Rockhopping the Purbeck Coast
Mark Rainsley - 2005


Welcome to the world of rockhopping, slotting neatly into the gap between playboating and sea kayaking. Rockhopping is saltwater paddling in the ‘No Man’s Land’ between sea and shore; short trips and playing the sea, calm or wild. Spectacular coastlines, blue skies, rock gardens, swells, surf, tides and tidal rapids - all combining to create the perfect rockhopping experience. This month we head to Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck, part of the Jurassic Park. It isn’t an island, and there are no velociraptors.

The area between Poole and Weymouth is known as the Isle of Purbeck, and it’s straight out of an Enid Blyton story (‘Five Have a Spiffing Time Rockhopping’). This sinisterly quaint region features steam trains, rolling hills, ruined castles, secret caves and lashings of ginger beer. As noted, it isn’t an island, but it is surrounded by water and this particular part of England’s south coast does spectacular things. The region’s unique geology makes for incredibly varied scenery…one sea kayaker having circumnavigated the entire UK, called it “Britain’s most interesting coast”! The general splendidity of the whole area was recently acknowledged when it became part of the ‘Jurassic Coast World Heritage Park’. For rockhoppers, it gets even better…the local tides literally scream around the Isle, offering some impressively humping races to get the pulses racing. Do you want mellow bimbling, or a mission to take on the ocean’s full force? The trips described here cater for both possibilities. What they have in common is awesome locations and some of the best rockhopping anywhere…

Lulworth Cove

Trip duration: 1-2 hours
Character: Possible for all kinds of kayak. Various possibilities from completely sheltered to moderately exposed. Little tidal flow. Cliffs, caves, arches and rock gardens.
Other notes: Some of this paddle is within Lulworth Gunnery Range. Kaboom! If you don’t want to dodge incoming ordnance, call the Army on 01929 462721 or read the Range notice boards for firing dates.

Lulworth Cove is a tourist trap and best avoided at the height of the hols. In summer months you have to carry your boats down from the car park, whilst in winter you can drive down the narrow lane to unload…how good is your reversing? Even when the Southwest gales blow, it’s worth a trip just to potter around the famous Lulworth Cove. On a finer day however, two short trips out of the Cove can be done separately or back to back.

Heading east (um, left) out of the Cove leads you along sheer cliffs for a kilometre to the distinctive Mupe Rocks. When a swell is running, surfing between the rocks is a hoot! In calm weather, you can land near (or on) the chain of rocks and gawp at Worbarrow Bay. Another option is to go a further kilometre to Arish Mell, the obvious beach in the centre of the Bay. This has some caves to explore beside it, and is the quietest beach in the region. This could be connected to the fact that the Army live here and have tanks. Stay on the beach and footpath!

Heading west (right) out of Lulworth Cove brings quick rewards. A few hundred metres along the cliffs is the amazing Stair Hole, a warren of caves, tunnels and hidden coves. Two kilometres further is the improbable Durdle Door, a massive rock arch looking like a dinosaur turned to stone…Jurassic Park indeed. You can take a break at the beach here, or paddle on to the next visible landmark, the tiny Bat Hole which is a tunnel leading through a monolithic chalk headland. Directly after this are a series of gorgeous beaches only accessible by water…nothing to do with rockhopping, but two different mates of mine have paddled here for some – ahem – ‘quality time’ with their girlfriends…only to have their fun interrupted by other kayakers arriving!

It’s late in the year, and the nights are drawing in. Heather and I skip out of work early, determined to reclaim one last evening from the autumn. At the Lulworth car park we meet Claire, another local paddler.
“I need this”, she admits, “I worked a sixteen hour day yesterday.”
We’re also feeling fried from our jobs; launching into the Cove is cathartic and the day’s stresses vanish at once. Heather and I paddle our Rockhoppers whilst Claire has her sea kayak. The sun is blazing, but the narrow mouth of the Cove reveals the real weather…a stiff wind is funnelling in, and waves are breaking over the reef at the mouth. We put our heads down and turn east into the wind. The boats bob over the oncoming swell, and although it’s just a short hop to Mupe Rocks, it proves a real workout. I had hoped to get to the rocks quickly and then backtrack to Stair Hole, but the clock isn’t on our side…behind us, the sun lowers out of sight behind Portland Bill in a blaze of glory. The Mupe Rocks turn orange, then red, pink, mauve…and as we finally reach their shelter, night is encroaching. Waves surge over the outlying rocks and Heather and I try to pick a moment to ride right over…don’t try this at home! As the light fades, I notice that tallest of the jagged rocks has a small dark cave underneath. Whilst the others wait outside, I manage to squeeze within, land the kayak (wonderful thing, plastic) and climb out to explore. Perched on the summit of the rock, I absorb the dusk panorama. Soaring chalk cliffs, overhanging precipices, sandy beaches. Work? It is already a million miles away. But riding the swells below, the women are getting restless.
“Come on Mark, time to get back”
I return to my boat, watched suspiciously by a Shag (it’s a sea bird, you know). We paddle out from behind the Rocks and Whoosh! the wind takes hold. For a few embarrassing moments, I veer wildly out of control…then I remember to put the Rockhopper’s skeg down. We surf downwind frantically, making the return leg in a fraction of the outgoing time. It’s dark as we return to our start point, but Heather wrings one last drop out of our trip; she turns back to surf the wave pulses humping into the Cove.

Swanage to Kimmeridge

Trip duration: 4-5 hours (less with spring tides)
Character: Not suitable for kayaks shorter than 3 metres. Long sections of exposed coast with few landing zones. Large tidal races. Cliffs, caves, rock gardens and surf zones. Overnight camping possible.

This is a classic demanding sea kayak trip in its own right, but treating it as a rockhopping trip adds the X factor to make it into something really memorable. You need to launch from Swanage at high tide or a little while later; if you don’t know how to figure this out, this isn’t the trip for you. The tide will be flowing with you all the way, often with a bit of ‘omphf’ to it! As soon as you turn right out of Swanage Bay, you encounter the waves of the Peveril Ledge tide race. It’s possible to ‘eddy out’ here and play, but note that the OAP volunteers manning the ‘Coastwatch’ station behind will probably have kittens and call out the lifeboats if you so much as wobble…best go ashore and tell them your plans first.

Carrying on south, you cross Durlston Bay to the cliffs below the castle on the headland; this is Durlston Head, the point of no return. There are no guaranteed landing spots for at least ten kilometres. If the sea or the weather doesn’t suit your group, turn back before you round the Head. Dolphins are a common sight here, not that we've seen them. The coast from here to St Alban's head is now stunning, sheer cliffs with numerous caves and ledges; mostly formed by quarrying in the last century. Dangling from above are plenty of rock climbers (what is that all about?) and the sea birds dive-bomb you thick and fast, including the occasional Puffin. Your best hope for landing is at the hewn rock platform of Dancing Ledge. If you’re in a Rockhopper alongside sea kayaks, you’ll become very popular at this point; somebody has to surf onto the rock first to guide the others in! Other landing possibilities exist, depending on the sea conditions and your imagination.

The imposing headland to the west is St Alban's Head. As you near the Head, the sea accelerates and compresses towards a vast tide race, extending miles offshore. If you are riding Spring tides (after a full or new moon) this will be a biggie; a huge wave train, often breaking right over your heads! Hero boaters can take it face-on, whilst those of a nervous disposition can hug the shore and dodge the worst of it. Eventually you hit a powerful eddy flowing against you. Paddle against or around this to reach Chapman's Pool, a tiny cove with steep hills towering around. This is a special place; you must stop for lunch or even camp here. Last autumn I carried my playboat 350 feet down the hillside to surf a big swell on a sharp reef here; an outrageous experience in one of Britain’s loveliest secret spots.

Leaving Chapman’s Pool, a garden of rocks are good for a play…and hidden just behind is a perfect secret camp spot(!). The last six kilometres to Kimmeridge lead you along the shallow fertile reefs which make the area both a famous surf spot and a Marine Reserve. The cliffs on the right are black Kimmeridge shale…rather gloomy and imposing, but the occasional waterfall keeps your attention. When you spot the peculiar Clavell Tower crumbling on the cliffs above, you've reached Kimmeridge Bay. This forms the best surf break on the South Coast; although if it’s working well, taking on this sea trip could be seriously detrimental to your health! Carry your boat up to the car park…you’ve just completed one of the finest day trips the UK’s coast can offer.

We wake up late, after an outrageously decadent lie-in. Last night we paddled from Swanage to Chapman’s Pool and camped just outside the cove at our regular spot, a ruined cottage just above the water’s edge. All we have to do today is paddle the last few miles to Kimmeridge Bay (and perform a complex shuttle involving mountain bikes and steam trains!). Lying in the tent however, we are both aware that something is different. We peek out at the sea.
“You have got to be kidding”.
To our disbelief, things have changed beyond recognition from the day before. There is no wind and the sun is shining – as forecast – but out of nowhere, a perfectly clean five foot swell has appeared and is breaking smoothly along the Kimmeridge Ledges. Given that these shallow reefs extend half a mile out to sea for the whole coast to K-Bay, our day has just become much more interesting.
Heather’s sea kayak swallows the tent and the sleeping bags. My Rockhopper’s rear hatch gets the cooking widgets and we are out on the water.
“What do you think?”
“We could head out to sea past the breaks and avoid it all completely.”
We look at each other and both decide at once.
The trip is a puzzle. Our challenge is to find a dry route through the surf between the breaking shoulders and humping soup. The glassy waves rear surprisingly steeply before breaking, providing moments of weightlessness as we crest them at the last possible moment. Eventually heading in towards the Bay more or less dry, we spot a lone board surfer ripping up the breaks nearest to the car park. I’ve been well behaved up to now, but can’t miss a ride any longer.
I wonder what went through the surfer’s mind, when he looked up whilst paddling back out and spotted a loaded RH340 bombing along the shoulder – apparently appearing from thin air!

Further info

‘The Official Guide to the Jurassic Coast’
‘Inshore Along the Dorset Coast’ by Peter Bruce
Bill of Portland to Anvil Point: Admiralty Small Craft Chart SC 2610
Purbeck and South Dorset: 1:25000 Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure Map


See this article on the basics of rockhopping, and also this one on Rockhopping Dartmoor

Thanks to Julian Patrick of BLUEsky (check out the new RH340 rockhopping kayak at www.playthesea.co.uk)

Mark Rainsley - 2005