Purbeck is a district of Dorset that takes its name from the peninsula known locally as the 'Isle of Purbeck'. This sixty square mile chunk of land jutting into the English Channel is bordered on three sides by water and, although not actually an island, has an insular character which is largely due to its geography.
A ridge of chalk from the Cretaceous period known as the Purbeck Hills runs along the peninsula from Ballard Down, a National Trust nature reserve north of Swanage, managed for its calcareous grassland habitat, through Corfe Castle and almost to East Lulworth, a hamlet consisting of 17th century thatched cottages. East Lulworth is relatively low-lying due to a break in the cliff that occurs at Arish Mell, while to the north is Luckford Lake, a small stream feeding into the River Frome, which in turn runs into Poole Harbour. In the past the low-lying land would have been very boggy and difficult to cross in winter, hence the 'Isle' of Purbeck.
There are a number of Iron Age, Roman and Saxon archaeological sites to be found on the isle of Purbeck. Nine Barrow Down, for example, takes its name from the nine barrows (stone age burial mounds) that have been found along this ridge on the northern side of the Purbeck hills while Flowers Barrow, near Kimmeridge in the south, is an Iron Age hill fort built 2500 years ago, a part of which has been lost to the sea thereby dramatically demonstrating the effect of coastal erosion.
The first settlement in the area would have been at Wareham. Easily reached by road and rail, today's town forms an ideal base for exploring the Purbeck coast. Wareham's accessibility attracted regular raids throughout history, especially from the Vikings, and it was eventually captured by King Canute in 1016. Raised earthen walls were built around the town for protection and today these walls are a haven for wildlife and enclose a thriving market town with a Saxon street plan and more than 200 buildings of historic and architectural interest.
The nearby Corfe Castle represents another attempt to defend the area from marauding armies. Built in a gap in the Purbeck Hills this ruined castle dates back to the 11th century. It is now owned by the National Trust, who are currently attempting to restore it. The village of Corfe Castle, built in the gap below the ruins, is a picturesque affair and attracts many visitors each year.
The Purbeck coastline is part of the ninety-five mile stretch known as the 'Jurassic Coast', named England's first natural world heritage site in 2002 because of the unique insight it offers into 185 million years of the Earth's history. The Purbeck Beds are an internationally important record of the evolution of mammals at the beginning of the Cretaceous period, and a total of more than 100 different vertebrate species have been identified from fossils. The Purbeck limestones are also famous for dinosaur tracks, the most significant of which are at Keat's Quarry, where footprints more than a metre in diameter were discovered in 1986.