Case Study Site 5 – Lulworth, Dorset

Case Study Site 5 – Lulworth, Dorset

1.         Location

The study site is on the Dorset coast between the village of west Lulworth in the west and Warbarrow to the east; a frontage of approximately 3.5km; it lies within the East Devon-Dorset Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. 

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

The downland along this frontage forms one of the most extensive field systems of the Iron Age or Roman periods to be found along the Dorset coast.   The most extensive of these is at the Warren, West Lulworth (MDO8266) whilst Flower’s Barrow hillfort (MNO7654) is sited on the edge of the cliff at Ring’s Hill, East Lulworth.  At the western end of Bindon Hill, Lulworth there is an Iron Age defensive dyke and a structure that may be an uncompleted hillfort (Cornwall County Council, 20141).  On the headland above Stair Hole at Lulworth Cove the Coastguard station was sited at this dramatic outpost; it features in numerous early engravings of the Cove.  The site was closed following a major cliff collapse in the 1970s. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

Lulworth frontage lies within rocks of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods.  On the sea coast limestones outcrop, whilst behind, the softer formations of the Cretaceous Period have been eroded away to create remarkable bay formations, extending back as far as the outcropping chalk behind.  The chalk, therefore, forms a steep back wall to Lulworth Cove, whilst the narrow entrance is flanked by overhanging cliffs of Portland Limestone. 

Cliff falls and topples are characteristic of both the Chalk and Portlandian Limestones, whilst differential weathering creates the ribbed and recessed formations of the Purbeck Limestone outcrops.  Stair Hole, to the immediate west of Lulworth Cove, was created as a result of wave energy breaching the Portland Limestone barrier, and causing the lateral expansion of a small inlet along the comparatively brittle and fractured Purbeck rocks. The coastal cliffline reaches a maximum height of 170m at Ring’s Hill to the east, with an average general recession rate of about 0.15m per annum.  The prevailing direction for sediment transport is west to east along the whole of this frontage, with significant contributions from cliff or coastal slope erosion processes; the whole of the frontage is undefended.  This part of the Dorset coast is prone to occasional major landslides such as the failure nearby at Durdle Door, where a massive collapse over a 350m frontage occurred in April 2013 (Halcrow, 20112). 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

The whole of this frontage is a naturally eroding coastline.  As a result, any heritage assets located above or below ground in the hinterland will gradually be lost as the cliffs retreat.  Whilst the average annual rate of the cliff retreat appears to be quite low, sudden catastrophic failures can result in the loss of substantial sections of the cliff top in one event.  The rate of loss can be expected to increase as a result of climate change and sea level rise over the next century. 

Coastal erosion also saw the loss of the Coastguard Station on the headland on the west side of Lulworth Cove above Stair Hole. This part of the Dorset coast was illustrated by numerous artists and depicted by photographers on account of the outstanding natural beauty. 

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

There are many fine images (both artistic and photographic) of this case study site dating from the late eighteenth century (Figures 5.1 and 5.2).

Figure 5.1: A late eighteenth century copperplate engraving of Lulworth Cove shows a stone harbour arm on the western side. 

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 5.2: A fine aquatint engraving of the Cove by Samuel Alken from the 1790s looking across its mouth.

Image Courtesy: Private Collection. 

Lulworth was included in order to assess whether artworks have illustrated any of the surface or buried heritage features that have been identified, for example, in the Dorset RCZA, (Cornwall County Council, 20141).  A selection of images, including those by William Daniell RA from 1823 (Figure 5.3) and Alfred Robert Quinton, c.1925 (Figures 5.4 and 5.5), are illustrated below.  These examples allow us to assess the extent and the limitations of data and information offered by such artworks.

Figure 5.3: William Daniell RA produced this view of Lulworth Cove on his ‘Voyage Round Great Britain’ in 1823.  It shows signalling masts on the western headland for the first time.

Figures 5.4 & 5.5 show the two watercolour drawings by the prolific Alfred Robert Quinton, who painted the English coast during the first three decades of the twentieth century.  They show the construction of a ‘Coastguard Station’ overlooking the mouth of Lulworth Cove.  Although the downland behind, which contains significant buried heritage, is finely painted, heritage evidence is not immediately obvious.

Images Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

The artistic images illustrated in this case study provide accurate reflections of the physical nature of the coastline.  They show the geology and geomorphology particularly well and, for example, the Coastguard Station on the headland.  It is difficult to interpret whether any of the faint depictions on the hillsides relate to buried heritage sites or whether they are sheep tracks or footpaths but, bearing in mind the main focus was on the coastal scenery, buried heritage was not perhaps regarded as a priority, and as such more detailed illustrations were left to antiquarians such as Sir Henry Englefield (Figures 5.6 and 5.7), who had identified Flower’s Barrow, for example, on the fine map contained in his 1816 publication (Englefield, 20162).  Taking account of the excellent aerial photographs that are available for this location aerial photography offers the clearest images of heritage sites whilst artworks illustrate changes to the coastal topography over time.

Figures 5.6 and 5.7: Sir Henry Englefield appointed the geologist and artist Thomas Webster to produce images of the Dorset coast, which he published in 1816. The view (top left) shows the strata finely depicted, whilst figure 5.7 offers extensive views looking east along the Dorset coast.  Although Englefield identified the site of Flower’s Barrow on his 1816 map, there are no obvious heritage features highlighted in this image, perhaps confirming that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

This view does illustrate other features of heritage interest.  For example, the use of the cove as a sheltered anchorage, the unenclosed grazing on the foreground hills and the pronounced lynchetting on the more distant ground to the left.  These aspects all contribute to our understanding of the historical character of the area at this time. 

Figure 5.8: A view from Stair Hole, c.1960s showing the Coastguard Station, which closed soon after. 

Figure 5.9 (below): A view of Stair Hole and Lulworth Cove today. 

Image Courtesy of

7.         References

  1. Cornwall County Council. 2014. ‘Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment for South-West England’. Report for English Heritage. Project Number 6673.
  2. Halcrow, 2011.  ‘Durlston Head to Rame Head SMP2’.
  3. Englefield, Sir H. 1816. ‘A Description of the Principal Picturesque Beauties, Antiquities and Geological Phenomena of the Isle of Wight and the Adjacent Parts of Dorsetshire’. Payne & Foss.  London.