West, Ian M. 2019. St. Aldhelm's Head (St. Alban's Head), Dorset; Geology of the Wessex Coast (including the Dorset and East Devon UNESCO World Heritage Coast - Jurassic Coast). Internet site: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/aldhelm.htm. Version: 18th August 2019, By Ian M. West.
St. Aldhelm's Head (St. Alban's Head) 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 |Winspit and Seacombe, Isle of Purbeck. | 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. |Selected external link: | Jurassic Coast (DCC).

Click here for the full LIST OF WEBPAGES

Go east to: |Winspit and Seacombe ? Go west to: Chapmans' Pool, Houns-tout and Egmont Bight?

(You can download this educational site to SurfOffline or similar software to keep an offline copy, but note that updating of the live version takes place periodically.)

St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, Jurassic Coast seen from near Rope Lake Head, with telephoto lens, 17th September 2012

View towards Emmetts Hill, part of the St. Aldhelm's Head promontory, Dorset, Jurassic Coast, seen from Chapman's Pool, 21st May 2019

Details of the jointed, Portland Stone strata at Emmetts Hill, near St. Aldhelm's Head, as seen with telephoto lens from Hounstout Cliff, 6th June 2019

A general view of Chapman's Pool, Dorset, Emmetts Hill and St. Aldhelm's Head, seen in fine weather, October 2007

A view from Emmetts Hill across the truncated dry valley of Pier Bottom to St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, Jurassic Coast, 2007

A view westward from the high rocks of St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, towards the Kimmeridge cliffs, evening, 7 October 2007

A view westward from St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, towards the Kimmeridge cliffs, 16th May 2019

The Portland Freestone at St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, with the monolith left by the quarrymen

The monolith in the old quarry at St. Aldhelm's Head, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, Jurassic Coast with the race also in view, 1st January 2013

Approaching St. Aldhelm's Head on the coast path from the east, Winspit, the Lower Cherty Beds and the so-called Black Sandstones are seen, Isle of Purbeck, Jurassic Coast

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Some specific hazards with regard to the coast around St. Aldhelm's Head. The cliff edges can be very dangerous and should not be approached closely. It is best to keep to the cliff path wherever possible.

Old galleries in abandoned quarries should not be trusted to be safe, but most of these are further east at Winspit and beyond. Most galleries have long survived without collapse but there have been rock falls and stretches of roof falls in some.

Climbing should not be done casually and only obvious paths used by the geological visitor. Rock climbing should be left to experienced climbers with proper equipment, and there is a climbing guide for this coast.

Adder at Seacombe Bottom

Adders are common on the land above the cliffs but are rarely much of a hazard unless trodden on or attempts are made to handle them. Here is one at Seacombe Bottom, encountered during the early stages of the eclipse of the sun on 11th August, 1999. ( Arkell (1935) drew attention to their relative abundance in the undercliff of Emmit Hill and elsewhere: " It should be noted that the luxuriant undergrowth and grass here and under St. Albans and Gad Cliffs harbour abundant adders. They are common enough to be dangerous unless gaiters are worn.")

This is a superb area provided careful attention is paid to safety on a very rugged, rocky coastline with precipitous cliffs.

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To visit the dramatic headland of St. Aldhelm's Head, drive to Worth Matravers in the Isle of Purbeck. From here travel a short distance westward to the car park at Renscombe. Leave your car here and walk about a mile and half down the rough road south to St. Aldhelm's Head. It is an easy route almost entirely on one level (and used by visitors of all ages), but a significant distance to go and return. There are circular walks both east and west. Variations that involve descending to the undercliff or to Chapman's Pool are more strenuous. The cliffs need much care and can be very dangerous.

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Topographic Maps

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

A topographic map, 1900-1926 with revisions to 1938, of the Chapman's Pool and St. Aldhelm's Head area, Dorset

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

Aerial Photographs

Vertical aerial photograph of the SW part of St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, in October 2003

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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

The multibeam bathymetry image and the geological map of the coast between Kimmeridge Bay and St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, linked to show sea floor geology

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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General Geography and Topographic Features

The car park near Renscombe Farm; from here you walk about 2km along a gravel road to St. Aldhelm's Head or you walk a short distance to West Hill, with a steep path down to Chapman's Pool

The former Coastguard Cottages at St. Aldhelm's Head, as seen in October 2007

A conspicuous feature of the summit of St. Aldhelm's Head is the small row of coastguard cottages. Externally these seem unchanged since I knew them as a boy in the 1950s (a resident kindly gave me water when I was camping nearby). The reason for the cottages is that there has long been a coastguard station adjacent. This still exists but it is now run by the voluntary Coastwatch, rather than by the Coastguard organisation (modern electronic communication methods have changed the situation). Coastguard activities were important here in the past to try to reduce smuggling (the smugglers once referred to them as "ring-bums" presumably because they sat and watched for long periods). The coastguards were also important because of the number of shipwrecks which have occurred at the promontory and race of St. Aldhelm's Head and on the coast on either side. The Halsewell, the Treveal and the Alexandrovna put fatalities here into the hundreds. Probably only the Chesil Beach in this region has had more fatalities.

The ancient chapel of Purbeck limestone on the top of St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset

Interior of the the 12th century Chapel at St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset

Bees boring into limestone of the Chapel at St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, 7th October 2007

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Geological Succession - Introduction

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

A 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 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 some correlation problems.

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The Ammonite Zones of the Portland Group

A shortened account, with emphasis on the Isle of Purbeck, is given here. There is a slightly more extensive account of Portland ammonite zones in the Portland Field Guide .

Wimbledon and Cope (1978) revised the ammonite zones of the Portland Group. Their ammonite zones are listed below with the oldest at the bottom.

Titanites anguiformis Zone.
The Portland Freestone mostly belongs to this zone, although the Portland Freestone of Purbeck may start earlier, in the kerberus zone.

Galbanites (Kerberites) kerberus Zone.
This is common in the Cherty Beds of Portland and Upper Cherty Beds of the Isle of Purbeck (note the complication - not Lower Cherty Beds of Purbeck). It occurs from the Basal Shell Bed of Portland and from the Prickle Bed or Puffin Ledge (J-J1) of the Isle of Purbeck according to Wimbledon and Cope (1978).

Galbanites okusensis Zone.
This is present in the Black Dolomites ("Black Sandstones" - actually dolomites) of Purbeck. The dolomitisation renders the fossils poorly preserved and difficult to extract.

Note the complication that Wimbledon and Cope (1978, p. 187) stated that Galbanites okusensis had not been found in the upper part of its zone. In Dorset the upper part of the zone was apparently established on the occurrence of Titanites (Polymegalites) polypreon because this ammonite is associated with Galbanites okusensis in the Swindon reference section. Perhaps Galbanites okusensis has since been found in the upper part. If not, the placing of the Lower Cherty Beds of Dorset in the okusensis zone, that is older than the lowest Cherty Series on Portland, is not based on direct evidence of the occcurence of the zonal index. It seems to be the consequence of circumstantial evidence. Townson (1975), Wimbledon and Cope (1978) and Wimbledon (1987) have all correlated the Prickle Bed (J') of Purbeck with the Basal Shell Bed of Portland which would support the theory. It is worth drawing attention to the fact, though, that there is a question at this point in the succession, and that Arkell (1933; 1947), as shown in the diagram, correlated the base of the Cherty Series of Purbeck with that on Portland.

Glaucolithites glaucolithus Zone.
The base of the Zone is defined as the first appearance of the species of the genus Glaucolithites. The type locality for the Zone is Hounstout Cliff, near Chapmans Pool, Isle of Purbeck. The White Cementstone with G. caementarius fixes the base of the Zone according to Wimbledon and Cope (1978).

Progalbanites albani Zone.
Wimbledon and Cope (1978) defined the base of the Zone as the first occurrence of the genus Progalbanites. The type section is at Hounstout Cliff, near Chapmans Pool, Isle of Purbeck. The Massive Bed is the lowest horizon with Progalbanites.

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The Portland Group

The General Portland Facies (Sedimentary Environments etc)

(See also Portland Stone details, below)

The Portland Stone consists of carbonate-cemented lime-sands formed in shoal conditions at almost the end of the Jurassic Period. The shallowest conditions were during deposition of the uppermost beds, just before transition into the lagoonal Purbeck facies.

A broad view reveals a general regressive (shallowing) sequence from the relatively deep-water Kimmeridge Clay, sometimes almost anaerobic, through the shallowing Portland Sand. In spit of the name much of this is marl, but with influx of quartz sand and silt in the Black Nore Sandstone on Portland and the Massive Bed in Houns-Tout Cliff, Isle of Purbeck. Evidence of shallowing generally continues up into the Portland Cherty Series (Dungy Head and Dancing Ledge Members of the Portland Limestone Formation of Townson, 1975)). Considering it in more detail, there was a limited transgression (deepening) at the base of the upper part of the Cherty Series (Dancing Ledge Member of Townson) before the continued final shallowing.

The upper and final, Portlandian regression followed this transgressive episode and deposited the sponge-spicule rich lime muds of the Upper Cherty Series (Dancing Ledge Member). These coarsen up into shelly packstones with large epifaunal bivalves and sponges (epifaunal means living on the surface of the sea-floor, as opposed to living within the sediment). Continued shallowing brought in shoal water ooid grainstones (i.e. white oolitic lime sand) of the Portland Freestone or Winspit Member ( Townson, 1975; Bosence 1987). There were subaqueous dunes of white carbonate sand on the sea-floor. These were low-angle features and they were moved southward under the influence of currents or waves. Most of the movement took place during hurricanes and storms. In contrast during the quiet phases, which occupied most of the time, thick-shelled bivalves, sponges and shrimp-like crustaceans colonised these mounds.

Origin of Portland and Purbeck facies

The origin of the facies of the Portland Stone is clearly explained in this classic schematic diagram of Townson (1975). Walther's Law is a widely used principle of modelling vertical changes in lithology in terms of lateral changes in environment. It has been used to produce this diagram, which is a model rather than an attempt at an exact interpretation of the position of lateral facies. Not all these facies were developed to a near equal extent at any one time, of course.

Note the main facies of the Portland Stone of the Isle of Purbeck. The Cherty Series is mostly of sponge-spicule wackestone facies and the Portland Stone of rather shallower shell-sand facies.

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The Portland Chert Member of the Portland Stone Formation

Chert in the Cherty Series

The Portland Cherty Series is not oolitic but consists of fairly fine-grained limestone with nodules of black or grey chert, in some cases joined into an almost continuous beds. The photographs here show the Cherty Series at Dancing Ledge. This chert is replacive, mostly very early, but in some cases associated with tectonic features such as faults.

The limestone is of an unusual type which can be described as a "sponge spicule wackestone". It is a micrite with carbonate sand grains (matrix supported), most of which are the peculiar kidney-shaped Rhaxella sponge spicules usually preserved as calcite replacements ( Townson, 1975). The spicules were originally opaline silica but this silica has migrated in solution and formed the chert nodules by replacement, leaving in turn the opal replaced by calcite. There are other components in small quantities. They include the branching elongate spicules of the sponge Pachastrella, some bivalve shells, some shell sand and some very fine quartz sand (less than 5%).

For detailed succession of the Portland Cherty Series, based on measurements and correlations at Seacombe, Winspit, Worth Quarry and St. Aldhelm's Head see Arkell (1947, p. 101, or Arkell, 1933 or 1935). See also Townson (1975) for facies variations in this.

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Terminology of the Portland successions

Two alternative schemes for the terminology of the Portland and Purbeck successions are given here. Townson (1975) introduced a different 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.

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St. Aldhelm's Head - Details

The Portland Succession at St. Aldhelm's Head, modified after Arkell, 1935

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Cliff Section - St. Aldhelm's Head to Dancing Ledge

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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Central Promontory of St. Aldhelm's Head

St. Aldhelm's Head - main promontory

In this photograph, taken from the paddle steamer Waverley in 1997 by Dr Clive Boulter, the upper cliffs of Portland Stone are seen above slopes with quarry waste and natural fallen rock. Old quarries are present below the coastguard hut seen on the cliff top with a Land Rover and flagmast. The quarry tips and natural rockfalls make this coast resemble the coast of the Isle of Portland which has similar geology. The quarry tips there are known as "weares". The tide produces a "race" here, where turbulent water flows from east to west across a submerged ridge of Portland Stone.


Going down to the old cliff quarry near the Coastguard Station at the southern end of St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, 16th May 2019


An unstable block of Portland Stone next to a major joint extending SE to NW, the general trend, near the Coastguard Station at the southern end of St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, 16th May 2019

Jointing characteristics of the Portland Freestone at cliff top at the  southern end of St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, 16th May 2019


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Rockfall and Landslide at the End of St. Aldhelm's Head (chance event or earthquake effect?).

The landslide debris at the south end of St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, tentatively considered in relation to earthquakes causing rock-falls

A general view of the rock fall and landslide debris at the south end of St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, Jurassic Coast, October 2007

Large rock fall debris at the end of St. Aldhelm's Head, Jurassic Coast, Dorset, 1st January 2013


Did the southern end of St. Aldhelm's Head collapse at the time of the Portland "earthquake" of 1735?

(As seen recently in New Zealand, earthquakes and cliff falls can occur together).
[original report was reproduced in Dorset Ancestors Website on 23rd December 2009; go to the original online: https://dorset-ancestors.com/?p=124 ]

"Humbly Sheweth,
That on Monday the sixteenth of December last [in 1735] in the morning a great and Sudden Shock of the Earth was felt near the Quarrys at the North End of the said Island by which the Earth for more than a mile in length sunk away from the Clift and carried with it the Way leading to the Piere [was this the Old Pier, now known as Folly Pier?], Overturned the said Piere, and broke and destroyed the Crane thereon, so that at present it is Impossible to carry down from the Quarry's or to Ship Stone as formerly, by which means his Majesty will loose entirely the Revenue of fourpence per pr.Tunn paid by all persons who Shipped Stone off the said Piere; and also the Duty for all Stone raised in the Island and payable to his Maj'tie and the Inhabitants, will be in a great measure lost, and the latter consequently deprived of his Majesty's most gracious Bounty extended to them by his Grant of the 28th of July 1730 Until the said Way and Piere is Repaired.
Therefore Your Petitioners most humbly pray that your Honour's will take this Unhappy Circumstance into your Consideration and Order that the same may be Repaired fit for Shipping Stone as formerly And they as in duty bound shall ever pray."
[There follows a list of the 118 signatories.]


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Footnote: Mystery of the Body on the Cliffs.
In June 1974, there was the sad discovery of a badly decomposed body on the cliffs near St. Aldhelm's Head according to Legg (1984) . It proved to be the remains of Mrs Jean Baxter, a scientist of the Chemical Defence Establishment, Porton, near Salisbury. She had been missing for four months during which time there had apparently been press speculation. An open verdict was recorded at the inquest but it was stated that she had been depressed and no security aspect was involved.

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West Side of St. Aldhelm's Head

St. Aldhelm's Head & Emmetts Hill

The west side of St. Aldhelm's Head and Emmetts Hill is seen here from the sea in a photograph taken by Dr Clive Boulter on 23rd September, 1997. The lower part of the cliff, partly covered by fallen debris consists of the uppermost part of the Kimmeridge Clay. Above this the Portland Sand occurs. This is mostly mudstone and marl in the lower part in spite of the name, but a sandstone bed, known as the Massive Bed marks the junction and can be seen in the photograph. Some way above is another good marker, the White Cementstone. Higher in the cliff, above the marls are the "Parallel Bands" and the "Black Sandstones", of Arkell (1947). These are actually beds of dolomite. The Portland Cherty Series follows. Notice the dissolution (karstic) features with yellow sandy debris at the top of the cliff on Emmetts Hill. The valley is Pier Bottom and has been truncated by marine erosion and left "hanging", that is with its base above sea-level. Large rectangular blocks of limestone seem to form a natural sea-defence or barrier except at Pier Bottom where this stone is not available. Here there is a shale cliff in the Kimmeridge Clay. More information on the Portland Group and an alternative set of names is available in Townson (1975).

This piece of coast has many similarities to the West Cliffs of the Isle of Portland. It differs in not showing such well-developed rotational landslides and not having the quarry debris weares of Portland.

(more information on the Kimmeridge - Portland junction here will be provided later)

St. Aldhelm's Head from east side

St. Aldhelm's Head seen from the cliff path on the east side. The Portland Sand forms the lower overgrown part of the cliffs with the Black Dolomites ("Black Sandstones") of Arkell (1947) above. The Cherty Series forms the vertical part of the cliff. In the distance is the toe of landslides and fallen debris at the tip of St. Aldhelm's Head.

Monolith at  St. Aldhelm's Head westward

This monolith has been left by quarrymen in the 19th century. The stem is of Pond Freestone which was quarried here. The head is part of the Titanites Bed. The main quarried stone at this locality was the Pond Freestone because the Under Freestone, much used further to the east, here contains too much chert ( Arkell, 1947). In the distance is the race formed by the underwater outcrop of the junction of Portland strata (to the east) and Kimmeridge Clay ( Donovan and Stride, 1961). ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Footnote: Rescued from Cliff at St. Aldhelm's Head
" Seven soldiers, including five cadets from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, clung to a cliff face for nine hours after their boat sank.. Their plea for help went unanswered because their Mayday message did not give a location. All seven were eventually winched to safety from St Alban's Head, Dorset, in a second Coastguard operation after the first was abandoned in the dark. They were spotted only after setting off distress flares. In February last year, two policemen and a relative drowned in the same area after they broadcast only the word Mayday." Coastline, The Official Journal of the Coastguard Association, vol. 1, Issue 4, Spring 1999, p. 13.

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Mr Haysom's Quarry at St. Aldhelm's Head

An old type of hand-operated derrick or crane in Mr Trev. Haysom's quarry at St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, August 2007

Giant ammonite, probably Titantites anguiformis Wimbledon from the Portland Freestone at St. Aldhelm's Head Quarry, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset

This small quarry, belonging to Mr. Trev. Haysom has long worked the Isle of Purbeck variety of Portland Stone. This limestone is usually an intrasparite with lower porosity than Portland oosparite of the Isle of Portland. As a consequence it is a harder limestone.


Impressions of the open paired bivalves, Laevitrigonia gibbosa (J. Sowerby), in a slab of Portland Stone, in a wall not far from St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset

Two species of fossil bivalves that are very common in the Portland Stone Formation

A slab of Portland Stone with impressions of paired bivalves (Laevitrigonia gibbosa (J. Sowerby) was not seen at the quarry but it is in a wall not far away.


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St. Aldhelm's Head to Winspit

[Warning! This is a particularly dangerous location; stay on the main footpath and keep away from the cliff edge!

See for example, the report of a fatal accident in the area, but apparently nearer to Winspit: "Woman rambler plunges 50ft to her death from clifftop after slipping on muddy pathway." By Rebecca Perring, Wed. Jul. 22, 2015, details, with reference to head injuries, are online.]

(For Winspit details please go to the Winspit webpage)

Footpath on the cliff top between the Coastguard Hut, St. Aldhelm's Head and northeast to Winpit

Travertine deposition from at a location of outflowing water, between Winspit and St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, 1999

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. The "goat's head" - like feature 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.

Water descending the cliff and resulting in green algae near the base is a feature of Green Point near Dancing Ledge . That is the most notable place for water flowing over or out of high Portland Stone cliffs in this stretch of coast, although Seacombe and Winspit stream valleys descend to the coast.

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. I have not had close access so I do not know the details. The feature is probably best studied from a boat. Rock climbers may know the place (is it "Crab Hole" listed in the climbing guide?).

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 cannot be seen well from the cliff footpath (just glimpsed). Do not place yourself in danger by approaching the cliff edge on the sloping grass. This is a really hazardous locality!

Part of large flock of guillemots adjacent to the cliffs at St. Aldhelm's Head, Dorset, 18th May 2019


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St. Aldhelm's Head to Winspit - Incipent Topple of Portland Limestone Rock (a perched rock)

[Warning! This is also a particularly dangerous location! Stay on the footpath; if you go at all seaward, there is a real risk of falling off the top cliff slope.]

An unstable rock, an incipient topple of some Portland Stone, east of St. Aldhelm's Head as seen in May 2019, online Aug 2019, Ian West

An incipient topple of Portland Stone, east of St. Aldhelm's Head, as seen in May 2019, closer view

[old photograph, for historic purposes, follows:

Incipient topple east of St. Aldhelm's Head as seen in 1999]

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 might rarely 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. It is shown above as seen in 1999 and in 2019; there has been no significant change in 20 years.

I believe that the base of the sliding block is 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 that there are the relics of previous topples as large blocks at the foot of the cliff.


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Probably effects at St. Aldhelm's Head and Supplies of Rock Armour

As is well-known, relative sea-level is rising at present at a relatively high rate in this region, about 4 to 5 mm. per annum. This is not a disputable topic. How much the rate will increase in the future is a very controversial matter, not discussed here. Sea level is supposed to rise by a metre in at most 200 years and possibly about 100 years. We do not know exactly when for sure but sooner or later sea-level will be about a metre higher.

In addition to gradual sea-level rise this region is prone at relatively rare intervals of something like 1 in 250 years to severe hurricanes which cause storm surges in the English Channel. These temporarily raise sea-level by about 3 metres or more and cause serious sea-flooding. The 1824 event (the "Great Gale") was one of these. It is discussed in the Chesil Beach Storms webpage.

In the specific area of St. Aldhelm's Head the effects of general sea-level rise and of storm surges are likely to be fairly limited. There is, at present some erosion of clay strata at Emmetts Hill near the Kimmeridge Clay - Portland Sand junction. Sea-level rise and storm surges will increase this erosion quite significantly. This will lead to new cliff falls and landslides. This hard rock coast-line will retreat a little but not to a large extent. This is not an area at major risk of coast erosion.

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

Examine the geological map above and consider just what indirect effect sea-level rise and storm surges might have here. On the south coast of England to the east of this region there is no supply of hard rock for rock armour to give coastal protection. It is very obvious to the most casual observer that there are huge resources of Portland Stone, both Portland Freestone and Cherty Series in the St. Aldhelm's Head and Worth Matravers area. At present it has been quarried on a small scale at St. Aldhelm's Head and on a larger scale at Swanworth Quarry near Worth Matravers. Neither are conspicuous. It is very fortunate that at the present this region has not been despoiled by a large amount of quarrying like that on the Isle of Portland. The present quarries have little effect on the environment. However, in many respects the Worth Matravers area is similar to the Isle of Portland before the major phase of large-scale and deep quarrying which has now taken place. At some date in the future when the low ground of Sandbanks Peninsula, Weymouth and other coastal areas are threatened by sea-flooding there is likely to be severe demands for local rock armour. At that time the St. Aldhelm's Head and Worth Matravers area may need to retain strong protection against large-scale quarrying.

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Go to the Cliffs East or West?

Go east to:

|Winspit and Seacombe ?

Go west to:

Chapmans' Pool, Houns-tout and Egmont Bight?

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I am very grateful to Dr Clive Boulter and Gareth Lloyd for the use of photographs of the coast taken from the paddle steamer Waverley.

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Please go to the Geological Bibliography on the coast from St. Aldhelms's Head to Durlston Head.

See also the:
Durlston Bay, Geological Bibliography.

and the
Purbeck Group Geological Bibliography.

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Copyright © 2019 Ian West, Tonya West 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, examinations etc. providing source is acknowledged and no other copyright is taken.

Disclaimer: Geological fieldwork involves some level of risk, which can be reduced by knowledge, experience and appropriate safety precautions. Persons undertaking field work should assess the risk, as far as possible, in accordance with weather, conditions on the day and the type of persons involved. In providing field guides on the Internet no person is advised here to undertake geological field work in any way that might involve them in unreasonable risk from cliffs, ledges, rocks, sea or other causes. Not all places need be visited and the descriptions and photographs here can be used as an alternative to visiting. Individuals and leaders should take appropriate safety precautions, and in bad conditions be prepared to cancell part or all of the field trip if necessary. Permission should be sought for entry into private land and no damage should take place. Attention should be paid to weather warnings, local warnings and danger signs. No liability for death, injury, damage to, or loss of property in connection with a field trip is accepted by providing these websites of geological information. Discussion of geological and geomorphological features, coast erosion, coastal retreat, storm surges etc are given here for academic and educational purposes only. They are not intended for assessment of risk to property or to life. No liability is accepted if this website is used beyond its academic purposes in attempting to determine measures of risk to life or property.

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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.