Durlston Country Park’s Lost Landscape
A landslip just west of Swanage forces walkers on the South-West Coast Path to make a short detour. They rejoin the path in a densely wooded section of Durlston Country Park. Within a mere 100 metres or so, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary stretch of coastal path. Stone tablets bearing careful inscriptions, wooden benches set in blocks of Purbeck stone and ornamental plants hidden in the undergrowth suggest that this is a landscape with a story to tell. This is Sunnydale; part of a landscape so unusual that (thanks to the efforts of the Dorset Gardens Trust) it has been added to the list of special sites on the English Heritage Register. To begin to understand its story we have to head back more than 100 years and meet its creator, George Burt.
George Burt was a stone mason. In 1835, at the age of 19, he left Swanage to work in London for his uncle, John Mowlem the road builder. It was the start of a successful career for the young man and within 9 years he had become a partner in his uncle’s company.
Despite their success, neither man abandoned his roots. They both played a part in the transformation of the small town of Swanage into a fashionable seaside spa. Between them, they salvaged from London an enormous range of grand architectural features and gave them a second lease of life on the Dorset coast. Indeed, so great was the presence of George Burt in the town that contemporaries described him as ‘the King of Swanage’.
In 1863 Burt bought the strip of coastline that runs from Swanage to Durlston Head. Here, with the help of an architect friend, he planned a development of terraces and detached villas. Following a trend in residential development taking place elsewhere in Britain, he intended to build a number of grand villas that would be set within large plots and overlooking the sea. These would be balanced on the landward side of the estate, by less grand semi-detached villas and terraced housing.
Although essentially a private park for his residential development, Burt wanted Durlston to be available to the public. His combination of the commercial with the philanthropic would not only provide the population of Swanage and its visitors with the opportunity for healthy exercise but it would also increase the number of potential customers viewing the site. Roads and paths were constructed and an elaborate planting scheme installed in readiness for the willing buyers. But they never came.
The railway arrived in 1885 bringing with it tourists and potential house-buyers. Just a year later, George Burt retired and returned to Swanage to renew his efforts. He introduced features into the landscape that were specifically designed to attract the Victorian public. He created walks and viewpoints. He peppered them with stone slabs which, in true Victorian didactic style, he inscribed with uplifting poetry and educational facts about the natural world. Contrasting areas of light and shade, ornamental and native planting provided interest and choice. Visitors could even venture underground in Tilly Whim caves, an old Portland limestone quarry sited in a spectacular position on the cliff. The estate was landscaped and fifty men were employed to keep the great variety of plants that had been introduced in perfect condition.
The lowest lying part of the Estate, and that closest to Swanage town, was developed as a ‘Pleasure-Ground’ known as Sunnydale. Gentle walks were set out along a meandering stream. For the more adventurous, a zig-zag path was cut down to the sea providing alternative access to Durlstone Park from the popular Belle View Restaurant that perched on the top of a neighbouring cliff. Three lawn tennis courts and a pavilion, surrounded by a protective belt of shrubs and trees, catered for the most energetic visitors. But Burt’s intention was to provide just as much stimulation for the mind as for the body.
As visitors left Sunnydale and proceeded along the coastal path, they were tempted on their way, not only by Burt’s inscribed sign-posts, but also by controlled planting. Here and there were carefully planned glimpses of the centrepiece of Burt’s development: Durlston Castle. Imagine the contrast between the gentle dappled light of the trees left behind in Sunnydale and the brilliance of that reflecting from the sea and the limestone cliffs as they approached the castle. The contrast for the Victorian mind (more accustomed than ours to the contemplation of the sublime) between the shelter of Sunnydale’s trees and the brisk sea breeze that swirled around Durlston Head must have been great. This was indeed a sublime landscape and one that was accessible to all.
The Castle was (and has continued to be) the most important element in Burt’s landscape. It was a folly built primarily to provide refreshments for visitors. But from an aesthetic point of view, it offered them much more. Outside it Burt placed three granite pillars. These had been ordered by Sir Charles Barry for use in Trafalgar Square but having been declared redundant in London, they added an element of grandeur to the Dorset site instead.
Beneath the Castle, Burt installed the Great Globe. This 40 ton structure, carved from Portland limestone in 1887, still takes unsuspecting walkers by surprise. Ten feet in diameter, it was carried from John Mowlem’s Greenwich yard in fifteen sections and assembled on Durlston Head. Framing the Globe were more than 40 of the many bollards the ever resourceful Burt had brought from London as ballast on his stone-carrying ships. Sadly, despite these extraordinary attempts to cultivate the public’s interest, he failed to make the residential project a success.
However, this stretch of coastline has continued to be well-used and enjoyed through the years. Given its popularity, perhaps it was only a matter of time before there was a reversal in Durlston’s fortunes?
It was during the 1970s that Durlston was established as Dorset’s first Country Park. Since then, careful conservation policies have enabled the natural environment to flourish. Today, this stretch of coastline is widely recognised for the variety of habitats and species that it supports. From the richness of its geology and its highly rated flower meadows to a thriving Marine Project, Durlston’s natural landscape has gone from strength to strength. But with limited resources and without the opportunity to buy back the lease of Durlston’s centre-piece, Durlston Castle, Burt’s man-made landscape and its ornamental planting had to wait its turn.
Recently Durlston’s fortunes took another leap forward with the acquisition of the Castle lease and a successful bid for Heritage Lottery funds. Restoration could begin in earnest. The first step was to bring in experts to clean and restore the Victorian businessman’s Globe and its many inscriptions. But perhaps the most exciting element of the new project has been the restoration of the Castle itself. The opening of its cafe, shop, exhibition and conference space should help to provide the financial security about which George Burt could only dream.
But perhaps as far as the historic landscape is concerned, this is just the beginning? There are still elements of Durlston’s history that are being unravelled, not least the story of George Burt himself. As David Lambert has pointed out, it is impossible to read the selection of inscriptions scattered around the site without pondering their metaphysical leanings and the mind of the man who appears to have selected them. Durlston’s lost landscape is just starting to reappear.
(This is an extended version of an article that first appeared in The Country Gardener)