Back when we lived in Dorset, one of our favourite spots for dog walking was Dancing Ledge. It was quite a hike across fields and then down a very steep path and further down a very steep scramble onto the ledge itself. For this reason, you can often have the place to yourself and on this occasion, Phil took a trip there on his bike, just because.
Dancing Ledge is one of the many quarries in the region worked for the Purbeck limestone, which was used for building work here as well as much further afield. Some of the stone removed by the quarrying was transported by ship direct from Dancing Ledge, round the south coast to Kent in order to construct Ramsgate harbour in the 18th and 19th.
A swimming pool refreshed naturally by the tide was blasted into the rock for the use of local preparatory schools, sometime near the beginning of the twentieth century. The last surviving school (The Old Malthouse in Langton Matravers, which closed in 2007) and one of the schools for which the pool was originally created recently arranged for debris, including several large rocks, to be removed, making swimming possible once again. The sea itself is not suitable for swimming, as there is no shoreline, simply a rock shelf under which people have been pulled by the current to their deaths.
The stone in this part of the Dorset coast was laid down in layers, or beds, over the course of many millions of years. Kimmeridge Clay was the first layer to form, during the late Jurassic geological period and the Portland Sands were laid down on top of this, with the Portland Beds on top again.
Fossilised Ammonite on the ledge
After this, in the early Cretaceous period – approximately 155 million years ago – the Lower Purbeck Beds were deposited in shallow seas, brackish lagoons and freshwater. From fossils found in these rocks, geologists and palaeontologists have been able to work out that shellfish, shrimps and insects lived around the swampy marshlands at that time. Later, there were fish, amphibians and reptiles; and after them came the Purbeck Mammals. Over 100 different species of small vertebrates have been found in fossils in the Purbeck Beds, most of them the size of a shrew or a rat.
‘On Dancing Ledge’ Dorset. 2011 Raw silk, metal leaf, plaster and oil on oak panel. The oak had been taken to the ledge by someone to be used as kindling. They failed to light the fire. The swimming pool is on the left of the lower shelf being refreshed by an incoming tide.
This special place provided inspiration for others too….
HEARTS TOGETHER- by John Betjeman
How emerald the chalky depths
Below the Dancing Ledge!
We pulled the jelly-fishes up
And threw them in the hedge
That with its stones and sea-pink tufts
Ran to the high cliff edge.
And lucky was the jelly-fish
That melted in the sun
And poured its vitals on the turf
In self-effacing fun,
Like us who in each other’s arms
Were seed and soul in one.
O rational the happy bathe
An hour before our tea,
When you were swimming breast-stroke, all
Along the rocking sea
And, in between the waves, explain’d
The Universe to me.
The Dorset sun stream’d on our limbs
And scorch’d our hinder parts:
We gazed into the pebble beach
And so discussed the arts,
O logical and happy we
(Poor little jelly-fish!)