West, Ian M. 2019. Winspit and Seacombe, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, Geological field guide. Internet site: www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/winspit.htm. Version: 30th July 2019.
Winspit and Seacombe, Isle of Purbeck, geological field guide

Ian West,
Romsey, Hampshire
and Visiting Scientist at: Faculty of Natural and Environmental Sciences,
Southampton University,
Webpage hosted by courtesy of iSolutions, Southampton University
Aerial photographs by courtesy of The Channel Coastal Observatory , National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

Home and List of Webpages |St. Aldhelm's Head | Dancing Ledge and adjacent cliffs, Isle of Purbeck | Anvil Point to Blackers Hole, Isle of Purbeck |Bibliography - St. Aldhelm's Head to Anvil Point |Swanworth Quarry - Portland and Purbeck Succession |Durlston Head - Lower Purbeck Group and Portland Stone |Isle of Portland - Geological Introduction

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Winspit western quarry, a general view, with walkers and climber on New Years Day, 1st January 2013

Winspit Quarry,showing the east-facing cliff with a mine in the Pond Freestone of the Portland Stone, 16th May 2019, Ian West

The narrow northeastern end of the Winspit quarry ledge, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, November 2007

View eastward from a quarry cave at Winspit, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset

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A general view of the Western Winspit Quarry, Dorset in 2010

Some specific hazards are given for geologists with regard to the coast at Winspit and the adjacent stretch of cliffs. This is only informal guidance and not a full risk assessment. A balanced and sensible approach is needed in practice and parties should make their own risk assessment.

This website does not deal with other activities of a non-geological type, although it is obvious that the coastal locations have risks that could apply to other activities. This coastal stretch may be particularly hazardous in storms, in icy conditions or at night and the coastal footpath can become very slippery in and after very wet weather.

A warning notice at Winspit, Dorset, that was present in 2010, and may or may not have changed since, and could at any time be missing

There is a warning notice at Winspit which should be read. The photograph above is of an old notice as seen in 2010 and is not necessarily the current one. It should be appreciated that notices change or may at times be missing or removed; the notice is shown here only as reminder of significant hazard and the exact content may or may not be appropriate now. Falling from the near-vertical limestone cliffs here or at nearby coast locations is a real risk. If visibility or weather conditions are very bad stay on the well-defined, coastal footpath, if that is safe at the time. It is, however, even possible to fall from the coastal footpath in certain conditions (and there has once been a fatality apparently from a footpath on the south Purbeck coast, although the details are not known).

Rock falls in the cliffs and old quarries from fractured Portland Stone is another risk. Do not hammer chert, because this produces dangerous splinters. Because of risk of rock fall do not hammer in or near old mines (caves). Do not simply assume that the highest risk is in such mines. Rock falls, even major rock falls can occur within them in certain parts. The risk can, however, be greater at the entrance to such mines or just adjacent to the cliff. Loose rock from the cliff can fall and even small fragments from the Shrimp Bed (a particular hazard at the top of the cliff) can fall at high velocity (a photograph here shows a small pile of white debris that has fallen from the Shrimp Bed). A hard hat may be a safeguard against this specific type of risk.

It must be realised that a major factor in accidents is the statistical aspect. Most fatal rock fall accidents have occurred on the Dorset coast in the Lulworth Cove area. it not inherently more dangerous than some other coastal localities; the reason is the statistical one that more people go there. In other words, large car parks, easy access and large groups increase the chance of a fatal accident. Winspit and adjacent coasts does not usually have large numbers of people. If more people visit then the risk of an accident is greater; consideration should be given as to whether very large groups should go. Common sense should encourage adults to keep small children in particular out of hazard zones, as far as is feasible.

Climbing should not be done casually and only undertaken by experienced climbers with proper equipment. There is a climbing guide for this coast. Note that there is a danger of being swept of ledges by waves especially in stormy conditions. There have been cases of drowning on the south Purbeck limestone coast. Note, incidently that dogs can be at risk on cliff edges like those of this stretch of coast.

Adder at Seacombe Bottom

Adders are common on the land above the cliffs but are rarely seen and are not much of a hazard unless trodden on or attempts are made to handle them. One at Seacombe Bottom, encountered during the early stages of the eclipse of the sun on 11th August, 1999, is shown above.

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Rock Fall Hazards - Some Details

The western Winspit quarry contains highly fractured Portland Stone. There are southeast trending master joints which dip at about 84 degrees to the northeast. They produce rather unstable, slightly overhanging faces in places.

There has been some opening of seaward-inclined fractures. These have little or no travertine on these fracture surfaces and my be very recent in age, probably post-Pleistocene. Some seaward movement of the limestone is probably allowing fractures to open. Most of these vertical but there are some open horizontal fractures above certain galleries; the small seaward movement is opening fractures or joints in the House Cap and will result in future failures and roof fall. Old galleries in abandoned Portland Stone quarries, such as those east and west of Winspit, are not necessarily safe.

Some of the uppermost Portland Stone is very fractured and liable to fail and fall at Western Winspit Quarry. The House Cap has fallen at the mouth of a mine at the Western Winspit Quarry (see photographs). Falls are infrequent but there is instability here. Large rectangular blocks have fallen in the past, and some are already out of position and ready to fall. At the top of the quarries is the Shrimp Bed from which small pieces of fine-grained limestone commonly fall.

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Topographic Maps and Aerial Photographs

Location map and webpage limits for the coast between Durlston Head and St. Aldhelm's Head, near Swanage, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset

Topographic map of the coast at St. Aldhelm's Head, Winspit, and Seacombe, Dorset

Aerial photograph after GE and showing the coast at Winspit and Seacombe, Dorset

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Geological Maps

Geological map of the Swanage, Isle of Purbeck, area, based on an 1895 edition

Old geological map (1895) of Chapman's Pool, and St. Aldhelm's Head area, Dorset, England

Geological map of the coast at Winspit, Seacombe Cliff and Dancing Ledge, Dorset

The 2000 edition of the 1:50,000 British Geological Survey Map, Swanage, Sheet 343 and part of 342, Solid and Drift - including the Isle of Purbeck and Lulworth Cove

The British Geological Survey map, 1:50,000, Solid and Drift, 2000 Edition, Swanage Sheet, 343 and part of 342, is well worth purchasing. It can be obtained from the British Geological Survey website and is very inexpensive, costing only 12 pounds sterling. The map shown above is the new edition of the year 2000. It is different in some respects from older editions. Much of the nomenclature is relatively new but if you already know the stratigraphical sequence in the old terminology, it is quite easy to translate to the new language. The new map shows new data offshore and this is not on the old editions; it also shows areas of quarried-out ground. There is much useful new information. However, it shows less faults and less dip data for certain part of the coast. Thus, both old and new editions should be used for serious study of these cliffs.

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Visiting the Winspit-Seacombe Limestone Coast

Setting Off from Worth Matravers

Environment of Swanworth Quarry; it is close to Worth Matravers and the nearest large building is St. Nicholas Church at Worth

Walking down Winspit Bottom to Winspit, Isle of Purbeck coast, Dorset, 1st January 2013

Park your car at Worth Matraver (small National Trust car park) and walk down one of the two valleys to the sea, Winspit Bottom or Seacombe Bottom. It is interesting that these valleys contain small streams that to do not, in normal conditions, have any waterfall or direct outlet to the sea (examine the Ordnance Survey map). The reason is that for most of their length they are on Lower Purbeck or Lulworth Formation clays and marls with only thin limestones. However, near the cliff the Portland Freestone outcrops at the surface in these valleys. Thus the water can pass underground and descend through the vadose zone to the phreatic level (i.e. standing water table). Of course there should be natural caves under these places but they have not been found. A vertical pothole is present in a similar situation at Dancing Ledge. This has undoubtedly formed by a similar process.

At the coast both Winspit and Seacombe Bottoms and the rather similar, but dry, valley at Anvil Point are hanging valleys and are not graded to sea-level. The reason is obvious; they are Pleistocene valleys, probably formed in Devensian times, and in those times the Ipswichian raised beach was south of them. Compare to the closely-related southern end of the Isle of Portland (the strange aspect is that the southern end of the Isle of Portland has not had the extend of coast erosion, as has this southern Purbeck coast).

Another, longer route to the Winspit and Seacombe area is via St. Aldhelm's Head or along the coast from Anvil Point.

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Stratigraphical Succession

The Portland Stone succession at Swanworth Quarry, Winspit and Seacombe compared diagrammatically - English Channel Inversion facies


Comparison of Portland Group successions in the Isle of Portland and the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, old scheme after Arkell

This classic diagram, based on Arkell (1933) shows the general uppermost Jurassic/basal Cretaceous succession in the Isle of Purbeck , compared with that on the Isle of Purbeck. The Purbeck sequence follows. This classic sequence of clays and limestones has been described by Arkell (1933; 1947) and many other authors. Sedimentology has been discussed by Townson (1975), West (1975), Bosence (1987) and others. Note that there are correlation problems and arguments referred to in the section on Zones of the Portland Group, below.

Terminology of the Portland successions

Two alternative schemes for the terminology of the Portland and Purbeck successions are given here. Townson (1975) introduced a largely new terminology. However, it has not been widely used and the traditional scheme of Arkell, shown on the left is still in more common use (diagram after Bosence, 1987, from Townson, 1975). See Wimbledon (1986) for some discussion of this, and note also that some correlation problems which affect this are discussed in the section on zones, below.

The Portland Succession in East Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, shown in a simplified succession

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Cliff Section - St. Aldhelm's Head to Dancing Ledge, Blackers Hole and Beyond

A view of the cliffs east of Dancing Ledge, near Swanage, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, showing Blackers Hole, Connor Cove and Fisherman's Ledge, telephoto, 1st January 2013

A cliff section of the Portland Stone cliffs between St. Aldhelm' Head and Durlston Head, near Swanage, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, including Dancing Ledge, Seacombe and Winspit

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The Portland Freestone in the Eastern Isle of Purbeck - Details of the Succession

The following tabulated succession was measured at Seacombe by William Joscelyn Arkell in the 1930s and has been published in Arkell (1933;1935; 1947). Although the details refer specifically to Seacombe, in many respects it is representative for much of the stretch of coast between Anvil Point and St. Aldhelm's Head. The main differences are an increase in chert to the west and the occurrence of the oyster reef in the upper part of the succession at Tilly Whim. The Seacombe succession serves quite well for Dancing Ledge, Hedbury Quarry and Winspit.


" V. Shrimp Bed.

White fine-grained sublithographic limestone, constant in appearance from Durlston Head to Lulworth. The 'Shrimp' is a small Crustacean identified by Mr. H. Woods as probably Callianassa [related to the hermit crabs]. Bivalves abound, especially Trigonia gibbosa, mainly var. damoniana de Loriol, Protocardia dissimilis, Chlamys (Camptochlamys) lamellosa, Isognomon (Perna) listeri, Pleuromya tellina (Agassiz), with Trigonia incurva, Isocyprina sp., etc. Worth Quarry has yielded from this bed a fairly complete specimen of Titanites. There are also fragments of coarsely-ribbed triplicate ammonites suggestive of Buckman's Glottoptychinites or Kerberites. - 10 feet [3m].

U. Titanites Bed.

Hard, greyish, shelly limestone ('spangle'), as at Worth Quarry, especially shelly in the basal 2 ft [0.6m]. Innumerable Trigonia gibbosa, T. incurva, I. listeri, Chl. lamellosa, P. dissimilis, Ostrea expansa, etc. This bed is the source of nearly all the giant ammonites of various species of Titanites (though at Winspit some occur in the House Cap). At Tilly Whim a lenticular oyster bed develops on this horizon. Locally about 8 ft [2.4m.] of the rock is almost entirely composed of Exogyra nana, E. thurmanni Etallon, Ostrea expansa and Isognomon listeri, with a smaller proportion of Lima rustica (J. Sowerby) and Plicatula boisdini de Lorriol. Sometimes the fossils are dissolved away, leaving patches of rocks like the Roach of Portland. - 10 - 11 feet [3m - 3.35m].

T. Pond Freestone.

Good oolitic [sic] freestone. Fossils nearly all comminuted. Occasionally spoilt by lenticles of white silicified oolite [sic]. At Worth 7 - 7.5 ft. [2.13 - 2.28m]. Here only 5 ft [1.5m].

S. Chert Vein.

Limestone with chert, dense and nodular below, sparser above. 5 ft [1.5m].

R. Listy Bed

Grey limestone with a ready vertical and horizontal fracture, strongly marked off above and below. So called ' because it breaks easily'. Not present at Worth. The 'Lisky' Bed of Buckman (1926, p. 35) and the 'Nist' Bed of H.B. Woodward (1895, p. 190). 6 inches to 1 foot [0.15 - 0.3m].

Q. House Cap.

Hard grey shelly limestone ('spangle'), resembling the Titanites Bed, and like it especially shelly in the basal portion. The under surface, which forms the roof of the galleries at all the cliff quarries, is covered with large shells of O. expansa, I. listeri, L. rustica, Ch. lamellosa, etc. At Winspit several giant specimens of Titanites can be seen embedded in the basal 1-2 feet [0.3-0.6m]. About 5 feet [1.5m] from the bottom of the bed is a band of thin lenticles of white chert and silicified oolite [sic]. 8.5 feet [2.6m].

P. Under Picking Cap.

Hard freestone, locally called spangle. It is cut to waste in order to get at the Under Freestone. - 3 feet [0.9m].

O. Under of Bottom Freestone.

Fine cream-coloured oolite [sic], an excellent quality freestone, the shells nearly all comminuted. the was the stone for which all the old cliff quarries were principally worked. Partly false-bedded. - 8 feet [2.4m].

Total - c. 50 feet [c. 15m]"

(Cherty Series beneath)

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St. Aldhelm's Head to Winspit

Travertine curtain near St. Aldhelm's Head

The easterly or east-southeasterly dip of the Portland Stone at St. Aldhelm's Head results in underground waterflow towards the eastern side of the headland. Some seems to emerge west of Winspit but for safety reasons the exact location is not specified here. The object seen here is a curtain of travertine presumably formed by dripping or trickling carbonate-saturated water. Green algal slime here is also the result of the trickling freshwater. The features in cliff suggest that the water is emerging from within the Portland Cherty Series just below a prominant chert band. Presumably there is a change in permeability at this level.

Small solution caves would be expected around here. The small-scale karstic features seen at the St. Aldhelm's Head cliff-edge quarry have originated in a similar manner when the water table was higher. These will be referred to elsewhere. Please note that this place is dangerous and the travertine can only be glimpsed from the cliff footpath.

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Winspit to St. Aldhelm's Head - Topple

Incipient topple east of St. Aldhelm's Head

The Portland Stone is almost horizontal in this area and except in the western part at St. Aldhelm's Head there is no clay near the surface. As a result, there are no rotational landslides along most of this coast. Erosion of the Portland Stone is instead largely by uncutting by direct storm action on jointed blocks and, to a lesser extent, by bioerosion. This causes collapse from above. The Portland Stone is jointed but not with the major open fissures that are an interesting feature of the Isle of Portland. Topples of blocks separated by such fissures are not as common as on Portland and smaller isolated blocks usually fall. A small incipient topple is shown here. It is being wedged out by fallen debris in the gap between the rock and the main cliff.

The base of the sliding block is probably Arkell's (1947) bed K and thin bed that it is sliding on is the Prickle Bed or Puffin Ledge (J'). This needs confirmation. Note the relics of previous topples as large blocks at the foot of the cliff.

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Winspit - General

At Winspit there has been extensive quarrying. There are numerous galleries from a long cliff quarry ledge east of the valley. There are also quarries and galleries to the west. Here the Under Freestone, a particular bed of the Portland Freestone Member, has been worked. Much of the quarrying is old and there is a photograph from the 1890s showing a quarry face on the east side of the valley in Woodward (1895) and Strahan (1898). The latter author mentions that " the line of old adits forms a conspicuous feature". The west side of the valley seems to have been worked relatively recently, as least compared to others on this stretch of coast. Parts of some quarry buildings remain here. The quarries of Winspit provided stone for the building of Allhallows School ( Bruce, 1989).

The succession at Winspit is as follows (partly from Woodward, 1895). This is from the top downwards:

Purbeck limestones and clays, including stomatolitic (thrombolitic) limestone. - 4 feet (1.2m).
Shrimp Bed. Fine-grained white limestone with remains of a small crustacean. It was formerly burnt for lime. - 8ft (2.44m).
Titanites Bed ("Blue Stone"). Hard grey shelly limestone with Isognomon bouchardi. Durable stone used for gate posts, etc. The shells stand out in relief after long exposure of the blocks. - 9ft (2.74m).
Pond Freestone ("Upper Freestone" or "Top Freestone"). Calcarenite, the best stone. - 7 feet (2.1m).
Chert Vein ("Flint Stone"). White and grey chert nodules in limestone. - 4 feet (1.2m).
Listy Bed ("Nist Bed"). 2 feet - 4 feet (0.6m - 1.2m).
House Cap. Coarse shelly limestone with Titanites ammonites. The stone was used for breakwaters. It was not so workable as the other beds. 5 feet - 6 feet (1.5m - 1.8m).
Under Picking Cap. Hard calcarenite with lenticular white chert. It had to be blasted out. 2 feet - 3 feet (0.6m - 0.9m).
Under Freestone. Calcarenite, good stone used for sinks, curbstones etc. - 6 feet (1.8m).
Cherty Series (locally known as the "Cliff Beds" as opposed to the "Inland Beds", the Portland Freestone)

(Thoughout the above succession "Trigonia" gibbosa occurs here and there at various horizons as bands of shells.)

Notice that a pillar of Under Freestone and Under Picking Cap has been left to support the roof of a large gallery (there is hazard of rock falls in these galleries). Giant ammonites occur in the House Cap, and they should be present in the Titanites Bed, although they are not mentioned in the above list and this bed is not very accessible here at present. The Listy Bed is not marked on the photograph but is thin and at the base of the Chert Vein. The Pond Freestone seems recessed by quarrying. The Shrimp Bed is fine-grained and splintery. It is split by many small joints rather than just by a few large ones. The fracturing of this bed increases close to the surface, probably largely because of freeze and thaw activity in the late Pleistocene glacials. Notice in general the regular orientation of major joints in all the beds seen in the quarry face. The supporting pillar appears tilted because its boundaries are presumably joints which are not exactly vertical.

For more details of the succession here see Arkell (1935, p. 301) or Arkell (1947, p. 100, fig. 20). Some chert in bed P, the Underpicking Cap, and in bed Q, the House Cap are features of this section. In general, the section at Winspit is similar to that at Seacombe, Dancing Ledge and Worth Quarry.

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Winspit Western Quarry - General

Looking down from the cliff top to the abandoned Winspit Quarry, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, on the west side, 1st January 2013

The narrow, southwestern end of the Western Winspit Quarry, Dorset, in 2010

The edge of the worked ledge of Western Winspit Quarry, Dorset, 2010

Unstable and failing blocks of limestone in the upper part of the central promontory, Western Winspit Quarry, Dorset, 2010

Above are various views of the Western Quarry at Winspit. A photographs above shows unstable rock in the top of the central promontory of the Western Winspit Quarry. The mine galleries are in the Under Freestone of the Portland Stone and in the Under Picking Cap which was removed as waste. The House Cap forms the roof of the galleries. The rock is much fractured and there has been some collapse of a gallery roof and also some collapse of the back wall. The degradation, though, is slow and the most recent fall has been a small one from the Shrimp Bed. It can be seen in the photograph adjacent to the mine gallery entrance on the right-hand side.

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Western Winspit Quarry - Galleries in Under Freestone

A view of the entrances to some of the galleries in the Western Winspit Quarry, Dorset, 2010

The entrance to an old mine at the abandoned Winspit western quarry, Dorset, showing some unstable rock, 2010

A good roof and floor in part of the Under Freestone galleries, Western Winspit Quarry, Dorset

Wide areas of unsupported roof are present in certain parts of the galleries of Western Winspit Quarry, Dorset

Failure of the roof of House Cap in part of the Western Winspit Quarry, Dorset

Some of the galleries have in situ limestone columns for roof support. Wide, unsupported stretches of House Cap roof are present in the eastern galleries of the West Winspit Quarry. One of these has unsupported roof for stretches of more than 10 metres, although it has not fallen.

Others, particularly older ones have constructed pillars of blocks of limestone. These can be narrow and unsafe. Failure has occurred at West Winspit Quarry at a promontory between the first and second embayments. Some of the House Cap has collapsed onto the gallery floor. Other parts are unstable and liable to collapse. The collapse appears to be fairly old and no obvious signs were seen of very recent collapse (it seemed at least a few years old, and perhaps a few decades old). However, more collapse is inevitable here sooner or later.

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Western Winspit Quarry - Gallery of Pond Freestone Mine

Pond Freestone Gallery at Winspit, Dorset, in the 1990s

Pond Freestone Gallery at Winspit, Dorset, in 2010

There is a small gallery high in the east-face of the eastern part of the Western Winspit Quarry. This is above the level of most of the openings. It is in the Pond Freestone, and presumably was just a trial attempt to use this stone. The top photograph was taken some years ago, probably about 1996. The lower photograph is from 2010. This upper gallery has in the past had some partial collapse of the roof. However, nothing of significance regarding the rock face seems to have changed from the 1990s to 2010. This seems to be a stable area. The only change is that the vegetation has, of course, grown higher to some extent.

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Winspit - Basal Purbeck over Portland Freestone

The Portland Freestone overlain by basal Purbeck thrombolite beds at Winspit, Dorset, 1st January 2013, with a climber for scale

There is a good cliff section immediately to the east of the seaward end of the path. A complete section of Portland Freestone, with the Chert Vein clearly visible, has basal Purbeck Caps above. The Transition Bed is followed by a thin clay horizon, then comes a low-relief thrombolite bed, followed by another thin clay, and a further, rather thinner bed of thrombolitic limestone.

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Western Winspit Quarry - Ammonites in the House Cap

A largely uncompacted hollow mould of a giant ammonite in the House Cap, Portland Freestone, Winspit, Dorset, 2010

Ammonite mould in House Cap at Winspit

Giant ammonites, presumably Titanites have been left as hollow moulds in the House Cap at Winspit. Several examples can be seen in the quarry cliff face above the level of the lower galleries.

There is very little evidence of compaction. The umbilical area seems squashed in one of the photographs, and there may have been a very small amount of failure of the outer whorl under compression, but it is very limited. A probable implication is that the Portland Frestone was firmly cemented before the full weight of Purbeck strata was deposited on top. Ammonites in the Portland Freestone on the Isle of Portland are also uncompacted, but hollow moulds like this are less commonly seen. Note that some shell material, originally aragonite, has apparently been replaced by calcite.

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Winspit Lower Cliffs -

Portland Chert Member (Portland Cherty Series)

The Portland Chert Member or Portland Cherty Series seen on the east side of Winspit, Dorset, 1st January 2013

The Portland Cherty Series at Winspit, Dorset, seen in August 2010

The Portland Cherty Series at Winspit, Dorset, a close view in November 2007

Prickle Bed, Winspit, Dorset, showing details of nodular features, decapod burrows and compaction

Thalassinoides burrows, Prickle Bed, Winspit, Dorset

The Portland Cherty Series is easily accessible at the mouth of the small valley which descends to the sea from the direction of Worth Matravers. The beds which have been given letters or names by Arkell (1933) are easily recognised. Look first for the conspicuous marker bed, the Prickle Bed or Puffin Ledge (J'). Notice from the photographs that the extent of erosion or collapse between November 2007 and August 2010 has been quite limited.

Examine the photographs of the Prickle Bed in more details. This bed is clearly nodular. The nodules are of well-cemented, fairly fine-grained limestone. Around them is impure, slightly brownish limestone, that is heavily bioturbated by decapods. The burrows can be well seen at the top of the bed and have the obvious features of Thalassinoides. Notice that the upper part of Bed J, underneath is also nodular. The Prickle Bed, J', is unusual for the Portland Cherty Series in not containing any significant quantity of chert.

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Winspit Lower Cliffs - Sea Ledges

Old rutway for a horn cart at the sea ledges beneath Winspit Western Quarry, Dorset, 2010

If you look over the edge of Winspit Western Quarry you can see evidence that it is, at least in part, a very old quarry. A rutway for a horn cart has been cut into the ledge of Portland Cherty Series. A horn cart was a man-hauled cart with horn-like, incurved timbers for pulling. Such carts were used for transporting the stone from the whim or crane on the edge of the quarried ledge out to another crane for loading it onto a sailing barge. See the Dancing Ledge webpage for another example.

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Winspit Northeastern Quarry Ledge

Fractures parallel to the cliff edge, at the northeastern Winspit quarry ledge, Dorset, November 2007

Winspit northeastern quarry ledge, northeastern end, Dorset, 2007

The northeast quarry ledge of Winspit is a quite a long ledge narrowing progressively towards the northeastern end. It has several old galleries extending a short distance landwards from it and there are old tip heaps of quarry debris on the ledge. The far, northeastern end provides a view of the Halsewell Rock and the cliff extending to Seacombe Quarry and Cliffs.

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LOCATION - The Halsewell Cave, Rock and Quarry:

The Halsewell Shipwreck Disaster between Winspit and Seacombe in 1786

The East Indiaman sails from London, hits a storm, misses St. Aldhelms Head but is blown into a large cave, east of Winspit, with much loss of life.

Departure of the East Indiaman, the Halsewell, before its disastrous shipwreck on the Dorset coast, near Swanage, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset

The locatiion of the Halsewell Shipwreck between Winspit and Seacombe, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, in 1786

The site of the Halsewell Shipwreck in 1786, seen from Winspit, Dorset, shortly before the eclipse of the sun, 11th August, 1999

Between Seacombe and Winspit there is a large, seaward-sloping, fallen slab of rock known as the Halsewell Rock (whether this is actually the original rock that people jumped to is uncertain, but it is easily seen from Winspit). Near here on the 6th January, 1786 the East Indiaman, the Halsewell of 758 tons was wrecked. Only 82 of the 250 on board survived. Some of the 168 dead were buried in Seacombe Bottom.

"The Halsewell struck on the rocks at a part of the shore where the cliff is of vast height, and rises almost perpendicularly from its base. But, at this particular spot, the foot of the cliff is excavated into a cavern of ten or twelve yards in depth, and of breadth equal to a large ship. The sides of the cavern are so nearly upright, as to be of extremely difficult access; and the bottom is strewn with sharp and uneven rocks, which seem by some convulsion of the earth to have been detached from its roof." (see further details below)

Some photograph are shown above, including one that I took from Winspit whilst awaiting the almost total eclipse of the sun on the 11th August, 1999. The cliffs have changed to some extent since 1786, and probably retreated a little, but not to a great extent. An old, broad, cavern, though, has largely collapsed.
[This was a strange place during the eclipse as near darkness arrived; everything was quiet and still, and the Anvil Point lighthouse light came on in the distance].

Further Notes on the The Halsewell Disaster


She had sailed from the Downs bound for Bengal, with Captain Richard Pierce in command, the oldest captain in the East India Company's service. Not long after the ship had started the weather grew severe, thick falls of snow and frost impeding the working of her sails, while a desire to land the pilot led her, on the following Tuesday, into a dangerous position on a lee shore off Dunnose, Isle of Wight. A violent gale arising from the south compelled the captain to carry on hard for an offing; the tortured vessel sprung a leak and became all but unmanageable. With seven feet of water in the hold, on the Wednesday morning, no hope remained but to get her before the wind, nor could this be effected except with extreme difficulty - by cutting away first the mizzen and then the main mast. The ship got a distant site of Berry Head in Devonshire and the ship tried to make for Portsmouth. On Thursday morning the wind began to blow freshly from the south and she was caught on a lee shore. She just weathered the dreaded Portland Bill but before nightfall St. Aldhelm's Head was sighted just a mile and half away. She tried to anchor but was driven towards the ironbound coast near Seacombe (Robinson, 1892).

There now follows a shortened version of an account quoted by Charles Dickens and reproduced in full by Robinson (1882).

" See the Halsewell, East Indiaman, outward bound, driving madly, on a January night, towards the rocks near Seacombe, on the Isle of Purbeck. The captain's two dear daughters are aboard, and five other ladies. The ship has been driving many hours, has seven feet of water in her hold, and her mainmast has been cut away. ..."

About two o'clock in the morning of Friday the sixth of January (1786), the ship still driving, and approaching very fast to the shore, Mr Henry Meriton, the second mate, went into the cuddy, where the captain then was. Another conversation taking place, Captain Pierce expressed extreme anxiety for the preservation of his beloved daughters, and earnestly asked the officer if he could devise any method of saving them; on answering, with great concern, that he feared that it would be impossible, but that their only chance would be to wait for morning, the captain lifted his hands in silent and dreadful ejaculation.

At this dreadful moment the ship struck with such violence as to dash the heads of those standing in the cuddy against the deck above them, and the shock was accompanied by a shriek of horror that burst at one instant from every quarter of the ship. ... The ship continued to beat on the rocks; and soon bilging, fell with her broadside towards the shore. When she struck, a number of men climbed up the ensign staff, under an apprehension of her immediately going to pieces. .....

The Halsewell struck on the rocks at a part of the shore where the cliff is of vast height, and rises almost perpendicularly from its base. But, at this particular spot, the foot of the cliff is excavated into a cavern of ten or twelve yards in depth, and of breadth equal to a large ship. The sides of the cavern are so nearly upright, as to be of extremely difficult access; and the bottom is strewn with sharp and uneven rocks, which seem by some convulsion of the earth to have been detached from its roof.

The ship lay with her broadside opposite to the mouth of the cavern, with her whole length stretched almost from side to side of it. But when she struck, it was too dark for the unfortunate persons on board to discover the real magnitude of the danger, and the extreme horror of such a situation. .

In addition to the company already in the round-house, they had admitted three black women, and two soldiers' wives; who, with the husband of one of them, had been allowed to come in, though the seamen, who had tumultuously demanded entrance to get the lights, had been opposed and kept out by Mr. Rogers and Mr. Brimer, the third and fifth mates. The numbers there were therefore now increased to fifty. Captain Pierce sat on a chair, a cot, or some movable, with a daughter on each side, whom he alternately pressed to his affectionate breast. The rest of the melancholy assembly were seated on the deck, which was strewn with musical instruments, and the wreck of furniture and other articles.

Here also Mr. Merton, after having cut several wax candles in pieces, and stuck them up in various parts of the round-house, and lighted up all the glass lanthorns he could find, took his seat, intending to wait the approach of dawn, and then assist the partners of his danger to escape. But, observing that the poor ladies appeared parched and exhausted, he brought a basket of oranges and prevailed on some of them to refresh themselves by sucking a little of the juice. At this time they were all tolerably composed, except Miss Mansel, who was in hysteric fits on the floor of the deck of the round-house.

But on Mr. Meriton's return to the company, he perceived a considerable alteration in the appearance of the ship: the sides were visibly giving way; the deck seemed to be lifting, and he discovered other strong indications that she could not hold much longer together. On this account, he attempted to go forward to look out, but immediately saw that the ship had separated in the middle, and that the forepart having changed its position, lay rather farther out towards the sea. In such an emergency, when the next moment might plunge him into eternity, he determined to sieze the present opportunity, and follow the example of the crew and the soldiers, who were now quitting the ship in numbers, and making their way to the shore, though quite ignorent of its nature and description....

Mr Merton discovered a spar which appeared to be laid from the ship's side to the rocks, and on this spar he resolved to attempt his escape. Accordingly, lying down upon it he thrust himself forward; however, he soon found that it had no communication with the rock; he reached the end of it, and then he slipped off, receiving a violent bruise in his fall, and before he could recover his legs he was washed off by the surge. He now supported himself by swimming, until a returning wave dashed him against the back part of the cavern. Here he laid hold of a small projection in the rock, but was so benumbed that he was on the point of quitting it, when a seaman, who had already gained a footing, extended his hand, and assisted him until he could secure himself a little on the rock, from which he clambered on a shelf still higher, and out of reach of the surf.

Mr Rogers, the third mate, remained with the captain and the unfortunate ladies and their companions nearly twenty minutes after Mr. Merton had quitted the ship. ... The sea was now breaking in at the fore part of the ship, and reached as far as the mainmast. Captain Pierce gave Mr. Rogers a nod, and they took a lamp and went together into the stern-gallery, where, after viewing the rocks for some time, Captain Pierce asked Mr. Rogers if he thought that there was any possibility of saving the girls; to which he replied, he feared there was none; for they could only discover the black face of the perpendicular rock, and not the cavern which afforded shelter to those who escaped. They then returned to the round-house, where Mr. Rogers hung up the lamp and Captain Pierce sat down between his two daughters.

The sea continued to break in very fast, Mr. Macmanus, a midshipman, and Mr. Schutz, a passenger, asked Mr. Rogers what they could do to escape. 'Follow me', he replied; and they all went into the stern-gallery, and from thence to the upper quarter-gallery on the poop. While there, a very heavy sea fell on board, and the round-house gave way; Mr. Rogers heard the ladies shriek at intervals, as if the water reached them; the noise of the sea at other times drowning their voices.

Mr. Brimmer had followed him to the poop, where they remained together for about five minutes, when, on the breaking of this heavy sea, they jointly siezed a pen-coop. The same wave which proved fatal to some of those below, carried him and his companions to the rock, on which they were violently dashed and miserably bruised.

Here on the rock were twenty-seven men; but it now being low water, and as they were convinced that on the flowing of the tide all must be washed off, many attempted to get to the back or sides of the cavern, beyond the reach of the returning sea. Scarcely more than six, besides Mr. Rogers and Mr. Bremer, succeeded. Mr. Rogers on gaining this station, was so nearly exhausted that, had exertions been protracted only a few minutes longer, he must have sunk under them. He was now prevented from joining Mr Meriton by at least twenty men between them, none of whom could move without the imminent peril of his life.

They found a very considerable number of the crew, seaman and soldiers, and some petty officers, were in the same situation as themselves, though many who had reached the rocks below, perished in attempting to ascend. They could yet discern some part of the ship, and in their dreary station solaced themselves with the hopes of its remaining entire until daybreak; for, in the midst of their own distress, the sufferings of the females on board affected them with the most poignant anguish; and every sea that broke inspired them with terror for their safety.

But, alas, their apprehensions were too soon realised! Within a very few minutes of the time that Mr. Rogers gained the rock, an universal shreik, which long vibrated in their ears, in which the voice of female distress was lamentably distinguished, announcing the dreadful catastrophe. In a few moments all was hushed, except the roaring of the winds and the dashing of the waves; the wreck was buried in the deep, and not an atom of it was ever afterwards seen. "

Almost before daybreak, the quartermaster, Mr. Thomson succeeded in scaling the very treacherous cliff, which had killed others. He saw a distant light, probably at Worth Matravers, and procured aid. Eighty-two men were saved by means of a rope which the neighbouring inhabitants, particularly the quarriers let down into the cavern. (Robinson, 1882).

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Halsewell Disaster near Seacombe Cliff and Quarries - continued

Celia Fiennes went to see the site of the Halsewell disaster about 100 years before it happened!

Celia Fiennes arrived at Seacombe on horseback in the 1680s or 1690s. She rode to the site of the Halsewell disaster about 100 years before it happened. This was the only place on the south Purbeck coast that she mentioned visiting. She may, indeed, have described the Halsewell cave.

"At a place called Sea Cume the rockes are so craggy and the creekes of land so many that the sea is very turbulent, there I pick'd shells and it being a spring-tide I saw the sea beat upon the rockes at least 20 yards with such foam and froth, and at another place the rockes had so large a cavity and hollow that when the sea flowed in it runne almost round and sounded like some hall or high arch."

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LOCATION: Seacombe Cliffs

More Details

An aerial view of Seacombe Quarry, Dorset, in November 2001

Approaching Seacombe valley, cliffs and quarries from Winspit, Dorset, by the coast path, 2007

Seacombe Quarry, on the west side of the Seacombe valley,  Dorset, 2007

A Titanites ammonite in the Portland Stone at Seacombe, Dorset, 2007

Seacombe Quarry, Dorset, in the early part of the 20th century

Seacombe Quarry, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, in abandoned state, November 2007

The details of the succession of Portland Freestone at Seacombe have been listed by Arkell (1933; 1935; 1947). They are given here in the Portland Freestone Succession section. Seacombe Stone was suitable for landings, steps and in other situations for which normal Portland Stone would be insufficiently hard ( North, 1930).

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I very much appreciate discussion with various people on field trips in this area. Trev Haysom has been very helpful in commenting on the history of some quarries in this area. I am very grateful to Gareth Lloyd for the use of photographs of the coast taken from the paddle steamer Waverley.

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Please go to:

St. Aldhelm's Head to Anvil Point Bibliography

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Home and List of Webpages


St. Aldhelm's Head
Dancing Ledge and adjacent cliffs, Isle of Purbeck
Anvil Point to Blackers Hole, Isle of Purbeck
St. Aldhelm's Head to Anvil Point - Geological Bibliography
Chapman's Pool, Houns-tout and Egmont Bight, Kimmeridge Clay and Portland Sand.
Isle of Portland - Geological Introduction.

Copyright © 2019 Ian West, Tonya Loades and Joanna Bentley. All rights reserved. This is a purely academic website and images and text may not be copied for publication or for use on other webpages or for any commercial activity. A reasonable number of images and some text may be used for non-commercial academic purposes, including field trip handouts, lectures, student projects, dissertations etc, providing source is acknowledged.

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Dr Ian West, author of these webpages

Webpage - written and produced by:

Ian West, M.Sc. Ph.D. F.G.S.


at his private address, Romsey, Hampshire, kindly supported by Southampton University,and web-hosted by courtesy of iSolutions of Southampton University. The website does not necessarily represent the views of Southampton University. The website is written privately from home in Romsey, unfunded and with no staff other than the author, but generously and freely published by Southampton University. Field trips shown in photographs do not necessarily have any connection with Southampton University and may have been private or have been run by various organisations.