Words: Andy Hill-Parker
Pics: Howard Shepherd and Carl Draper
For us paddle boarders, the stretch of coast in south Dorset otherwise known as ‘The Jurassic Coast’, offers many interesting paddles. From Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset, the 96 miles of coastline is home to many spots such as Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door and Kimmeridge Bay to name but a few.
The most famous of all spots along the coast is a chalk formation of a stack and stump otherwise known as ‘Old Harry and his wife’. Commonly known as Old Harry’s Rocks, the formation lies at the southern tip of Studland Bay and is easily visible from the beaches that make up the bay. If you want more info on geology, etc. then Wiki is the place to go, my purpose here is to write about a trip out to Old Harry.
The best beach to launch from is South Beach, you can park next to the Bankes Arms pub. It’s a short walk down the main road then turn left and follow the path to the water. It’s a picturesque walk with large ferns reminiscent of a time when large reptiles ruled the earth. As you arrive at the water’s edge you’ll see the famous rocks in front of you.
Ideally you’ll want a day with no wind and swell, if there is a bit of head wind then keep close to the cliffs and you should find a bit of shelter. The paddle out to the rocks at a leisurely pace takes around 20 minutes. The water can be crystal clear in some places and can be quite shallow, (which stops the noisy jet skiers from getting too close) depending on how close to the cliffs you get.
As you start to get closer to the rocks, it’s safer making yourself visible to the walkers above, as I’ve had a few narrow misses with rocks that have been thrown. Once you arrive at the first pebbled beach it’s worth going ashore and checking out the other side which is exposed to the open ocean.
The conditions on the other side can be wildly different, if there’s any swell it can reflect off the rocks causing quite a bit of choppy water. There are a few ways to get round to the other side. If the tide is right and you are confident enough you can paddle through the two tunnels that are right in front of you.
Alternatively you can paddle around the last stack of the group (Old Haz himself) or between him and the penultimate stack. Keep an eye out for submerged rocks. If you do opt for paddling around Old Harry then watch out for the rip current that flows around the rocks when the tide changes from high to low. There is a lot of water in Studland Bay trying to empty itself into the English Channel, so proceed with a bit of caution.
Once round the other side there is a lot to have a look at. There’s a few pebbled beaches which you can land on, one of which is in a cave. If you paddle towards Swanage bay with the land on your right side there are some large stacks that you can paddle around. Keeping closer to Old Harry there are two other tunnels/archways you can paddle through that are marked in red on the photo on the right.
These are all tide dependent so are worth a look before you commit to them. The one on the right side on the photo has a large shelf of rock that looks deeper than it is and can be the undoing of a seasoned paddler. The archway on the far left of the photo is passable on most levels of the tide and has a pebble beach that is relatively easy to land on.
Safety wise a VHF radio is a good idea but don’t be put off if you don’t have one. Mobile phone signal works there on most service providers. Also the place is so popular that you are bound to be around many other fans of being on something that floats on water. It’s easy to spend a day out there and there are plenty of places to sit and have a picnic.
I’ve taken my son out to Old Harry when he was three years old ,so it’s definitely a family friendly paddle. Amenities wise, there is a little shack on South Beach that serves snacks and a variety of drinks. The Bankes Arms has a very large beer garden (ideal in these COVID times) that overlooks Studland Bay and is an ideal place to reward yourself with a drink.
To sum up
A trip out to Old Harry is a very rewarding one, you get to see and experience things that the walkers above don’t. It can be a relatively easy paddle if the conditions are right. As in all places by the sea the conditions can change very quickly. If you’re planning a trip out there it’s worth keeping an eye on weather reports and swell forecasts, both easily viewed on the many apps we can have at our fingers.