Exploring the History on Our Doorstep

A look at the natural history that surrounds the Cumulus Outdoors Residential Centre

The Cumulus Outdoors Residential Centre is located in the picturesque town of Swanage. Swanage is a gateway town to the Jurassic Coast Natural World Heritage site and we have many of the associated iconic landscapes nearby. But it’s not just geological history that we have in abundance here; there is also the history of Swanage itself, which is a great learning resource for our visiting primary and secondary school students. The town was established on two main industries; fishing and quarrying and it is on the latter that we focus here.

Townsend Nature Reserve

Even closer to our residential centre than Old Harry Rocks is the Townsend Nature Reserve. The nature reserve is owned by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, and boasts 13 hectares of open green space on an elevated site to the south of the town. From here there are stunning views out to sea and to Ballard Down. The Reserve can be accessed easily from our residential centre, exiting our perimeter gate, walking up the public footpath towards Durlston and then on the into the Reserve

The reserve is now a haven for wildlife, with many species of wild orchids flowering here. The limestone grassland supports rare flowers and insects including the Adonis Blue Butterfly and the Yellow Rattle plant. Cattle and ponies are grazed here all year round as a form of controlled husbandry.

Quarrying through the ages

Purbeck Marble

The undulating topography found here is the result of quarrying in open pits and the spoil heaps from wastage. The first stone to be quarried in the Swanage area was the Purbeck Marble – a polished fossily limestone. The marble line, as it was known, ran from Peveril Point to Herston. This was quarried for hundreds of years by thousands of men. Its uses ranged through time from Roman constructions to Middle Ages and Medieval building works. It was often used in religious buildings and those demanding respect. Purbeck Marble is still quarried in large volumes  today.

Purbeck Stone

The less spectacular Purbeck Stone began its rise to importance during the 16th Century. During this time there were many large houses and manors being constructed, which used it for gables and mullioned windows. For many years, the stone was quarried by small groups of men gaining permission from local landowners. The quarrymen manually dug down into the rock, the early form of ‘opencast’ mining. They created walls and sheds for fashioning the stone to make it suitable for market. These mines are known as quarrs.

purbeck stone quarr

(Swanage Past by David Lewer and Dennis Smale)

Ponies were used to haul the large quarr-carts laden with stone up from the quarry, walking in a circle turning the ‘spack’ attached to the capstan post, which was supported by the ‘crabstones’. At one point, Townsend boasted ‘the deepest lanes in Purbeck’ (quarry tunnels) and so intense was the quarrying here that ‘it left the most exhausted ground on Purbeck Limestone’ (Legg 1989).

The Reserve remains pitted with these types of quarrs, so all care must be taken when investigating the site. At Cumulus Outdoors Residential Centre we have a mock-up example of this type of quarrying for students to really imagine how this tough and dangerous industry worked. This can be integrated into our field study programmes.

The value of the Townsend Reserve today

When Townsend Farm was sold in 1964, the purchaser was unable to gain planning permission due to the nature of the land. So, he instructed an underground survey of the quarry workings and began saving the quarries and tunnels for posterity.

Today the land is a vital resource for nature and for the inhabitants of Swanage. The fresh air and open space is important for visitors health and well-being. It is also of great historical value. The records help document a part of quarrying history where miners took their lives into their own hands everyday to gain a living from the land.

Field Studies programmes in Dorset

With an abundance of natural history on our doorstep, it’s easy to see why Swanage is considered one of the best destinations in Dorset for a field studies trip. Enjoy a residential school trip on the Jurassic Coast and learn more about quarrying, mining and geology and geography. Our purpose built residential centre can accommodate primary school or secondary school students and we have classroom facilities available. A trip to Cumulus Outdoors provides students with hands on learning experiences that can build upon school based learning.

Ref: Swanage Past by David Lewer and Dennis Smale

Suttles Company History by Olivia Suttle