family. It was certainly an amazing place to be with its panoramic sea views but I really didn’t get why N’s mum had booked somewhere so far from civilisation (i.e. the nearest pub) and where the beach and cliffs were a grubby shade of grey. I also didn’t get why he and his siblings were forever leaving the cosiness of the fireside to stride out along the coast path. It all seemed like far too much effort. However, there was something about the place in its quiet moments at the beginning and end of the day that delivered a sense of calm as well as an opportunity to connect with the elements in a way that I rarely, if ever, felt in the suburbia of my youth. Dorset was beginning to work its magic.


Back in the present, the path continues up to Swyre Head, at 682ft the highest point on the Purbeck coast, where the views in all directions are mighty fine, particularly those towards the west of Gad Cliff, White Nothe and the Isle of Portland.

The view west from Swyre Head


From Swyre Head we turn back inland in an easterly direction to skirt along the edge of a pleasing stretch of drystone wall with the Golden Bowl of the Encombe estate dropping down to the right. I love this hidden valley with its splendid, sprawling house nestling in the undulating green folds, infuriatingly inaccessible to all but the lucky folk who live there. The peace of the landscape is at odds with the images conjured by the memorial bench to the airmen who lost their lives here in two separate crashes at the beginning and end of the Second World War. The second of these accidents remains Dorset’s worst ever air crash.

We continue on until we reach the end of the wall and pass through the gate, following the path through the field, which might be full of wheat or sheep depending on crop rotations and the time of year. The path leads on through another gate on the other side of the field and then joins the road to Kingston, the promise of a pint and a roast delivering a renewed spring to our step.

The village of Kingston


Kingston village is a splendid confection of Purbeck stone cottages, many of them enjoying views towards Corfe Castle. Its Victorian Gothic church, St James, is brilliantly out of scale. A favourite of John Betjeman’s, it has become known as ‘the cathedral of Purbeck’ for reasons that are entirely obvious. The Scott Arms, friendly and welcoming but always busy at the weekend, is worth booking ahead if you want to eat more than a packet of scampi fries. It sits at the junction with the road from Corfe and offers uninterrupted views of the castle from its garden. The Sunday roasts are currently good (I know these things are highly subjective and chef-dependant) and the Yorkshire puddings the size of a small football.

St James’s Church, the ‘cathedral of Purbeck’


Resisting the temptation of a second pint, we retrace our steps back up past the church and through the village then turn left through the woods, following the signs to Houns Tout. The woodland eventually gives way to pasture, often grazed by sheep, and after a mile and a half’s easy level walking from the pub, the sea comes into view once again as we reach the precipitous heights of Houns Tout. At 490ft, the views from here are outstanding and it always feels like something of a win if the stone seat is unoccupied when we arrive. If it is, we sit for a while to take it all in. The scrubby, inaccessible shoreline beneath the cliff reminds me of the Corsican coast, all the more so on a sunny day when the sea is sparkling, and the well tended farmland adjacent offers a visual feast of lines and stripes by way of contrast.

St James’s Church, the ‘cathedral of Purbeck’


Resisting the temptation of a second pint, we retrace our steps back up past the church and through the village then turn left through the woods, following the signs to Houns Tout. The woodland eventually gives way to pasture, often grazed by sheep, and after a mile and a half’s easy level walking from the pub, the sea comes into view once again as we reach the precipitous heights of Houns Tout. At 490ft, the views from here are outstanding and it always feels like something of a win if the stone seat is unoccupied when we arrive. If it is, we sit for a while to take it all in. The scrubby, inaccessible shoreline beneath the cliff reminds me of the Corsican coast, all the more so on a sunny day when the sea is sparkling, and the well tended farmland adjacent offers a visual feast of lines and stripes by way of contrast.

The view from Houns Tout


When we’re ready, we gird our loins for the next section of the walk, which is undoubtedly the most strenuous part. The coast path drops down steeply from the Tout – there are rough steps of sorts – and then continues in rollercoaster fashion for three miles to Kimmeridge Bay. I’m struck by the sulphurous smell of the oil shale and the fossil-rich ledges, which on this particularly windy day are rippling and whipping up the surf in spectacular fashion.

Looking back towards St Aldhelm’s Head


From the coast path it’s possible to take a right turn inland and follow a track back up to Swyre Head. This is an ok route if you’re short of time but I didn’t particularly enjoy it on the one and only occasion we curtailed our walk this way (read: I muttered all the way about it being a dull, uphill trudge). If you have plenty of daylight and some power left in your legs, it’s far better to continue on the coast path all the way back to Kimmeridge. It takes a little longer than you might think for Clavell Tower to come back into view, and don’t be fooled by the old gun emplacement, which we’ve now come to refer to as False Clavell: at first glance it tricks you into thinking you’re nearly there when ‘true’ Clavell is actually over the next hill.

Clavell Tower with the White House in the distance


I have been fascinated by Clavell Tower since our stay in the White House all those years ago. In those days, it was an empty shell of a folly dangerously close to falling into the sea. I even made a mask in the shape of it for a masked dinner we’d decided to hold one evening (oh, the days before the internet …), the spaces between the pillars of the colonnade forming eyeholes rather cleverly, I thought. The actual tower was built in 1830 by the Reverend John Richards Clavell, owner of the Smedmore estate, as an observatory and folly, and appears as the frontispiece to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Poems (he is rumoured to have gone a-courting there) as well as being the inspiration for PD James’ The Black Tower. By the end of the First World War it was empty and becoming increasingly derelict. In 2006, The Landmark Trust saved it from its certain fate by painstakingly dismantling it and moving it back from the cliff edge. It is now one of their most popular holiday properties, booked up in advance for years to come. It’s not hard to see why.

Surfers at Kimmeridge Bay with Gad Cliff behind


Soon after Clavell Tower, the path descends via steep steps to sea level and Kimmeridge Bay itself. It’s a good place to watch the surfers on a windy day or learn more about the sea life at the Fine Foundation Marine Centre. The snorkelling is supposed to be excellent here – there are underwater nature trails through different seabed habitats – but we save that for another day and head on up the road for a further mile, past the now privately owned White House towards the chocolate-box charm of Kimmeridge village. This is the location of Clavell’s Restaurant, which provides the setting for a justifiable second pit stop of the day in the form of that West Country favourite, the cream tea. The restaurant sits opposite the Etches Collection, the new fossil museum housing the lifetime collection of local man Steve Etches, which we plan to visit on a non-walking day.

Kimmeridge village in the low autumn sunlight


Fortified by scones, we take the path through the churchyard and the steeply sloping field back up to the quarry car park. At this time of year, the sun is dipping behind Portland casting a rosy glow over both the sea and the end of a fine day’s walking. Balance is restored.

Kimmeridge village in the low autumn sunlight


Fortified by scones, we take the path through the churchyard and the steeply sloping field back up to the quarry car park. At this time of year, the sun is dipping behind Portland casting a rosy glow over both the sea and the end of a fine day’s walking. Balance is restored.

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