Hiking and Wild Swimming at Dancing Ledge, Dorset
On any adventure by the sea in England, here and there you will come upon breathtaking coastal views, hidden smugglers’ caves, or tall, straight sheer cliff drops. True to the spirit of nature and adventure that defines wild swimming, Dancing Ledge is a gem of a hike and a climb and a swim, carefully guarded by the tides.
Dancing Ledge also stands at the convergence of an elaborate system of relationships between cliff top trails, swimmers, and the sea at the cusp of winter.
The season is fall. The time is November. At Thanksgiving, the place is Dancing Ledge. With a group of friends, we celebrate the beautiful nature that surrounds the Isle of Purbeck on the Jurassic Coast with a late afternoon dip on the tail end of Storm Arwen.
Embracing the Swimming Symphony of Autumn Storms
Lace on hiking boots. Zip up windbreakers. Step out of Swanage’s city center in the direction of the South West Coastal Path, a long-distance hiking trail that hugs the British coast along 630 miles. Modestly, we only intend to walk for as long as it takes to honor the sea as swimmers do (with a splash), which in the case of Dancing Ledge is about 9 km or 6 miles.
While Storm Arwen raged on at dawn, sending the Atlantic Ocean into a frenzy of foamy waves and face-whipping winds for our morning swim in Swanage, it has calmed down as we set off on the SW Coastal Path. We leave behind fish and chips shops and game arcades, we climb a grassy hill and at the top, embrace a glistening blue sea under a curdled cloudy sky.
The only reminder of Storm Arwen is a fierce, fierce breeze that ruffles our hair and amply justifies tucking wooly hats over our ears.
Gleefully, we hit the trail towards Dancing Ledge.
Durlston Country Park
Through a gate on the street at the edge of Swanage, we enter a nature reserve hiding a wild play trail which winds along the woodland up on the cliff. The trail follows a wood chip path separating natural play areas, including logs to balance on, a tree swing, or a sound “tree” where we bang our metal tubes to create sounds.
Further afield, quiet spaces such as individual or giant hammocks offer places to relax under pine trees.
My feet must confess that at that very moment, playing in this landscaped woodland and following the undulating wood chip path, they are extremely happy.
The ground is soft and my Scarpa hiking boots are toasty warm, the view on the Jurassic Coast is banging — there’s nothing to complain about. Durlston Country Park deserves its badge as a place for the people to ‘Look round and read great nature’s open book’.
Tilly Whim Caves
Past Durlston Castle and its glassed-in belvedere, we reach Tilly Whim caves, or at least the first sign of this series of three stone quarries that provided Portland stone out of the Purbeck hills for centuries.
The Whim in Tilly Whim
A whim, as in “on a whim” usually means something spontaneous, impromptu, or sudden. On the Isle of Purbeck, “on a whim” takes on a whole different meaning. Tilly, the man who gave his name to the caves, was a miner who worked the quarries. As it happens, these quarries were rather unusual in the technique that was used for quarrying.
Without a road nearby, no stone was ever removed or transported by land. However, the sea was right there and it was as good as a road. How to load massive stones onto shipping boats? To load Portland stones into barges at sea in calm weather, quarrymen using a winch and a type of wooden derrick called a whim. That’s how Tilly Whim got its name. Now, the caves.
Tilly Whim Caves: History
Going back to Roman times, Portland stone has historically been very prized for construction in Britain. In the 19th century, the stone was used to build fortifications in the Napoleonic wars, and when the demand ran out, the quarry was closed in 1812.
You would think that the story of Tilly Whim Caves stops here, but that’s underestimating the tourism potential of the caves and the extraordinary Victorian appetite for nature thrills.
The caves known as Tilly Whim Caves are two square holes in the rock, of about the same size, that are visible from the trail. In front of the caves is a flat ledge with splendid views on the sea, and from one of the caves, a tunnel with steep steps leads up to the plateau.
True to the ideal of 19th century entertainment, Durlston Country Park founder George Burt opened the caves as a tourist attraction in 1887. After centuries of quarrying and tunnelling, they were as good as show caves. To support the roof, quarrymen had left pillars in the limestone on site or built pillars from stone wasters. The tunnels, about 3m / 10 feet wide, ran as far as 60m long. Add to that a brand new fake castle (Durlston Castle) nearby for refreshments, and it was enough to draw Victorian crowds to the site.
If not for a a rockfall on the stairs in 1976, the mines might still be open to the public today. The entrance to the stairs is now blocked off with a metal gate and rusty barbed wire. With a little effort it wouldn’t be hard to climb over the gate, but who knows how safe the tunnel is. Probably not very.
Smugglers and Tilly Whim Caves
Safety was not always top of mind for cave users, mind you. Before Victorian tourism hit it big, the caves and quarries were also an ideal spot for smugglers to hide their contraband. The network of tunnels, which extended deep inland, was perfectly suited for smuggling operations. Even better, smuggling supported local small business as workers in the quarries helped out by taking the contraband inland hidden in their lunch baskets. That’s Poldark material, this stuff is.
In a way, it’s a shame that these caves are just a footnote on today’s SW Coastal Path. Imagine if their walls could talk, the wonderful tales they could tell.
Anvil Point to Dancing Ledge
We continue on the trail, following the ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast, its funny stepping stiles, narrow sunken path and kissing gates.
Very few plants can resist the mighty winds that we are battling as we walk, not to mention the sea salt in the air. Only the hardiest survive, plants that care more about pure strength and energy conservation than looks. Which, when you look closer, can be good or bad. Coastal ecosystems are inherently fragile, as shown by two plants we encounter.
Native common gorse (Ulex europaeus) brings a touch of autumn sunshine to the hills, with its abundant yellow flowers and thick bushes. Without wind, we might even be able to smell the pineapple scent of its blooms, but this hike’s too windy.
Closer to the ground, invasive pirri-pirri bur (Acaena novae-zelandiae) pops up everywhere, which is troubling. Seemingly innocuous with its prickly burs that attach to sheep and clothing, it displaces native species and as such is the focus of several removal campaigns in Britain. If you find burs attached to your clothing, do not thrown them in the wild! That’s how they propagate. It’s safer to bin them far from natural areas.
St Albans’ Head
In the distance, we finally gaze on St Albans’ head and in the foreground, a stony shelf at sea level. This is our destination.
After a last steep down and up, we reach a wooden fence blocking the access to Dancing Ledge and a National Trust post with the telltale embossed oak leaf design. Plastered on the bottom, a red sign warns of land slips. That’s in case we had missed the numerous other landslide signs peppering the trail since Swanage. Knowing that the last major landslide happened in April 2021, it’s a fair warning to anybody stepping beyond the sign.
How to Reach the Swimming Area
There’s no easy way to get down to the rock shelf but there’s an obvious way. Down the flight of stairs carved in the hill, we get to the edge of an elevated plateau. It’s rather abrupt as Dancing Ledge proper is a vertical 10 to 12 feet below us. Unsurprisingly, Dancing Ledge is one of the most well-known climbing areas near Swanage with well-bolted and varied routes.
The only way to the sea is to jump, which we all do one by one, helped by those of us who venture first. Looking up the rock amphitheatre, I hope that going up won’t be too tricky.
Wild Swimming at Dancing Ledge
Sean, the first member of our group is already in his speedos when we are still considering going down and he’s headed towards the sea. Inky blue, the November sea is intimidating at best and the wind is not helping. I direct him to the tidal pool to the east, a safer bet.
History of the Tidal Pool
This tidal pool is the main draw of Dancing Ledge for swimmers, a rectangular pool blasted in the rock for local school boys. Of course, you wonder. “Why local school boys? How did they get to the pool anyway?”
Fair questions. The original idea belongs to a former Eton schoolmaster named Thomas Pellatt. In 1893, he converted the outbuildings of Durnford House into a preparatory school which became very famous, preparing exclusively for Eton. Back in the day, the school was seen as “progressive” (understand, brutal) and many of the British aristocracy sent their sons to spartan Durnford.
The school was notorious for its morning “strip and swim” rituals, where boys aged 7 to 14 were marched, whatever the weather, to plunge into the sea. To ensure that swimming was never interrupted, even by gales, Tom Pellatt got a quarryman to blast a swimming pool out of the rock at Dancing Ledge in 1910. It was near the water line, so that it could be filled up by the sea.
A November Swim to Remember
Here we are, all seven of us, taking the plunge. Sean’s already been in, our group scout for all things swimming or climbing. He’s bobbing around in the pool while we undress, trying to tuck away our belongings in small caves so they don’t fly all over the place.
Jamal jumps in second, though initially concerned about sea urchins (but not for long). He breathes a sigh of relief when he realizes that the darker spots in the water are soft and slippery seaweeds. Right behind him, I come in third. Walking gingerly on the lumpy rocky “Prickle Bed”, I avoid slippery flooded burrows and target drier spots showing scattered ammonites and bivalves. That is true Jurassic Coast geology under our feet.
The water is so clear that standing at the lip of the pool, I can see straight through to the uneven rocky bottom, as well as the colorful seaweed and sea anemones underwater. What a beauty.
Once I’m in, the swim is even more exhilarating than I thought. It feels slightly mischievous to be immersed in this rocky pool, separated from the sea only by a thin rocky edge.
Every time a wave rolls in, it spills over the edge and for a few seconds, the pool and the sea are one, the infinity pool becomes infinite.
This reminds me that the pool is only accessible a few hours around low tide each day, so I don’t plan on standing around forever either. The water’s not warm enough for that anyway, hovering around 12C / 54F.
Nina joins us in the pool as Simone arrives on the ledge, having climbed all the way down with his Brompton bicycle. All of us swim slowly in circles, as the pool is only 15 m long, laughing and chatting way.
Making the most of the dip, we float on our backs and take in the majestic views over the tall cliffs and quarries around us. Bathed by the afternoon sun, they warm us spiritually. Soon it’s Fiona’s turn to take the plunge, followed shortly after by Simone. Maria bides her time, taking pictures and encouraging us. It’s only when we are out getting changed that she decides to make a go for it — and loves it.
Who wouldn’t? It’s a sheer delight to bathe here. But it’s time to go.
From Dancing Ledge back to Swanage
As much as we adopted a leisurely pace on the way over to Dancing Ledge, we now intend to hustle back to Swanage as fast as possible to prep Thanksgiving dinner and rescue the children who went ahead to start cooking.
We hit the trail as the sun starts going down. When we reach Anvil Lighthouse, the sun’s hiding behind low clouds and it feels like the end of the day. It’s cooler too.
By the time we get to Swanage, we have cut over a mile from the 6-mile hike by crossing over to inland paths, covering 6.3 km in an hour and 15 minutes. City lights twinkle along the seafront. We feel extremely grateful for the gift of nature we just experienced.
What a lovely way to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Where to Find Dancing Ledge
You can find Dancing Ledge on Google Maps easily.