Heritage & History

of the Purbeck Heaths

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Middlebere Heath, Jon Bish reeds

Purbeck Heaths Timeline

The Purbeck Heath landscape we see today has been created almost entirely by the action of us humans. With a fascinating history from a woodland 15,000 years ago to the swathes of scrubland, rare and protected wildlife we can see today. From farming the land which removed the nutrients, clearing the land of woodland for firewood, extracting the contents of the ground for fuel and industry (turf, peat, clay), to evidence of barrows, settlements, tramways and world war destruction.

With thanks to Mark Johnson (Archaeology student, Bournemouth University) for compiling the timeline with input from the Purbeck Mineral & Mining Museum, Dorset County Museum and The Purbeck Society 

Find out how and why the landscape looks the way it does today:

Purbeck Heaths

10,000 years ago

After the retreat of the last ice age, the landscape would have been a quiet, undisturbed woodland filled with Oak, Holly, Hazel, Ash, Elm, Alder and Lime trees.

For the next several thousand years, the first Mesolithic people inhabited the Purbeck Heaths, hunting and gathering from the land


Purbeck Heaths Credit: Cox and Hearne, 1991

6,000 years ago

By the early Neolithic era, people inhabiting the area started clearing the woodland as they moved towards a more settled lifestyle, allowing heather to dominate and heathland take over.


Purbeck Heaths Credit: Middlebere Heath, Jon Bish

4,500 years ago

Vast amounts of woodland was now being cleared over thousands of years to use for fire wood and creating space for farming and settlements. Bronze Age field systems have been discovered in the area, originally growing spelt or barley. However, as these cereals sapped huge amounts of nutrients from the ground, the area soon became pasture for livestock instead.


Bronze Age Bonanza!

People living in the Bronze Age had unintentionally created the heathland we still see today!

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Historic England

3,000 years ago

Bronze Age barrows (graves) were created in mound shapes on top of the ground to bury well-respected or elite members of the community. They were made from layers of turf on top of the ground to bury the elite and well-respected members of the community, Evidence of these barrows are dotted across the landscape for us to see today.


Did you know?

In 1767, King Barrow was partially excavated to reveal a headless skeleton wrapped in sewed up deer skins in a hollowed out wooden coffin along with a shale cup and gold lace.

Purbeck Heaths Credit: ‘the book of Poole Harbour’, Dyer and Darvill, 2010

2,500 years ago

During the Iron Age, people started settling in the Poole Basin and started extracting from the land and sea for industry and commercial opportunities; collecting saltwater to create a salt industry, excavating clay for pottery creation and trading both from now submerged jetties on the south side of the harbour. Salt was produced to preserve food such as pig meat, which allowed the start of a cured meat trade for the area

700 B.C-A.D.43

2000 years ago

Peat and turf were now being extensively excavated from the land to provide fire fuel for the settlements and communities to keep warm and cook, as well as fire the ceramics from locally quarried clay and evaporating saltwater for the salt production.

Iron Age

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Mark Singleton_cattle grazing on Purbeck

Did you know?

Human activities created the mosaic landscape we see today; chopping down the trees for firewood, trampling and inhibiting new trees to grow, excavating large areas of turf and peat for fire fuel

Purbeck Heaths Credit: 31-Southern-Damselfly-Coenagrion-mercuriale-Alex-Hyde-300x200_flickr

Did you know?

The vast landscape of nutrient poor scrubland being continually trampled and disturbed allowed rare plant life and nature to thrive

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Back burnished ware at Dorset County Museum, copyright Mark Johnson

Romano Times

The local clay industry grew with Black Burnished Ware pottery being made and traded around the time of the Roman Conquests, resulting in local Purbeck clay being found Antonine Wall in Scotland and German frontier.



Salt production continued to thrive and be a profitable, local industry. Curing of fish was popular for religious festivals e.g. during Lent and Advent. Large quantities of Purbeck Stone was being quarried and used to build many of England’s churches e.g. Westminster Abbey, York Minster and Winchester Cathedral.


Did you know?

Edward I commissioned a new town and harbour ‘Newton’ to be created in 1286. However, the town was never built. Imagine how the landscape would have changed if this new town would have been built and become a successful port.

Farming this landscape was hard, thankless work. Thomas Hardy wrote about working the heathland in ‘The Return of Native’. He writes ‘a plot of land redeemed from the heath, and after long and laborious years brought into cultivation. The man who had discovered that it could be tilled died of the labour; the man who succeeded him in possession ruined himself in fertilizing it.’

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Wedgewood Queensware Cruet circa 1785_Salisbury museum


Rare ball clay excavated from under the Purbeck Heaths was ideal for making the increasingly popular tea cups and tobacco pipes. By the late 1800’s, this clay was being supplied to Josiah Wedgwood who mixed it with Devon clays and ground flint to make Queen’s ware

1600 - 1800's

Did you know?

Examples of these clay pits can still be seen today, you can walk around The Blue Pool in Furezebrook and jump in water filled clay pits at the Dorset Adventure Park.

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Middlebere plateway 1890s_Dorsetlife

Dorset’s first railway was created by Benjamin Fayle, a worker of Josiah Wedgwood’s nephew for horse and cart (not engines). This plateway ran from Norden to Middlebere, dramatically increasing the amount of clay transported for export from these pits to the harbour edge by 35% over the subsequent six years. This railway was used for almost a century.


Purbeck Heaths Credit: Alex Brocklesby_train at Purbeck mineral and mining museum

The first steam locomotive was introduced.


Purbeck Heaths Credit: Alex_Hyde_Backfromthebrink_Flickr

Did you know?

The network of tramways and tracks are still visible today across the heathland landscape e.g. Poole Harbour Trail and Sunnyside. Clay is still extracted and exported today but via the rail and road, not by tramways and over sea.

Purbeck Heaths Credit: bomb crater on Arne Heath_Davis 2000

Brownsea Island and Arne acted as decoys for the explosive Cordite factory at Holton Heath during the second World War.


Did you know?

Decoys were constructed out of scaffolding to look like potential targets. When paraffin was lit and released into pipes running throughout the site in the tanks, water was flushed into the paraffin to create plumes of steam resembling detonated bombs. This acted to deceive bombers into targeting these decoys and not other local targets e.g. Poole town or the Cordite factory.

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Charlotte Brown – Studland

People unintentionally spent thousands of years creating and then maintaining the heathland habitat, however people also caused its rapid and extensive destruction over the 20th century. Increased urbanisation, reclaiming heathland for farming and planting of pine plantation forest after World War II resulted in big losses of heathland.

1900's onwards

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Swanage ferry from 1934

Opening of the Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry. This was set up as the UK’s first ‘motorway’ specifically to connect motor traffic from Bournemouth and Poole to Swanage and Wareham via the ferry and Ferry Road. This would have had a huge impact on the number of visitors, tourists and traffic to the area.


Purbeck Heaths Credit: 02-Heath-Tiger-Beetle-Cicindela-sylvatica-Alex-Hyde-1024-300×200

Captain Cyril Diver and other volunteers meticulously surveyed, mapped and recorded the wildlife of the heath and dune system on the Studland peninsula, providing us with extensive information on the habitats, animals and wildlife at the time which can be compared to current day surveys.


Purbeck Heaths

The Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated. Its mission is to conserve, enhance and protect the landscape it encompasses, which includes the precious Purbeck Heaths.


Purbeck Heaths Credit: rspb logo

RSPB purchased land at Arne to safeguard heathland species such as the smooth snake, sand lizard and Dartford Warbler.


Wytch Farm, one of the biggest offshore oil fields in Europe, started extracting oil and associate gas from the sandstone and limestone oil reservoirs of the Wessex Basin. This meant installing access roads across the heathland. Extensive archaeological digs in area have found evidence of vast salt industry workshops dating back to the 10th and 11th century.


Purbeck Heaths Credit: wild purbeck logo

The ‘Wild Purbeck partnership’ was set up and managed by the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty team to conserve and enhance the habitats in the area at a landscape scale in partnership with land owners, governmental departments, conservation organisations.


Purbeck Heaths Credit: Alex Brocklesby – pull a pine event_Arne

RSPB acquired Hyde’s Heath, a former pine plantation, on the Arne peninsula, with plans to restore this area back to heathland. Annual 'pull a pine' Christmas events helps in this restoration.


Purbeck Heaths

The Purbeck Heaths was declared a ‘super’ National Nature Reserve, bringing together seven landowners and over 3,000 hectares of heathland to be managed as one landscape for the benefit of the rare, important nature and habitats


Purbeck Heaths

Did you know?

Boggy and cold wetland environments such as those found on the Purbeck Heaths, store more carbon per hectare underneath the ground than any other above above/below ground habitat, including forests and rainforests!


  1. Anon., 2021. The Fishing Barrow on Godlingston Heath, Studland – 1013836 | Historic England [online]. Historicengland.org.uk. Available from: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1013836 [Accessed 12 Dec 2021].

  2. Anon., 2021. Bowl barrow on Arne Hill 270m south west of Arne Dairy House, Arne – 1014299 | Historic England [online]. Historicengland.org.uk. Available from: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1014299 [Accessed 12 Dec 2021].

  3. Anon., 2021. BBC NEWS | England | Harbour ‘oldest in Britain’, say experts [online]. News.bbc.co.uk. Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2266789.stm [Accessed 12 Dec 2021].

  4. Anon., 2021. Bill Crumbleholme Bestwall Kiln Firing [online]. Crumbleholme.plus.com. Available from: http://www.crumbleholme.plus.com/bbware/bestwallbc.htm [Accessed 12 Dec 2021].

  5. Anon., 2021. Bill Crumbleholme Black Burnished Ware [online]. Crumbleholme.plus.com. Available from: http://www.crumbleholme.plus.com/bbw.htm [Accessed 12 Dec 2021].

  6. Anon., 2021. [online]. Bathgeolsoc.org.uk. Available from: https://bathgeolsoc.org.uk/journal/articles/2012/2012_Salisbury_Cathedral_Rocks.pdf [Accessed 12 Dec 2021].

  7. Anon., 2021. Newton Studland – Dorset Council [online]. Dorsetcouncil.gov.uk. Available from: https://www.dorsetcouncil.gov.uk/libraries-history-culture/local-history-heritage/historic-towns/newton-studland-historic-towns-survey [Accessed 12 Dec 2021].

  8. Britton, J., 1803. The Beauties of England and Wales, Or, Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of Each County, Volume 4. London: Thomas Maiden.

  9. Cox, P. and Hearne, C., 1991. Redeemed from the heath. Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.

  10. Davis, T., 2000. Arne. Wincanton: Dorset Pub.

  11. Dyer, B. and Darvill, T., 2010. The Book of Poole Harbour. 1st ed. The Dovecote Press.

  12. HYLAND, P., 1989. Purbeck: The Ingrained Island. [Place of publication not identified]: Dovecote P.

  13. Jarvis, K., 2014. The Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society. Vol. 135.

  14. Jones, G., 2017. Sourcing the clay: Iron Age pottery production around Poole Harbour and the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, UK. [online]. Eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk. Available from: http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/29885/9/JONES%2C%20Grace%20Perpetua_Ph.D._2017_vol_1.pdf [Accessed 12 Dec 2021].

  15. Keen, L., 1988. The Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society. Vol. 109.

  16. Legg, R., 1986. Exploring the heartland of Purbeck. Sherborne: Dorset Pub. Co.

  17. Roundhouse illustration used in the background courtesy of dreamsstudio.com

  18. Some Further Reading

    Dorset’s Purple Patch: https://www.bcpcouncil.gov.uk/testing/DCW-Content-Staging/Leisure-culture-and-local-history/Docs/Parks-and-open-spaces/Dorsets-Purple-Patch-2016.pdf