Search for the words “Durdle Door”, and you’ll probably find something relating to a “natural limestone arch”, an “UNESCO World Heritage Site”, or even part of the 12,000 acre “Lulworth Estate” which is owned by the Weld family in Dorset.
Stood on top of the cliffs looking out over this dramatic archway that pierces the coastline, it’s difficult to not be impressed by its presence – as I was the morning I shot this amazing sunrise – “Heritage“.
To me, however, Durdle Door (and for that matter, the entire Dorset coast) means something different at a very personal level – it’s where I grew up for a huge amount of my life.
It evokes decades of summer memories – trips out to the beach when I was younger, getting that final break on the coast before the influx of holiday tourists flooded every square inch of this, quite ironically, rather uncomfortable pebble cove when the schools broke up each year.
Still, even with all that chaos, this relative haven also become one of my staple photography locations over the years that followed. Shooting alongside many others from the local area – it’s just a stunning place to capture in the right light if you’re lucky.
Even at its busiest, Durdle Door still felt like “home” – an escape from my travels around the world; a place I could rely on for a few hours of peace just down the road.
But this past year has been very different.
The Summer of 2020
In many ways, the COVID pandemic has brought out the best of our spirits as a human race. In others, we’ve seen the worst.
With restrictions in place preventing most cheap international travel, last summer’s easing of domestic lockdown rules delivered a deluge of beach-hungry tourists, desperate for their 3 square feet of “freedom in the sun” before the risk of another lockdown became a reality.
Beaches were jam-packed with people clearly ignoring the social-distancing guidelines that were still in place.
Emergency services were further stretched at the very moment they needed our protection the most; to rescue idiots who were willingly putting their own lives (and those of others) in danger by “tombstoning” from the rocks – badly.
People were “bending” the spirit of the rules, even before they were relaxed, travelling for hundreds of miles to do their “daily exercise” on the coast – clogging up the road network and pushing this stunning natural location beyond its limits.
But worse – and to a despicable level in my book, they were literally treating the place like crap.
With very limited resources being offered from the Lulworth Estate (despite increased income from their private car parks during that period of time), volunteers had to take it upon themselves to clean up after thousands of people left Durdle Door looking like a trash heap.
Human faeces were found throughout many of the natural caves that surround the beach.
Old disposable BBQs were left for “someone else to pick up”. Used sanitary products were strewn across the pebbles, along with food waste, children’s nappies, broken chairs, bottles, cans and anything else that people couldn’t be bothered to carry back “up the hill”.
There were even Instagram usernames being carved into the ancient rock formations, then posted online as some form of “trophy”.
And the ultimate kick-in-the-teeth to those wonderful people who sacrificed their time (and safety) cleaning up after these morons?
…they got a barrage of abuse for calling it out on social media.
Public vs Private Land
So what happened?
The first thing to consider is that until the police finally stepped in on specific days last year – there were NO capacity controls in place at Durdle Door. Signs were put up stating that the “car park is full”, but that simply resulted in tourists (who’d travelled for hours to get there) parking on the narrow country roads for miles around, blocking access – including for emergency vehicles.
At the end of the day, Durdle Door is now a tourist attraction.
Being added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 2001 along with the rest of the Jurassic Coast along the south of England was a huge boost for its visibility. As a “local”, it was great to see people recognising how amazing this place really was, on the world’s stage, and visitor numbers grew.
It was that boost that also served to ensure its private owners (yes, the arch is “owned”!) had quite the increase in earnings on their books.
I remember, with each and every visit over the years, seeing the parking fees they put in place climb higher – along with the size of the area set aside for the increase in cars with every passing season. I didn’t really mind, as that cash was likely needed to keep the place looking fantastic and accessible to all.
But with growing visitor numbers, many locals started to question whether this essential investment was really happening behind the scenes. As a landowner that is charging for access, in my book that comes with a responsibility to those paying to visit this incredible corner of the world; a responsibility to maintain, control, protect and provide.
It’s not good enough to simply disclaim against any liability for the substantial hills and state of the eroding pathways that need to be walked up and down to get to “that spot”. A “no flip flops” sign posted on the hill is a little late for the family who’ve travelled for miles, having been attracted by the lure of “easy access to the beach” in promotional material they’ve read.
Nor is it acceptable to provide no real facilities (other than a franchised coffee van) in comparison to the number of visitors that are encouraged to visit. (Finally, there are a couple of toilets at the top of the hill – but these are a somewhat recent addition.)
To my eyes, whether rightly or wrongly, the impression I get is that the estate tends to focus more on “catching” commercial activities on its land than it does providing something in return for its income. I recall very public arguments over who should foot the bill for the cost of new steps back in 2013 after the old ones disappeared through erosion – despite those steps being used by paying customers – before the owners finally relented and used the car park money to rebuild them.
Public safety has previously been called into question at this spot too – with people airlifted due to heart-attacks following the hike up and down – but as a “rugged and natural landscape”, in fairness, I do see the challenge that lies ahead for the estate.
It’s a difficult balancing act, as the South West Coast Path (a public right of way) actually cuts straight through this private land, guaranteeing free access to those who wish to enjoy the walk and scenery along the coastline. If you choose to drive there and park, you’ll be paying a fee to the private owners – but there is nothing to stop you walking through from east or west, as huge numbers of people do each year.
Photography on the Lulworth Estate
And it’s because of this “blended access” issue that photographers often get confused (and intimidated) when planning to shoot these incredible views.
Despite those who protect the commercial interests of the estate bombarding anyone who asks about access with terms such as “the CROW Act” and the “Marine and Coastal Access Act”, the fact remains that you can (perfectly legally) visit, enjoy (and photograph) this location to your heart’s content, thanks to the existence of a public bridleway that cuts through the land.
Indeed, facing a potential logistical challenge of our own quite recently, I asked for official guidance from the Highways Authority themselves:
In legal terms, public footpaths and public bridleways are forms of public highway. The public has the right to use a public highway for any reasonable purpose provided they do not create an obstruction or nuisance. Unreasonable use of a public highway may amount to trespass, and wilful obstruction of a highway (without lawful authority or excuse) is a criminal offence.
Purely from a Highway Authority perspective, taking photos from the Right of Way is permitted and viewed as reasonable, providing there is no nuisance or obstruction caused to other users.
So with this constant “battle” between public access and private land, you can start to see where things start to fall apart the second something goes wrong.
Who IS responsible for the steps to the beach?
Who IS responsible for the upkeep of the paths that are public access (highlighted in red, below)?
Morally, I know my own view – but legally, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to bet my life on the right answer as it is likely shrouded in nuances and technicalities as far as a lawyer can throw them.
Likewise – are photographers “trespassing” when they head to this area to take photos for commercial intent?
As far as those in charge of the bridleways are concerned – as long as you’re not causing a nuisance or obstruction – no, you’re not. The Lulworth Estate may claim otherwise, but from the stance I received above, no trespass or lawbreaking has occurred if you stick to the public access routes.
Of course, bringing a production team of 5 camera operators, 4 make-up artists, a crew base, lighting rigs, and a bunch of “talent” to film is not going to fall within that “reasonable use” definition – and nor should it, on private OR public land, in my book.
But as long as you treat the land (and its owners) with respect, and stay within the rules, I’d encourage everyone to capture this stunning place if ever you have the chance.
We must also remember – as a wider community including the estate owners – that significant amounts of income and numbers of visitors find their way to this location as a result of the sharing of such images by visiting photographers.
At its best, this should be a symbiotic relationship that can thrive, benefiting both groups along the way. At worst, sadly, it can often turn into a love-hate (or hate-hate) scenario which is ultimately rather unhealthy for all involved.
That freedom and access afforded to us as a community equally comes with responsibilities that fall firmly on our shoulders too.
- I have seen photographers littering.
- I have seen photographers pushing the boundaries over the edges of the clifftops.
- I have seen photographers getting aggressively territorial over “their shot”, despite it being a shared location.
…and it’s those same photographers that I’ve seen berating the actions of the wider public when they see them doing the same.
It’s beholden upon us, as a community, to ensure we always lead by example. An example that not only holds us in the highest respect, but ensures we’re accountable to the highest standards too.
We should be proud that we’re able to capture such a place.
It’s not “hidden”, it’s not a “secret”, it’s not “ours” (quite literally – I know who’s it actually is!) – and we should encourage others to explore the area that we’re lucky enough to call “home”, educating along the way.
Our coastline faces its own challenges from our changing climate and oceans – not just that which is caused by more immediate human disrespect.
Erosion is constantly reshaping and devouring the unique rock formations and cliffs that surround this World Heritage site. Just giving the place that label doesn’t “stop” that from happening – but making more people aware of the damage climate change is doing, through images, through speaking out, through being part of the solution instead of the problem – all goes a small way to help.
I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have this iconic view just down the road.
Having spent my life travelling around the world to equally amazing places, I have to admit that lockdown brought me a renewed and refreshed sense of respect for the scenery that sits “in my own back yard”.
Admittedly, being forced to explore the local area once again (through lack of options further afield for the past year) really has re-ignited the connection I have with my home locations, and it’s made me realise once again how fragile they really are.
I’ve stood on that beach, on many a morning, waiting for the sun to rise through the archway in the winter – chatting to other photographers about how frustrating it is having the land owned by someone.
But then, I sit and think – what an impossible task it must be, to be responsible for this place right now.
Striking a Balance
For every move that’s made to open access and provide people with an escape to this wonderful little cove, the actions of many then take things to the extreme and ruin it for others. It strikes me as an impossible balancing act these days, and a challenge I wouldn’t relish owning – especially given the behaviour of those visitors last summer.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d like to see some real investment into the area from all those fees that are being charged (as well as the “voluntary surcharge” that’s added to the bills of those staying in the holiday park now too). And I’m not surprised by what I saw last summer, especially as the estate cut back its workforce while watching volunteers pick up the pieces over those horrendous weeks and months.
But we, as visitors, need to hold ourselves personally accountable for our own actions and treat these places (regardless of who “owns” them) with the utmost of respect. Whether it’s the Dorset Coastline, Yosemite National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, or your own garden – our world deserves better than what we’ve shown we’re willing to do so far.
Last Autumn, I did something I never thought I’d do “as a local”.
I packed up my things, drove down the road, and stayed at the holiday park.
It’s a far cry from many of the luxury hotels I’ve stayed in – or budget ones, for that matter – but it did feel different, venturing out to take photos knowing that you were “onsite” for the duration. No guessing of the conditions, no barrier-access time constraints.
Being stuck in my little cabin felt, in the strangest of ways, quite freeing.
Rain happened, so did sunshine, and in between a few rather dull days we were treated to some amazing sunrises and sunsets.
For every photographer in the area (including myself) that was cringing at the number of empty cruise ships parked out in Weymouth Bay “ruining the scene”, there was another excited person who’d come to visit specifically to see them “up-close”.
It’s those moments, those conversations, that make you realise how truly different each of our lives (and priorities) really are.
What’s important to one person could be at the bottom of the list for another – but there’s one thing I truly wish we’d all put as a priority right now:
Protecting our natural environment.
Isn’t it awesome that those of us who live in the densely populated cities of the world can venture out to the countryside and explore, get some fresh air, some space – whenever we want?
Isn’t it fantastic that we can trek over giant hillsides, across rugged coastlines, through immense forests – to find that escape we need, just at the right moment – as it’s always sat there waiting to welcome us?
Then it’s about time we started treating these places, these iconic views, these stunning geological marvels, with the reverence they truly deserve.
Imagine if they weren’t there at your beck-and-call.
Imagine if, all of a sudden, you couldn’t visit.
I don’t want to see Durdle Door “locked down”.
I don’t want to see the coastline “restricted”.
I don’t want to see people prevented from accessing parts of our own natural heritage because we simply can’t treat them with the care and respect they should receive.
That moment when you see the last rays of light just clipping the top of this giant archway is truly magical – and I want everyone to be able to experience that at some point in their lives.
But we won’t be able to if we don’t start changing our outlook on the importance of the natural world, our perspective on open spaces (and managed private land) – and ultimately, our fundamental behaviours when it comes to looking after our planet.
Durdle Door, along with Man-O-War Cove, Bat’s Head, Lulworth Cove – and all the other features of this incredible stretch of coastline – really are special places in the UK.
So much so, they’re now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that makes up the Jurassic Coast in Dorset.
Let’s give them the (correct) attention they deserve.
Others around the world have recognised their worthiness – it’s about time we did, right here in our own back yard, too.
And yes – this was possibly the single most impressive sunrise I’ve ever had the fortune to witness, capture and (most importantly) enjoy looking out over Durdle Door.
Who wouldn’t want to keep this place looking as perfect as it can be?
Reiffer’s Cooking Tips.
Of course I couldn’t leave you without my “camping” cooking tip of the week…
Made an error in buying an oven-only stonebaked seafood pizza, with only a hob and a microwave available to use?
Simple. That’s what a frying pan’s for.
…and when that doesn’t work – the Man-O-War onsite restaurant might just save the evening with one of their special pies.