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Rural Settlement in the Isle of Purbeck

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The Isle of Purbeck has long been a popular study area for geographical field groups because of the variety of geology, relief and land use evident within a relatively small area. These factors have had an important influence on the pattern of rural settlement, making it a good case study for many of the major issues that affect rural populations today.

‘The modern village is defined as a small group of houses, none of which can get pizza delivered. Many urban dwellers have a secret dream of living in a beautiful collection of rose-covered cottages nestled around a wide village green overlooked by the church spire and village pub. Many people who live in real villages also have this dream.’
Dorset Rural Facilities Survey, 2002.

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small globe iconLocation and historical development

The Isle of Purbeck forms the southeastern part of Purbeck District in Dorset (Figures 1 and 2). It is an area of about 200 km2, bounded by the sea to the south and east, and by the River Frome and Poole Harbour to the north. The Isle of Purbeck does not constitute a formal administrative area and, as such, its western boundary is open to debate. Figure 2 shows the boundary extending west to Lulworth Cove, but some writers would not go beyond Worbarrow Bay.

Figure 3 is a north-south transect across the area showing the main geological strata and how physical and human characteristics vary with geology. Settlement, both rural and urban (the latter in the form of Swanage), is concentrated on the Wealden Clay, the most fertile of the main geological strata. Fieldwork and analysis of OS maps show the greatest concentration of farms in this region, explaining the agricultural origin of villages and hamlets. Swanage, as a seaside resort, grew slowly during the nineteenth century, but after the railway arrived in 1885, the resort really expanded. In the twentieth century, tourism also became an important influence on other settlements in the Isle of Purbeck, particularly Corfe Castle and Studland.

Rural settlement is less dense on the higher and steeper Jurassic limestone to the south, where the soil is not as fertile as on the Wealden Clay (Figure 4). Here, some settlements, such as Acton and Langton Matravers, owe their origin more to the mining and quarrying of Purbeck and Portland Stone than to agriculture.

The steep and narrow chalk ridge to the north is understandably devoid of modern settlement, with the ruins of the medieval Corfe Castle standing astride the gaps eroded in the ridge by East Brook and West Brook, which join north of the castle to form the Corfe River. The castle, run by the National Trust, was once the most fortified in England. The village of Corfe Castle extends south of the castle and the chalk ridge in a broadly linear fashion. The A351, sometimes referred to as the spine of Purbeck, follows the gap in the chalk ridge, through the village of Corfe Castle and on to the southeast towards Swanage.

The Bagshot Beds form the northern part of the Isle of Purbeck. Here heathland dominates on the sandy, infertile soil, resulting in a very sparse population. Some rural settlement originally developed in this area due to the extraction of ball clay. This area contains the UK’s largest on-shore oil field at Wytch Farm.

small globe iconThe hierarchy of settlements

The Isle of Purbeck is classed as a remote rural district in the hierarchy of settlements. Here the rural settlement is concentrated in clustered villages (Figure 5), with Corfe Castle being the largest. Although these villages are set in a network of isolated farms and houses, there are relatively few hamlets in the region. Lower-order urban services are provided by the towns of Swanage and Wareham, with higher-order urban services being found in the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation, as it has increasingly become known in the region. Wareham is just north of the River Frome and is therefore considered outside of the Isle of Purbeck. Once a significant port in the Middle Ages, it is sometimes referred to as ‘the gateway to the Isle of Purbeck’.

The interaction between the various levels of the settlement hierarchy is an important factor in understanding the main issues concerning rural settlement in the region. The growth of the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation, with a population now approaching half a million people, has had an increasing influence on the rural settlement of the Isle of Purbeck, with the region developing an important dormitory function. The resulting commuter traffic at peak periods presents particular problems on the peninsula.

For reasons that will be discussed below, most rural settlements have lost key services in recent decades, with service provision being increasingly concentrated at the two urban levels of the settlement hierarchy.

small globe iconPopulation change

Figure 7 shows that the population of Purbeck District as a whole (seen in Figure 2) has risen consistently over the past 40 years, although the rate of growth has varied by parish. Of the parishes illustrated in Figure 7, only Studland and Church Knowle had lower populations in 2001 than they did in 1961.

Figure 7. Population of some Purbeck Parishes 1961—2001.

Figure 8 compares the population structure of Purbeck District with the UK average. The population of Purbeck District is considerably older than that of the country as a whole, mainly because of the popularity of the area for retirement. However, the out-migration of young adults in search of wider economic opportunities and lower-cost accommodation is also a factor. In 2001, the crude birth rate for Purbeck District was 10.1 per 1000, while the death rate was 11.9 per 1000, resulting in a natural decrease in the population. In some areas of Purbeck, the crude death rate was much higher. For example, in Castle Ward, which comprises the parishes of Corfe Castle and Studland, the crude death rate was 19.6 per 1000.

Figure 1. Location map of Dorset.
Figure 1.
Location map of Dorset.
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Figure 2. Location map of Purbeck District and the Isle of Purbeck.
Figure 2.
Location map of Purbeck District and the Isle of Purbeck.
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Figure 3. Transect across the Isle of Purbeck.
Figure 3.
Transect across the Isle of Purbeck.
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Figure 4. Geology of the Isle of Purbeck.
Figure 4.
Geology of the Isle of Purbeck.
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Figure 5. The village of Studland with Poole Harbour in the background.
Figure 5.
The village of Studland with Poole Harbour in the background.
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Figure 6. Village pub at Worth Matravers.
Figure 6.
Village pub at Worth Matravers.
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Figure 8. Population pyramid comparing Purbeck with the UK average.
Figure 8.
Population pyramid comparing Purbeck with the UK average.
Source: National Statistics website.
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